Rebuilding A Life Shattered By An Earthquake In China | KERA News

Rebuilding A Life Shattered By An Earthquake In China

Aug 13, 2015
Originally published on August 14, 2015 1:49 pm

Editor's Note: NPR's Melissa Block was on a reporting trip to southwest China in May 2008 when a massive earthquake hit, leaving some 90,000 dead or missing. Now, as she wraps up her time hosting All Things Considered, she reconnected with a girl, now a young woman, who has overcome great obstacles since that traumatic event.

You can also see this story in Chinese.

One year after the earthquake, I went back to Sichuan Province and met a girl who gave me great hope. Huang Meihua was a feisty, funny 12-year-old at the time.

Here's how she described herself:

"First of all, I'm quite pretty," she said. "I'm smart. And I can make you laugh. If I listed all of my good qualities, it would take more than three days and three nights."

She sat in her wheelchair as we talked. Both of her legs were amputated above the knee. They were crushed when her school collapsed around her in the earthquake.

She was trapped for hours. And what was going through her head during that ordeal?

"I was thinking, my legs are fine. After I get out I'm going to write an essay about this and get a good grade," she said.

Today she's 18 and is about to start her last year of high school. She goes to an English-language school in the city of Dujiangyan. Her parents live there, too, to help care for her.

"She's physically handicapped, but that doesn't mean she's mentally disabled," her father, Huang Sheqin, told me back in 2009. "The most important thing for us is to find her a very good school."

I chatted with Meihua by Skype on Wednesday, and she spoke in both English and Mandarin.

She told me six years ago that she really didn't like wearing her prosthetic legs. They were heavy, and hurt. And they're still giving her trouble.

"I waited three years for new prosthesis," she said Wednesday. "Now they gave me a new one but now the prosthesis is still not suitable for my legs."

So she uses her wheelchair, which is also a problem when her classes are up three flights of stairs.

"My mother carries me and the wheelchair and I can help a little bit," she added.

Her College Dreams

While her father, a migrant worker, only made it through ninth grade and her mother never went to school, Meihua has big dreams.

Her goal is to go to college in the U.S. or Canada, though she has no idea how she would pay for it. She's taking AP classes and studying hard. She took the SATs in June, but she's not happy with how she did, so she'll take them again.

"Before, I really wanted to go to a famous school — a Top 10 school," she said. "But then, after thinking about it, I decided I have to be realistic and try for something that's good but not a top school. I really want to study medicine. So when I go to graduate school, I can aim higher."

I asked her how her parents felt about her dream.

"My parents think it's not that realistic that this little girl from the countryside could to go to college in the U.S.," she said. "But my mother still wants me to make the most of every opportunity. As a disabled person in China, it's very difficult to be treated equally. I may not even be able to find a job. Somebody told my parents that being disabled in Western countries means fewer problems and more independence. They want me to be independent and to have a bright future."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

May 12, 2008 - it started with a rattle of glass puzzling at first, then frightening as the shaking got stronger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLOCK: What's going on? The whole building is shaking. The whole building is shaking.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Mandarin).

BLOCK: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. We're in the middle of an earthquake.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Earthquake - the whole block is shaking.

BLOCK: We were in Sichuan, China on a reporting trip, and we happened to be recording when the magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit. As we learned, that earthquake left 90,000 people dead or missing. Now, as my last week of hosting ALL THING CONSIDERED winds down, I thought I'd revisit a couple of my reports from China, starting with the story that was the most difficult of any I reported. Two days after the earthquake, in the ruined city of Dujiangyan, we met a frantic couple - Fu Guanyu and Wang Wei.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WANG WEI: (Speaking Mandarin).

BLOCK: Mr. Wang's parents had been buried in the collapse of their six-story apartment building along with their son, their only child, Wang Zhilu - not-quite-2-years-old. They were desperate for heavy machinery to start clawing through the rubble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLOCK: It's been two days now, and you haven't been able to get any machinery to your house.

FU GUANYU: (Speaking Mandarin).

WANG: I still don't want to give up. I firmly believe he's still alive.

BLOCK: We spent the entire day with the couple as they waited, hoping against hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLOCK: Cement and bricks and rubble - it's a pile about three-stories high - what's left of this building. All around it, there are buildings that are perfectly fine. That building is not at all fine. That building is gone.

FU: (Speaking Mandarin).

BLOCK: "We lived on the fourth floor," Mrs. Fu says. That's our furniture up there.

FU: (Speaking Mandarin).

BLOCK: Mrs. Fu just called out her son's name and said, mom is coming for you, as this excavator works its way through this pile of debris that is just devastating to look at.

