Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Everyone is Talking About the Stampede

All the screenshots in this post come from videos linked in this article, which lists the names of the 36 people who died.

You may have heard about the stampede in Shanghai on the night of New Year's Eve, where 36 people died. You guys, I live in Shanghai. Some of my colleagues were actually there at the Bund when it happened (you know, along with 300,000 other people). (The Bund, or 外滩 [wài tān], is a massive tourist-y area in the center of Shanghai, right by the side of the river. I don't like to go there because white people always get harassed by people selling stuff or working a tea scam.)

Here's a picture I took one time when I was at the Bund. This is the iconic skyline of Shanghai, on the opposite side of the river from the Bund. You can see the Oriental Pearl tower on the left and the bottle opener building on the right.
And people are all talking about what happened. My colleagues are talking about it. My students are talking about it. Apparently someone knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who died there. People are talking about how awful and scary it is that something like this could happen. There's been a lot of talk about the cause (usually accompanied by a shrug and a comment that "China has too many people"). At first we thought there was someone throwing fake money and everyone was rushing to get it, but it turns out the fake money thing was unrelated. Now people are saying the problem was the massive crowds with very few police officers to keep things organized or do crowd control. And apparently the stampede happened on a set of stairs, when a huge crowd was trying to go in one direction and another huge crowd was trying to go in the other direction.

There was a time in the past when if I had heard the news "there was a stampede in Shanghai and 36 people died" I would have chalked it up to "well you know in those less-developed countries, stuff like that happens" and, feeling totally unable to relate to the people who were affected, I would subconsciously think they were worth less than me, so it's more okay that they died. (Now I see this as a form of blaming the victim; in other words: "Well that's what you get for living in a country that's not as good as the US.")

Here's a picture of the crowd, taken before the stampede happened.

But now I can relate to them. Now I'm very familiar with what it's like to be in a huge crowd of Chinese people. They're just regular people. Sure, we don't really have the concept of personal space here, we're used to being crowded together, we're used to being pushed, we're used to being packed into subway cars during rush hour. We live different than Americans, and maybe it was those differences that created an environment where a deadly stampede could happen. But we are still just people.

(However, you can't entirely blame this on China's ridiculously large population. Stampedes have happened in the US too. And yes it is possible to hold a massive event with thousands upon thousands of people and keep everything organized and safe.)

I read a few of the names, from the list of people who died. 5 years ago, those names would have seemed to me like nothing more than a mass of unfamiliar and unreadable characters. And it's easy not to care when you can't identify the humanity in something that comes across so foreign. But you guys, now I can read Chinese, and it hits me that each name there is so unique, each one is a whole person. Most of them were young people, in my generation, and that just makes it even worse because my generation was created by the one-child policy. Their families didn't just lose a child; they lost their only child.

The people that died were just like me. It could have been me or my colleagues or any of my students. Without a doubt, there were people taking selfies (or 自拍 [zì pāi], in Chinese) on their iPhones just minutes before being caught in the stampede. I can relate to that, so I know there's no way this can be twisted to make it seem somehow okay. There's no reason that these deaths are any less awful than if it was me or my friends who died. There's no platitude you can offer that makes it sound not-so-bad. There's no way to distance myself and dehumanize the victims, as if the world were just and they somehow deserved it.

It's just luck and probability that keeps us safe and alive. Just because tragedies like this are so incredibly rare, when you consider the entire population of the world. God doesn't protect us- if that were true, then we'd have to believe that the victims were less valuable, less worthy of protection. But we are all people.

Years ago, I would have reassured myself that the people who died were so different from me, so it's okay. But no. It's just not okay, and there's nothing you can say that could make it okay.

But we keep living. (For those of us in Shanghai, we keep living, still with no personal space, still pushing people to get on the bus.) Every day there's a microscopic miniscule chance of dying in an accident- God won't keep us safe, only blind and senseless probability will. But we need to just keep going, do our best, and try to make the world safer for everyone.

On January 1, people left flowers at the site where the stampede happened.

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