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Shaken, but Not Disturbed

There’s not much to be done when an earthquake hits. The best you can do is find some head coverage and brace yourself for the ride. There’s no tornado siren to urge you into underground shelter. You don’t have time to duct tape X’s on your windows as you would for a typhoon. The earthquake detection system can give you maybe a minute’s head start, perhaps to stabilize the most fragile thing near you, or to shut off the stove you’re currently cooking on. In any case, I didn’t wake up to an alert.


I was shaken awake by the earthquake a couple of minutes before 8 a.m. the morning of April 3rd, measured at level 5 on the Richter’s scale in New Taipei City. I bolted out of my bedroom (not recommended, but I hadn’t had my coffee yet), and fumbled with the locks on the front door to swing it open. I wish I could say I was calm in a crisis, but in reality I was shivering like a chihuahua, the floor under me going in every direction. I managed to stay upright. I should’ve been crouched on the ground, preferably under a table, but all I could think at the time was to get the front door open in case we needed an exit later, and please somebody make it stop.


When the floor finally stopped trying to throw me off it, more than a minute later, dark memories of 1999 started flooding back into my brain. I was in middle school then. The quake started in the middle of the night, and I woke to the sound of vases and frames crashing to the ground. I ran into the living room without my glasses. I had severe myopia then, later corrected with LASIK, and I remember the terror that came over me when I realized I would have to go back into my bedroom to retrieve my glasses if I was to be at all functional in a crisis. I don’t remember retrieving the glasses, maybe one of my parents did it for me, but I do recall the precarious position my tall dresser was in when I finally walked back into my bedroom in the dark. The power was out. There was broken glass and debris all over the floor.


My parents and I slept in our Nissan Centra that night with our dog, the aftershocks rocking us awake every so often. For weeks after the earthquake, there were scheduled blackouts. And every day, the death toll kept climbing, from single digit to well over 2,000. I didn’t sleep alone for months afterwards.


Already dreading the aftermath, I turned on the TV for the news. There were instant reports of magnitudes around the island, the news anchors were fumbling their words, trying to keep the live broadcast going with limited information; soon video footage started pouring in, mostly from the news stations’ own office surveillance cameras. I don’t know how anyone could be designing graphics and reading teleprompters at a time like this, but I was grateful that they did. And then the leaning buildings started to appear on TV. And in my very weird, earthquake-trained Taiwanese mind, I thought “leaning is good. Leaning is not collapsed. If the building’s leaning, there’s a chance people can be rescued.”


As I obsessively search for more news on Twitter and texted friends to check in, the aftershocks started, some of them nearly as strong as the initial quake. I keep a glass mug of barley tea next to me as a sanity check. Is it an aftershock? Or am I just dizzy? Half of the time, the disturbed surface of my tea tells me it’s another aftershock. I hold on to something and try to breathe through it. But when the ground was shaking ever 12-15 minutes, it started to feel like I was surfing on land. This went on for hours. Just as my heart rate was about to recover from one round of shaking, another bout would start.


The news confirmed that at a 7.2 on the Richter scale, this earthquake was almost as massive as the one on September 21st, 1999. But unlike 25 years ago, there was no widespread blackout. About 300,000 households lost power for a few hours, but that was quickly restored. The subway system in Taipei was operational 40 minutes to an hour after safety inspections. One MRT line is still out of commission due to severe structural damages. Within a couple of hours, an emergency response team headed by the president had been established, and rescuers and reporters were on their way to Hualien.


I didn’t think I would be able to, but I managed to sleep through the night. When I woke up, the death toll was mercifully still holding at 9, same as the night before. And I’m so grateful. Grateful for the lessons we’ve learned as a nation since 1999. Grateful for the reporters, experts, and officials who communicated information swiftly and clearly. Grateful for the brave rescuers and medical professionals saving lives. Grateful for those keeping the lights and internet on. And last but not least, I’m grateful for everyone who followed earthquake protocol and then… Went on with their day.


When non-Taiwanese people ask me the inevitable question, “when do you think war will start with China?” I tell them that worrying about war with China is like worrying about earthquakes. You can be prepared, but you can’t worry about it all the time. When an earthquake starts, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next second. Maybe it’ll stop. Maybe it’ll get a lot worse. But if you worry about the earthquake before it’s even started, you’ll never get anything done. And that’s how I explain Taiwanese people’s apparent nonchalance. It’s resilience in the face of uncertainty. We go on with our boba tea and cute mascots, because holding on to joy is an act of resistance.



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