It's now noon. We've been here for several hours, and Mrs. Fu has lost hope of finding her family, it seems. She's saying, my son, I should have taken you to work with me; you were asking me to take you to work. Her husband is telling her, there's nothing we can do about it now. I need you to stay strong. I can't lose you anymore.

Hours later, workers found the bodies of their son and his grandparents. The baby was found in his grandfather's arms with the grandmother close behind, holding on to her husband's back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Over the years, I've been in touch with the family from time to time. Fu Guanyu and Wang Wei still live in Dujiangyan. Wang Wei works for the city and has been learning English. Fu Guanyu is studying psychology. She has a garden plot near the home where she grows fruits and vegetables. They both go to a program set up for families who lost their only children in the earthquake. But they never talk about the tragedy at home. And Fu Guanyu and Wang Wei have another son now. His name is Wang Ruijie. He's 6 years old, healthy and lively. He'll be starting elementary school in the fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: One year after the earthquake, I went back to Sichuan and met a girl who gave me great hope, a feisty, funny 12-year-old named Huang Meihua. Here's how she described herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HUANG MEIHUA: (Speaking Mandarin).

BLOCK: "First of all, I am quite pretty," she says with a dramatic flourish of her hand. "I'm smart. I can make you laugh. If I listed all of my good qualities," she says, "it would take more than three days and three nights."

MEIHUA: (Speaking Mandarin).

BLOCK: Huang Meihua sat in her wheelchair as we talked. Both of her legs are amputated above the knee. They were crushed when her school collapsed around her in the earthquake.

MEIHUA: (Through interpreter) We started running, and my teacher was dragging me along behind her. But she was pulling me so hard, I fell down. Then the stairs collapsed. I was buried underneath.

BLOCK: Meihua was trapped in the debris for several hours before she was pulled free.

Do you remember, Meihua, what you were thinking for those three or four hours that you were trapped?

MEIHUA: (Through interpreter) I was thinking, my legs are fine; after I get out, I'm going to write an essay about this and get a good grade.

BLOCK: That was Huang Meihua when I met her in 2009. She was 12 then. She's 18 now and about to start her last year of high school. Yesterday, we chatted by Skype.

Meihua?

MEIHUA: (Speaking Mandarin).

BLOCK: Well, Hi.

MEIHUA: Hi.

BLOCK: How are you?

MEIHUA: Long time no see.

BLOCK: Long time no see, and long time no speak.

MEIHUA: Yeah.

BLOCK: Meihua goes to an English-language school in Dujiangyan. Her parents live there, too, to help care for her. When I met her six years ago, she told me she really didn't like wearing her prosthetic legs. They were heavy and hurt. And they're still giving her trouble.

MEIHUA: I waited for three years to wait for the new prosthesis. And now they gave me a new one, but the prosthesis is still not suitable for my legs.

BLOCK: Not suitable for her legs, so she uses her wheelchair, which is also a problem when her classes are up three flights of stairs. She relies on her mother to help.

MEIHUA: So my mother carries me and the wheelchair, and can help a little bit.

BLOCK: I met Meihua's mother back in 2009. She's tiny. Meihua tells me her mom worries about her future, so she's taking AP classes and studying hard. She took the SATs in June. But she's not happy with how she did, so she'll take them again. Her goal is to go to college in the U.S. or Canada, but she has no idea how she'd pay for it.

Meihua, do you have any idea where you would want to go to university? If you could go anywhere, where would it be?

MEIHUA: Actually, everywhere.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

MEIHUA: Yeah. I hope one day, I can travel the world. (Through interpreter) Before, I really wanted to go to a famous school, a top-10 school. But then, after thinking about it, I decided I have to be realistic and try for something that's good but not a top school. I really want to study medicine so when I go to graduate school, I can aim higher.

BLOCK: How do your parents feel, Meihua, about your dream to come study in America?

MEIHUA: Mostly, it's a little bit unrealistic. (Through interpreter) My parents think it's not that realistic that a little girl from the countryside could go to college in the U.S., but my mother still wants me to make the most of every opportunity. As a disabled person in China, it's very difficult to be treated equally. I may not even be able to find a job. Somebody told my parents that being disabled in Western countries means fewer problems and more independence. They want me to be independent and to have a bright future.

BLOCK: We all want that bright future for you too, Meihua.

MEIHUA: Thank you. I know.

BLOCK: Well, Meihua, it's really great to talk to you again. And I'm going to stay in touch with you and check in on how you're doing. Thank you so much.

MEIHUA: Yeah. Thank you, too, for so many years now.

BLOCK: That's 18-year-old Huang Meihua talking with us from Sichuan province, China. She also sent us this recording of herself playing the guzheng.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.