Today at 2:28 pm, China began its three-day mourning period for those who passed away in the Sichuan earthquake. As a foreigner in China, I found it chilling to be here for the moment of silence.

If you read any of the international reports from Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and the like, they describe my experience and those of more than a billion people across the country. Sirens wailed across Beijing, and cars stopped on the sides of the street with drivers honking their horns. Shops and restaurants closed for a few minutes, and everyone poured onto the streets to honor those who had died.

Mass media in the country have also come to a halt, and every television station focuses solely on the devastation of Sichuan and the nation’s mourning. Internet access has also significantly slowed down, and some sites have been restricted or truncated in order to contribute to the country’s austerity in its time of grieving.

For me, being here right now is truly an eye-opening experience. I am witnessing a part of China that not many see, and I hope no one will have to see again anytime soon: This is a China in the face of a major loss of life. And I think what is going on here, with the strong and painful reactions people are having, is the same that all nations facing this kind of loss go through.

People are identifying with their countrymen and are mourning the loss incurred as a nation, as a family and as friends. The solidarity of these people is iron-clad, and the most chilling example of this was the video feed I saw of the mourners at Tiananmen Square, about 15 minutes from where I live. There were thousands upon thousands of people chanting toward the national flag, fists pumping in the air, saying, “Jia you, Zhongg Guo,” which means good luck/cheer up/rebound China.

I have witnessed a national flag-raising before, where the crowd was much smaller than that of today’s, and that alone was amazing. Thus, I can’t even begin to imagine what today was like at Tiananmen Square. Overall, the reactions and ceremonies I have seen today remind me of what I have felt and experienced at home during moments of silence for 9/11 and the OKC bombing. That’s the closest kind of feeling I can relate it to.

As far as Sichuan and the devastation caused there – I can’t even begin to fathom its gravity, and it’s such a pity because the province is fairy-tale like in its beauty. The verdant valleys, mountains and lakes that surround the provincial seat of Chengdu are surreal as they climb up into the foothills of the Tibetan plateau.

I had a chance to visit some of these areas earlier this spring, and they were beautiful, and very isolated. For those who have been there, it is easy to understand the difficulty of the search-and-rescue teams trekking through valleys that are only connected by two-lane roads winding through the mountains. Between the rescue, recovery and reconstruction, Sichuan has a very long road ahead.

Many friends and family back home worried about my safety when news of the earthquake reached the US, but fortunately Beijing is hundreds of miles from Sichuan and the city experienced only a slight tremor. Life here is business as usual, but the air does hang heavy with the grief people are feeling for the earthquake victims.

This is definitely a trying moment for China, and from what I’m seeing, the people here are doing their best to pick up and move forward together.