Leaving Christchurch…

Moving to China was a two-part decision for us; it wasn’t just about moving to China, it was also about leaving Canterbury. There were many reasons to move to China, reasons regarding Ross’s career, the children’s education, life experience, culture, and the opportunity to travel and do something extraordinary. There was only one reason to leave Canterbury: the earthquakes. It wasn’t THE reason, but it made up a small part of the whole of our decision. We do feel, and continue to hope, that the earthquakes themselves are over, but the recovery has barely begun, and Christchurch – for me anyway, has become a difficult city to love.

I’m happy that we stayed in Canterbury through its darkest days; there was always a certain comfort in being part of a community that together survived that enormous shared experience.

Now it’s an unfamiliar feeling for me, to hear loud sudden noises and know that I’m the only one in that room who briefly thought: “Earthquake!” who for a split second was braced for the race – to find my kids, to survive another one. Back in New Zealand, the sound of a truck rumbling down the road would facilitate a knowing eye contact among strangers, sympathetic half smiles of people who know they’re all feeling the same thing. Here, it’s just another loud noise.

In many ways, it’s liberating, refreshing even, to know I’m on my own in this, because I can let it slide passed and not give it my focus or fear. But there are other times, when I’m with others and a large truck makes the ground shudder under foot, when I’m bewildered that people are chatting and carrying on without the slightest pause, when just for a nanosecond I thought we all might die.

Some of our new friends here are interested in hearing about what happened in Christchurch, what it was like to experience those earthquakes. Its good to talk about what happened with people who weren’t there, and know that those experiences are actually behind us. The earthquake recovery is not something we are living through anymore, but many people we love still have their lives weighed down by their own earthquake recovery – whether it be the practicalities of living in broken houses still waiting for repairs or rebuilds, or the less visible recovery of the anxiety and mental toll it has all taken.

I feel fortunate in many ways, fortunate to have survived without too much mental injury, fortunate that we were able to move on in a way that was right for us, fortunate that our earthquake experiences – while harrowing – were never more than we could cope with, fortunate that we can look back on lots of those earthquake experiences with a sense of humour and remember funny things too, among the memories that still – and maybe always will – make me cry.

We often find ourselves telling the funny, light and interesting stories, and avoiding the hard ones. Stories of overcoming the difficulties of having no power or water supply, improvising toilet facilities in the backyard – and in a hurry! Pooling resources with friends and creative problem solving under pressure. Homeschooling the kids unexpectedly when the days of school closures slowly added up to seven weeks.

Stories of ingenuity and resilience are energizing and uplifting – and I think most of us felt that in the early days of the quakes. But, when the quakes kept coming that resilience and energy for overcoming adversity became harder and harder to find. I’ve heard so many Christchurch people cringing at the word ‘resilient’ now, you can tell people how resilient they are a million times, but its not a self-fulfilling prophecy, many of us just felt a bit broken after a while.

Choosing not to describe moments and hours of terror and despair, choosing not to discuss stories of indescribable loss is a conscious choice, there are stories that aren’t mine to tell here, and stories that aren’t right for this blog.

I’d like to say that living so far away, that the earthquakes don’t feature in our lives anymore, but they do. We have one child who is still recovering from that trauma with nightmares and fears, but they are noticeably, significantly fewer over here. My children will study earthquakes in their geography curriculum at school here this year – its my hope that rather than feel anxious about this they will feel empowered to share their experiences and contribute to understanding of earthquakes: what it really feels like to be flung out of bed, to be unable to stand, to see your house, your street and your school cracked and broken. My children have different memories than me, as they were at school during the worst of our quakes, I hope they feel able to talk about how that was, how frightening it was but how heroic (yes!) their teachers were in dealing with the enormous task before them. My twins have described to me the surreal scene of getting up off the ground to see the teachers’ staffroom doors, which were jammed tight shut, get pummeled open and release a swarm of teachers coursing at speed out and over the playing fields to reach every child. Olivia has described scrambling to try and get under a school desk while it was bouncing up and down and chairs were flung about – an impossible task when the quake is that violent. I hope they can convey how awesome people can be when the going gets tough, that wherever there was damage there was another hero with a spade, a bandage, a plate of food, an embrace or a joke – because there were groups of people managing each of those needs, and some of them are still meeting those needs today.

I still love Christchurch, but it’s people I miss and not the place. We hope to come home and see the promised rebuild finally taking shape one day, we hope that the innovation and creativity shown in the city plans and as promised by local and national government will really happen. Like everyone else though, we’re worried that it won’t, and I can’t imagine a greater opportunity lost than to fail to rebuild Christchurch with innovation, creativity and courage.

Kia Kaha Christchurch


3 thoughts on “Leaving Christchurch…

  1. Gosh, such a good blog. I know I’m feeling the most stressed about living here when I fantasize about getting on a bus and leaving! I hope you do come back to something brilliant… but unless you are away for 30 years, I feel skeptical!

  2. This is a very emotional read. I can’t imagine living with the post traumatic stress of such a disaster and to be constantly susceptible to uncontrollable triggers in my environment. I sympathize with your anxiety over the rebuilding process. Committing funds and resources is always a tenuous process with government entities. There are places in New Orleans, LA after hurricane Katrina that are still unattended and it looks like they will never be restored. Most of them were socially depressed areas before so there is no rush to rebuild in a blighted area, but it was home to those that lived there. Sadly there is no completely satisfying way or restoring historic structures or rebuilding some landmarks. I don’t live in California, but do live along the New Madrid fault zone. We get a noticeable shaking every couple of years or so. While scary, it supposedly is a good thing to relieve that stress periodically. We had the power go out for about 3 days one winter after an ice storm. After the first day, the house lost heat fast. The same thing happened after a summer storm. I can’t imagine weeks without power of access to reliably potable water.

    I’m glad you are able to find some relief while in China, especially for your children. It can be difficult to adjust to the fact that Mom and Dad can’t always protect you like you have been used to and come to expect as a child.

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