After Quake, China's Elderly Long for Family

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 3, 2008; Page A01

LEIGU, China, June 2 -- A lone blue tent stands out among its neighbors in this dusty refugee camp, not for its outward appearance but because of who is inside.

Seven senior citizens sit on dirty quilts, surrounded by buzzing flies and boxes of instant noodles and bottled water provided by the army. Two were abandoned by their relatives or are unable to find them; the rest are resigned to the fact that their children will rebuild their own lives before helping their aging parents. All were strangers thrown together by disaster.

China reveres its elderly, particularly in rural areas such as those most affected by last month's massive earthquake. But now many of those elderly -- separated from their families, with their longtime homes and belongings lost forever -- will face the future without the traditional support provided by their children.

Nearly 32,000 elderly Chinese lost their relatives in the May 12 quake, according to state media reports quoting Sanlang Mugun, deputy director of Sichuan province's civil affairs office.

"Right now my only hope is to find my grandson, so that when I die, my grandson will prepare my coffin and send it to the graveyard," said Chen Yugui, 88, whose only daughter was killed in the quake. But he has no idea where to look.

His daughter was working at a construction site, digging a hole, when she "was buried" in the quake, he said. The grandson "left home long ago."

Chen is the oldest resident of Tent No. 50, sandwiched between tents full of families four miles from one of the hardest-hit towns near the epicenter. He is eager to return to his home village of Wuxing, but because his house was destroyed and there is no longer anyone to care for him, it would be meaningless, he said.

Three decades of aggressive economic modernization in China have altered traditional patterns between parents and their adult children as young people concentrate on making a living. The trend of migrant workers laboring far from home has put additional pressure on long-standing ideals of family life.

But the plight of older Chinese has not received nearly the sympathy shown to the 8,000 children orphaned by the quake, most of whom have now been reunited with relatives.

"After the earthquake, our adoption hotline rang day and night. People called from all over the country to ask about adopting children orphaned by the disaster," said Yang Changyou, a section chief of the Mianyang Civil Affairs Bureau who works with orphans and seniors who have lost contact with their families. "Up till now, we have received only one call from Beijing asking about adopting an elderly person."

Most people place all their hopes in their children, Yang said. But the elderly just become older. "They will be the burden of one family finally and, when they are ill, the medical costs will be very high. Children, on the other hand, grow up and probably make achievements. As a result, everyone wants to adopt children rather than old people."

Part of the problem may also be supply and demand.

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