Taiwan has a pretty significant amount of earthquakes. Most of them are pretty mild, but usually I can feel one or two each month – just enough to notice I’m not dizzy and that the room is, in fact, vibrating. But every now and then, something a little bigger comes along, and you’re faced with the reality that it could be The Big One.
Back in October of 2009, I was getting set to leave Taichung and go back to the USA. I was packed up and ready to go, having less than a month left before my departure.
After living in Taiwan for almost two years and never having a significant disaster befall me, other than the obligatory traffic accidents, I found myself less than 50 kilometers from the epicenter of a 6-point earthquake. Earthquakes are not sudden; it’s not like flicking a lightswitch. As it builds, you move through emotions, from mild curiosity to an odd sort of entertainment. Quakes are common enough here in Taiwan, causing little alarm, there is a subtle moment between a 5-point and a 6-point earthquake when you realize it’s something to be taken seriously.
As I said before, sometimes you don’t even know you’re in an earthquake. Usually, when I feel a vibration, I take a look around to find some liquid – if the liquid is swaying, I know I’m not having some kind of hallucination. But on this particular day, I had a problem: the only water near me was busy splashing against my backside.
So, there I am, on the toilet, when my world begins to shake. As I said, it’s relatively normal to have this happen – you wouldn’t get up off the couch, let alone get up off the toilet in mid-shit. That is, until things start falling off the shelves. At that point, all you can think is…
“Oh, no. I’ve got less than a month left in this fucking country and I’m about to die in a building collapse…with my pants around my ankles.”
It’s funny what you choose to think about, when things like that happen.
I remember, one time, I was on an elevator with a British guy and a fellow from Singapore; we all worked together and we were riding the elevator down from the 42nd floor. About halfway down, it shuttered and then suddenly went into a free-fall. Now that was scary. That makes an earthquake on the toilet sound funny.
OK, an earthquake on the toilet sounds funny, no matter what. I can admit that.
Earthquakes are interesting in their blend of suddenness and graduality. Your mind can easy go from amused to excited to terrified in a matter of seconds, which is just enough time for your brain to rip through a large volume of thoughts. Part of this thought process is a rough calculation of odds, which is to say that once an earthquake reaches the point where things are getting knocked over, it’s uncommon enough of an event to feel like an entirely different thing than what you, a few times a month, define as “an earthquake.” A charming seismic event becomes a potential disaster with just a few exponential increases of intensity.
No other disaster is like this. A house fire, no matter how small and nonthreatening, is never cute. No one ever talks about “the fun little tornado.” But, with earthquakes, you do. So when an otherwise enjoyable experience suddenly-and-without-warning turns itself into something truly scary, there’s really nothing like it.
And, beyond that, there’s absolutely no feeling like having all this happen while in the most common vulnerable position humans find themselves in. What do you do? Do you run? How? Do you wipe? Do you have time to even think about any of this?
In the end, you don’t. The whole experience, while traumatic, is over far too quickly, and you’re left with the only feelings you have: shame and gratitude.
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