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Thoughts from Half a World Away

China, May 23, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nothing is left of this middle school except a lonely four-story staircase. Photo: Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Young volunteers light a small fire for those lost to the earthquake. Photo: Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps

The last place I visited in Sichuan Province was Juyuan Township middle school. Its story has been told in the media countless times but no news segment can convey what it's like to be there.

Up to 900 children died in this school. When the quake hit, it splintered into slabs of concrete and infinite bits of debris; nothing is left except a lonely four-story staircase. The surrounding buildings are all still standing.

The piles of rubble are strewn with flowers, both real and paper, and makeshift memorials. The day I was there, three young volunteers huddled around a small fire, feeding it steadily with scraps of paper.

I asked my Chinese colleague what they were doing. She explained that many Chinese believe that a dead person gets a second life but must first spend time in heaven. In the Chinese version of heaven, a person needs all of the things she would need on earth. So friends on earth burn paper replicas of money, food, even cars to send them up to heaven.

I like the gesture. It gives the living the satisfaction of providing some comfort to the dead.

I left China today to return to the United States. I thought I'd be eager to get out of the earthquake zone — away from the stress of aftershocks and the human misery. I know that more Mercy Corps colleagues are on their way to help but still I felt hesitant to leave.

I can't stop thinking about the people I met and wondering how they'll get by. I see the faces of grieving parents and homeless families when I close my eyes. If I concentrate hard enough, I can smell those burning papers swirling up to heaven.

Returning to the States, my thoughts remain half a world away, back in China.