ATC Hosts Bring Own Stories Home from China

Melissa Block and Robert Siegel wrap up two weeks of reporting from Chengdu, China. Both hosts and three producers traveled to Chengdu to tell the story of the fast-growing region. Then a massive earthquake struck. Michele Norris talks with them about their impressions as they prepare to return to the United States.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

That was my co-host Melissa Block. And I'm joined now by Melissa and Robert Siegel from Chengdu, China.

Hello to both of you.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Hi, Michele.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, you're coming to the end of this two-week run of reporting. You're going to be heading back. Are there things that you're leaving with that are still in your notebook that you didn't quite get to in the course of this reporting?

BLOCK: I keep thinking about school children. I did a few stories that were very grim about schools that were destroyed. And I had wanted to get to one of the camps that have been set up for displaced people because I'm sure that classes are resuming there in an ad hoc, makeshift way. And I really hope to be able to see children in classes, which is where they should be right now, as opposed to seeing their parents grieving over the children who never made it out of these schools.

SIEGEL: I keep thinking about migrant workers here in the city of Chengdu. These are Chinese workers from the countryside who come for work and live pretty rough lives. And a lot of them are out of their homes in temporary shelters, or sleeping out under a tarp. They're here trying to make some money so that they can live better and maybe get out of the countryside of this. So the notion of what your home is and how that differs from a piece of plastic cloth stretched over your head has been a question I've thought about a lot here.

NORRIS: You have introduced us to characters that we as listeners may never forget. Robert, you spent some time with a doctor. And in the course of talking to him, he revealed to you that he lost a daughter. Is it difficult in that situation to move on from that story, to go, you know, there's so many stories to tell - this disaster is so enormous - to leave that story and move on to the next story.

SIEGEL: I was very struck about what he said, perhaps because I have one daughter still in her 20s and another not far out of it. And he was telling - he was telling about how the worker at the hospital had died, and then we made small talk about traditional Chinese medicine. And I asked him, how long he had trained?

And I think it was in doing the mental chronology, as he was counting the years of his life, that this connection hit. And he suddenly that to my interpreter, he said, you know, my 26-year-old daughter was crushed and died in the quake. And we just all looked at each other and at him, and it was just horrible. And he wept. And frankly, we nearly wept as well. And we've all had conversations like this over the past week. And when you multiply the number of deaths by the number of parents or children or grandparents or friends or neighbors who survived them, there are millions of grieving people in this part of the country and it's just a terrible thing to be in the midst of.

NORRIS: Well, both of you will be heading to the airport soon, getting on a plane, heading back to the States, heading back to us. Your thoughts as you head to the airport?

BLOCK: Hard to know where to start. It seems like a very long time ago that the earth was shaking underneath our feet. And I just keep thinking back to the individual stories of the people whom I've met in the last 10 days. And I'm struck too, from looking at our blog on our Web site, of how big a Chinese audience we've had for these stories - that the people here have been listening and have really, I think, valued the representation that we brought to this country. And it's because, I think, we've told individual stories of people, which is a side of China that we don't always see, I think, in the United States.

SIEGEL: I still think of Mr. Mao, the pig farmer, a man of 35 in a small village whom we visited twice. We went back to see him a few days after he had described having no more water and we arrived brought him some water. And he really said, you don't - maybe, you should really be bringing this to somebody who's more needy than I am. This was a man who was sleeping with his wife, his mother-in-law and his kid under a tarp strung over the tree over a bed that was still standing. The house was totally gone in that case - he'd lost half of his livestock. And, you know, it was just a remarkable humility at that moment and a sense of dignity in circumstances that could certainly rob anyone of any sense of dignity, but for some real inner strength being there.

I brought you a recording to play for you, Michele. This is something that we recorded yesterday in a tent city in Mianju(ph). They've set up the place for 6,000 - 6,300 evacuees to live now. And there are kids there. They have classes taking place in a makeshift building. And then, out in front of this tent city, there was this class of elementary school kids who were being led in the song. They were rehearsing a song which is evidently a pop tune called "A Grateful Heart," and these little children are singing and doing this pantomime with their hands at one point, they raised fists and shake them above their heads. You know, "A Grateful Heart" with which I would thank you accompanying me my whole life and giving me courage to be myself. And they were preparing to go before the soldiers and to sing this song of thanks to them - this song of gratitude.

(Soundbite of song, "A Grateful Heart")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Speaking in foreign language)

SIEGEL: Unfortunately, the synthesizer providing the rhythm didn't exactly keep up with the kids or vice-versa, I'm not sure of which.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well Robert and Melissa, I think it's fair to say that I speak for everyone here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED at NPR and really all of our listenership, in saying that we are grateful for your work. We are inspired by your courage. And frankly, we're awed by your fortitude in reporting this story. Thank you so much. Please get home safely.

BLOCK: We'll see you soon, Michele.

SIEGEL: See you soon, Michele.

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