To Eat or To Mourn : Chengdu Diary Ethical Dilemma of Having Lunch
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To Eat or To Mourn

Lunchtime in the village of Hongbai. Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR hide caption

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Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR

"Sit down! Eat!" was the order. Bowls of steaming rice porridge were shoved into our hands and stools jammed under our knees. We looked at each other, unsure of what to do next.

We'd just watched as the Ma family buried their eighty-seven year old matriarch, Li Mingxiu, on the hillside above the devastated remains of their quiet country village. Her reflexes dulled by her age, the old lady had been too slow to run outside when the earthquake struck, and she'd been crushed when the kitchen wall collapsed on her.


But we had to admit we were hungry. And the family's neigbours were refusing to take no for an answer. "Eat! Please eat!" they kept on urging us, pushing the bowls of hot food into our chests. Finally we gave in and sat down. They looked relieved. When I thanked them for their hospitality under such difficult circumstances, they broke into smiles. "That's what Chinese people are like," they said.

We were sitting at a table on top of what was once somebody's vegetable patch. Tarpaulins strung up between trees served as makeshift tents for the villagers.


The entire village of Hongbai had been levelled by the quake. But as we ate the food provided by the relief workers, we almost forgot where we were. The food — as is always the case in Sichuan — was surprisingly good: cold spicy cucumbers with crushed garlic, potato and chicken stew, and stewed fatty pork. We even began chatting with the villagers about matters not related to the quake.

Then suddenly a team of soldiers ran along the path beside us, a stretcher on their shoulders carrying a corpse in a yellow plastic body bag. We froze; our chopsticks mid-air, hovering above the food, feeling guilty that we could eat under such tragic circumstances. Nobody else skipped a beat.

After five days of living in a disaster zone and pulling the corpses of family members out of the rubble that was once their homes, the unthinkable had simply become routine.