Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nine months after...

I wrote this not long after the quake and tsunami of March 11. It appears in a less vehement form in the Quakebook collection. Buy yours here. Every cent of the proceeds go to charity.

That Friday, I awoke before dawn, in order to get to my early morning yoga class. As always, I swallowed a splash of coffee to fully rouse myself, then quickly checked my email before setting off. I noticed a message from my sister wondering if my wife's family was okay. I didn't have time then to check the news, and it was difficult to concentrate on my teaching that morning. It was only later that I saw the videos of the water rushing in. I watched one video after another, as if not quite convinced that this was real. NHK was streaming in another browser window, and in a third, I followed Facebook updates from friends. This last was the most surreal. From the nature of the messages, it was obvious that cell phone reception in Kanto was down, Facebook being the only reliable means of communication. But it was unsettling to this vicarious experience of the post-quake confusion in real-time. One post: "Where are you? Did you get the kids?" Another: "Trains stopped. Walking home. Google Maps says I should be home in seven hours." For the rest of the day I imagined my friends walking through the cold night. That night I couldn't sleep, my head filled with images of all that moving water.

The next morning, I checked in to see that a great many people I cared about were having a pretty rough time. It was also apparent that we had better access to news, when the media was still giving facts and hadn't begun squealing like nervous nellies. I went off to work, but couldn't keep my concentration. Even though my wife and I were safe in Santa Fe, loads of people checked in on us. My co-workers could see that I was disturbed. I'd already begun to hear about the sense of calm amongst the Japanese, about the absence of looting or advantage-taking. Yet minutes into my work shift, I watched a woman try on sweaters, then toss them in a heap on the shelf, all before the eyes of her two young children. In the big picture, retail came across as pathetic. My manager let me go home early . Once there, my wife told me how she'd seen a car rear-end another, then quickly U-turn in order to flee. What the hell is wrong with my countrymen? After a year back in the States, we are quite depressed about the state of things here, at the behavior we witness daily. A day before the quake we began to reassess things, and I began to look at grad schools back in Kyoto. The moral strength and cooperation we witness in Japan becomes almost the justification for a return, the sort of society in which we want to raise the child now deep in my wife's belly. I'm not such a pollyanna that I don't recognize the problems there, the things that once rankled. Over 15 years in country they'd slowly worn me down, in what one wit called "death by 1000 cuts." But America's flaws glare by comparison. (Though that's a rant for another day.)

By Sunday, we needed to turn off the laptops and go for a walk. The news was no longer fact-based and entered the realm of speculation. As the week went on, I relied more on Facebook and Twitter than any media source. The foreign press sickened me. On the first day, as I desperately tried to find out if people I loved were still alive, these websites forced me to wait for 30 seconds as they tried to sell me stuff. Their later sensationalized coverage will always be remembered as they created a panic of fleeing foreign Tokyoites and drew attention away from the true suffering going on further north. Again, the priorities and morals of my birth country astounds me.

As the week went on, our lives began to revolve around what was happening with the reactors. Online, silly humor interspersed with drop-dead seriousness gave me the impression that Tokyoites were slowly losing their minds under the worry about the radioactivity, as they were jolted yet again by another aftershock. By the following weekend, they began to write of other, more normal things, and in the international media, Japan dropped out of the top headlines.

And as we continue to live here safely in America, my sleep is still disturbed, I still finds myself occasionally shedding tears. It's incredible how emotionally attached I am to Japan. It appears the quake caused some profound seismic shift within me, as I begin to seriously consider where to live the rest of my life.

On the turntable: Asleep at the Wheel, "Live at Billy Bob's Texas"

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