inside thoughts on China and beyond

Earthquake Expert

There are those days you will never forget. They stay with you forever. Not that we always want to, but they do. Just take a second. While reading this, I’m sure something is popping up in your head ‘while we speak’ so to speak. And for your sake, I surely hope so. No life can possibly be so boring that it has not one moment of deep hardship or glorious fortune, not one moment of lonely obscurity or unbridled fame; not one moment that you will always remember. All that to say: today was just one of those days.

It started off normal: an early morning cup of tea with a little cloud of milk; an orange juice. The kids -who normally sleep a black hole in the day- had just surprised mum for her birthday: a dim sum breakfast in Shangri-La’s Shang Palace. One day late, but so early that it was hardly noticeable. It was just after 8 when the rumbling started and our normal day ended. First we thought it was the street cleaner with his new noisy cart. Then a truck. A very heavy truck. But when doors and everything else started trembling and shaking, we knew an earthquake was on the way. Memories of the 2008 quake popped up -surprisingly similar, really: the cart that became a truck that became a very heavy truck that became a startling immobilizing shake, it came all back again- and we were all rushing out to leave the building. No need to duck for cover: our 100-year old worm-eaten table already cracks when a fly lands on it. And the door was near. The street and parking lot in front of our house was soon filled with people in their pajamas. Some were only half dressed. Some not at all.

After a few minutes and some calls -the phones were still working- and we realized that this earthquake was less severe than in 2008 and when the worse had passed, we went back inside. Back to normal, or so we thought.

We got ready and drove off to downtown. With a bit of luck, we could be eating our much anticipated breakfast by 9. But we had no luck. We did have traffic jams. Many traffic jams. It was obvious that we weren’t the only one up this early. Ambulances were heading the opposite direction, but like us, weren’t really going anywhere. Traffic didn’t move and surely not for an ambulance or two. By now, we had learned that the epicenter of this earthquake was in Lushan, near Ya-an, about 115 km  south  of Chengdu. Boaxing, a county in the first mountain ranges of the Tibetan Plateau that we had often visited and in which valleys we had walked and camped, was also heavily hit. But with a magnitude of 6.6, the quake was still one fiftieth in strength of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Nevertheless, many people had died and even more were wounded or unaccounted for and the damage in a radius of about 25 km around the epicenter was enormous.

But there was nothing we could possibly do and thus we focused on getting our breakfast. Time passed, hunger grew and hope shrank. Just after 12, we took our table. We decided to call it lunch. A dim sum lunch. And for a fleeting moment, we enjoyed a normality. Eat. Chitchat. Eat. Chitchat. Eat. Until the phone rang.

“is this Mr. Dorgelo?”

“Yes. Speaking.”

“I am calling from CCTV-Beijing. We are operating China’s national TV-stations.”

I knew very well what the CCTV -the China Central Television- was; their new skyscraper in the center of Beijing had caused its own social earthquake when it became apparent that historic hutongs had to be bulldozed and the unexpected costs in renminbe had risen far beyond the building’s height in centimeters. It was now called the dà kùchǎ, ‘big boxer shorts’, and home to the Party’s main ‘communication’ tool: TV-stations.

“I am working for the news department and I would like to know if you are available for an interview.”

“Excuse me?”

“Did my colleague not call you earlier?”

“No. How did you get my phone number?”

“From a colleague.”


“You are Mr. Dorgelo, living in Chengdu, are you not?”

“Yes. I…..”

“And you are the earthquake expert. Mr. Dorgelo, could you, as an earthquake expert give us and our viewers your first professional impression about this latest earthquake?”

“Ahem, Miss CCTV, I can hardly call myself an expert.”

“Oh, you most certainly are.”

“Madam, listen! I don’t know how you got my name and cell phone number but your intelligence department must have suffered a mix up.  My expertise -as you call it- is limited to the experience of the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. Believe me, there must be a mix up!”

“But you are ….”

“Yes, I am who I am -who you say I am, but I am not the expert you are looking for and need.”


“I’m sorry.”

“So am I, really. Good afternoon, madam.”

“Thank you. Yes, good afternoon.”

I’m not sure, but just before I hung up, I thought I heard Miss CCTV explain to her audience that her expert was mixed up. But as I said, I’m not sure.

Later that afternoon I received another phone call from Beijing. This time it was the China Daily. Now I really started to doubt myself: maybe I was the expert they were all looking for after all. I couldn’t help to feel a pinch of disappointment when I realized that this time it was just a friend who works for the Daily.

“Did CCTV call you?”

“Yes, how do you know?”

“I gave them your number. I wanted to call you earlier but couldn’t get a hold of you. They wanted to speak with an expat who had also experienced the 2008 earthquake.”

Silence. An expat with 2008 earthquake experience. An expert with earthquake expertise. Two pairs of words so different, but when spoken by a Chinese, so similar. Two words away from China-wide unbridled fame! Two words away from 1.3 billion people. Oh, how clearly I now understand China’s princeling-yups‘ fighting for a celebrity status, whatever it takes. And the soon-to-be king of the Netherlands -KING Willem-Alexander, how good that sounds!-  who, in an interview that even reached China, can be heard saying: “I’ll accept everything. That’s why I am king. And if my signature is needed, then I’ll sign.” Oh yes, what we do for fame. Two words. Two words only.

“Steven, are you there?”

“Yes,… yes, I am there –here, I mean.”

“It must have been a mix up”, he continued, “They had 2 piles of contacts to work with: one for interviewing expats, the other for experts. You must have ended up on the expert pile.”



“Tell me, John, the interview was live, wasn’t it?”


More info about the 2013 Lushan earthquake, and possibilities to help:
A photo impression on the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake can be viewed on this page.

3 responses

  1. Very well written. Great article. As a former ex-pat of South Korea and Saudi Arabia, I’ve had similar experiences.

    April 26, 2013 at 9:32 pm

  2. Pingback: Weekend Chat 28 April 2013 | Ain't Mine No More

  3. I love it that the world still isn’t ‘flat’ and there are mix ups, misunderstandings, cultural differences. I am sorry though you missed your moment of fame as a result of that.

    May 1, 2013 at 3:17 pm