By Zhang Jing
Published: 2008-06-02

Lifestyle, page 49 Issue 369 on May 26 2008
Translated by Liu Peng
Original article:

Wang Yue, chin held high, glued her eyes to the sandbox. Compared with the other boisterous children around her, she seemed silent and withdrawn.

A foreign correspondent, squatting in the corner, flickered the camera shutter while his assistant-a native Chinese-rushed over and deluged the doctor with questions. The latter coldly refused and blocked the shutter, forcing the camera's gaze to fall upon the child's body.

Wang is a ten-year-old from Maliu elementary school in Beichuan County. When found by the doctor two days prior, she was weeping silently in the corner of Jiuzhou Stadium, now a temporary shelter for tens of thousands of quake victims.

When asked her name and how she got there, she just shook her head. Having already cried herself to exhaustion, she just stared at the ground.

Although having been reuinted with her father, she insisted that he was still away. Zhang Mingliang, a counselor, said that Wang suffered from temporary amnesia.

"By putting toys on the sandbox, she would gradually restore her memories. Each toy... a house, a tiger, a cup, an adult, a child, were all marked with their names," Zhang explained the usage of the sandbox.

In the first day, the doctor gave her a pair of gloves to make her feel safe. But after playing for some time, she removed them. Day one, she chose an ox for she was born in the year of the ox. At one point, she felt vulnerable, and put a toy handgun in the sandbox.

In the following day, she removed the handgun, lion and tiger, and added a grandfather figure, which Zhang interpreted as her gradual acceptance of reality. Her placing of a duck in the sandbox's left upper corner meant she wanted to live a light-hearted life, said Zhang. With his hoarse voice, he continued to make thoughtful interpretations of Wang's sand sculptures during the days of treatment for this reporter.

After the quake, many specialists like Zhang rushed down to Sichuan to offer counseling to victims. Non-governmental organizations, psychological consultation institutions, religious groups, teachers and volunteers from universities' psychology departments made up the brunt of such relief work. Their primary goal: to help children leave behind the scarred shadows and restore their spirits.

Ordered lives
Zhang Li, who works at the private Waldorf School, is just one of them. She said: "Though I am not a professional counselor, but I think I understand the children better."

When "9/11" happened in America, the community kindergarten that Zhang Li worked in was only 40 kilometers away. Thereafter, some children were transferred to the care centre.

At that time, Zhang took care of three children, one of whom had lost his father in the incident. Zhang and her colleagues took turns to cook for him, invite him to their homes and tell some stories about his father to help him recover.

They told him, "Your father has gone into the heaven. You are safe now; leave troubling things to the grown-ups."

"Make them feel protected, but not overly watched," Zhang and her colleagues wrote to families on how to console their scared children. They suggested turning off the television as much as possible, because the repeated scene of the twin-tower buildings exploding would intensify their memories.

"I need you, you need me, once, twice, more and more…." Sung by children in Shiyan High school in Mianyang city, Sichuan. As an important refuge for victims, this school has taken in many survivors from Beichuan County.

The school set up tents for temporary classrooms and added counseling classes to the curriculum.

"If the picture is broken, we can glue the pieces together; if our homes were ruined, we can rebuild new ones"--This sentence was written underneath the timetable for classes.

"As much as they can, the temporary schools aim to make those homeless children feel that little has change in their lives," said Zhang Xiaodan, an elementary school teacher.

Zhang Li and other counselors in the quake-hit areas often chose group games that form an orderly atmosphere. The games, which often placed the children in a circle formation, symbolized the collective and could make children feel a sense of belonging.

Fang Xin, psychology professor of Beijing Normal University, proposed a "birthday ordering" game where children group by the month when they were born. Such a game could help the children find new friends.

Mending Hearts

Improper consolation or the neglect of the children's injured hearts could potentially harm them a second time.

Zhang Li said that in Huaxi hospital she saw a little girl named Huang Siyu who had just undergone an amputation, losing her left arm and right leg.

In the process of moving from the operation room to the medical ward, Huang needed to be transferred to another bed. But the girl resisted, crying, "You are bad eggs!" at the nurses. One nurse, holding up the transfusion bottle, repeated to her "you must move to another bed, this bed is for other patients requiring surgery." Her calls were echoed by bystanders.

Zhang said she intervened, asking "Don't press her, give her some time." Siyu eventually calmed down, she said.

Zhang said that back in the ward, Siyu was still moody in the new bed, so Zhang gently fanned the child with her hand, saying, "Your name is similar to my daughter." Upon hearing this, Siyu turned to her and said, "would you mind if I called you mama?"

Then one day, according to Zhang, another professional psychologist came by and right after approaching Siyu told her: "you can call me mama, would you let me take care of you?"

Zhang recalled Siyu just glared and jeered: "what a joke."

Inside the Jiuzhou stadium, a little boy walked to the wishing wall, with a neither sad nor smiling face. He just looked at the children who were playing games together, silenced.

Chen Qiuyan, director of the psychological health education center of Southwest University for Nationalities told me that the little boy had been that way for several days.

A volunteer walked to him, gently patted his shoulder and gave him a paper to let him write his inward words: "I miss my mom!" He handed the note back to the volunteer and ran away.It might take a long time to decipher the stories hidden in his heart.

In the fifth anniversary of commemorating "9/11" terrorist attacks, the New York Times published a poll showing that one-third of respondents said they would think of the attack every day; another one-third respondents said they would never return to the normal lives prior to the attack; two-thirds respondents were very worried that they would experience a similar terrorist attack again. Treatment centers were still running, with new cases emerging.

Whereas in Taiwan, after the 1999 earthquake, the local government spent 10 years conducting post-disaster psychological consolations.

In Sichuan, some doctors and volunteers may leave in the near future; however, the quake-hit areas need long-term relief. It will likely take several years or longer to rebuild a spiritual home for those injured hearts.