Chinese community in Columbia worry about families in China

Monday, May 12, 2008 | 9:04 p.m. CDT; updated 8:48 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA— When Irene Ran, 27, an MU graduate student in strategic communications, woke up to the ominous sound of a phone call at 4 a.m. Monday, she knew something was wrong. It was her friend, a reporter in Beijing, telling her of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck her home province of Sichuan in southwest China.

“I called my mom, I couldn’t reach her. My dad is in Tibet,” Ran said. Her mom lives in Chengdu, which is about 57 miles from the quake’s epicenter. “I called my dad, and he said mom is OK.”

Ran had good reason to worry as the quake caused widespread damage throughout the province, which is inhabited by 87 million people.

Another town in the countryside only 30 miles from the epicenter, Dujiangyan, suffered one of the worst atrocities in the quake when 900 teenage-students were trapped in a collapsed school building. Min Huang, 28, a graduate student in the college of education at MU, kept calling her parents’ home in the devastated town but only reached them at 4 a.m. when her father had come back into the house to get blankets after evacuating.

“It’s the worst thing; on one hand I hope they didn’t pick up the phone because it is dangerous, but on the other hand I want them to pick up the phone to tell me how they were,” Huang said.

Jerry Wang, 27, is a master’s student in statistics at MU who did his bachelor’s degree in business at Sichuan University in Chengdu. He received a call at 2 a.m. about the earthquake. He said after the call he couldn’t sleep.

“I tried to call my friends and talked to other friends online,” Wang said. “I called some friends and asked them to call our friends in the college.”

He said no one could get through last night because telephone lines were jammed. He was able to talk to some people this morning and said he was told his friends in Chengdu were fine. Before having her dad confirm that her mom was safe, Ran encountered similar problems with the phone lines but was able to reach her later Monday morning.

“The earthquake came as she was reading the news on the Internet,” Ran said. “Then her computer started to tremble. She rushed to the street. Everyone rushed to the street.”

Ran said her home is within the city of Chengdu, among many tall buildings and apartment complexes.

“My mom felt dizzy afterwards, and she was disturbed,” Ran said.

Wang said he is very worried about the people in the small towns in Sichuan province. Ran shared similar worries, and she said much of the population in Sichuan is quite poor and lives in the vast rural areas of the province.

Wang said even in ideal conditions, it’s hard to reach the rural areas.

“Getting to the rural area is very difficult,” Wang said. “I like traveling a lot and even when the weather is very good and you can take a bus, it is very dangerous to travel to the rural areas because the roads are not very good, and it is in the middle of the mountains so it is very dangerous. I know that after the earthquake and that it is raining a lot, I think the situation is very terrible.”

Ran has been glued to her laptop screen, perusing a popular news Web site,, and talking to several friends scattered throughout China via instant messenger.

“I’m talking to my friend Wei Zhang. He says that no one can go to Sichuan because all roads are blocked,” Ran said as she was typing.

In addition to the impeded roadways blocked by debris from the mountain tops, all flights to the province are canceled. Zhang is a reporter for one of Shanghai’s newspapers based in Beijing. The only way to reach the victims and survivors of the quake would be by helicopter, but Zhang said heavy rainfall has continued even to impede that effort.

This earthquake is the worst ever recorded in decades. Po Zhang, 40, is an instructor at Linn State Technical College and is a visiting scholar in the Life Sciences Center at MU. His wife and 7-year-old son live in Guangzhou, about 800 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter. They also felt the tremors. He talked to his wife after she and their son got home to their 25th-floor apartment.

“After she got home, my little son placed a basin of water on the floor to detect vibrations. It was kind of funny, but we are pretty much worried,” he said.

Although relief efforts are under way by the Chinese government, little can be done until the infrastructure is restored.

Locally, Amy Chow, owner of House of Chow restaurant, is an active member of the Chinese community in Columbia. Given that the first word of the crisis was revealed this morning, Chow hasn’t had the chance to engage in dialogue with Chinese families here in Columbia to plan something to aid the victims.

“We don’t know what to do yet,” Chow said. “But I will want to go through the Red Cross because they would organize pretty quick.”

Huang said before hanging up the phone in an interview, “People really need help there.”

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