May 14, 2008

Chengdu's little stars

Many of the victims of this week's earthquake in China's Sichuan province were children. In Chengdu, the provincial capital, and in nearby cities, multi-story concrete school buildings filled with students collapsed and buried the small victims who, in most cases, were their parents' only children.

When Mike and I were in Chengdu, after she'd shown us obligatory tourist sites like the Chengdu Zoo's giant pandas and the cottage of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, our guide took us to visit her son's kindergarten class.

We walked three flights up a dark stairwell and came to the classroom, where a beaming group of kids dressed in bright reds, yellows and blues sat, hands clasped, at wide aqua-painted work tables. As we entered, the two teachers, dressed in smocks with big patch pockets, nodded to the children. They stood, faced us, and, through the biggest smiles I'd ever seen, bellowed, "Hello, hello, hello!"

Then they gathered in the middle of the room and sang: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, in English. They clasped their hands above their heads and spun on tiptoes in tiny circles. When they'd finished, they sat on a long bench that ran against the room's back wall and sang a clapping song in Mandarin.

When our too brief visit was over, we followed our guide back down the stairwell and into the school's front courtyard. "Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye," shouted 30 voices from above our heads. The teachers and all the children were waving from the third-floor classroom's open windows. The guide laughed and waved up at her son, then led us back out into the street.