Friday, 11 March 2011

Ring Of Fire

I lived in Sendai for two years, from 1985 to 1987. I taught at a language school in downtown Sendai, but I was also sent to many other places to teach, cycling or walking to get to various schools, factories, and companies.

On Wednesdays, I traveled by shinkansen or bullet train, down to Yonezawa to teach at a girls' junior college, changing trains in Fukushima. I will never forget those train trips. The journey from Sendai to Fukushima was nothing special, but the train ride from Fukushima to Yonezawa, which took precisely 48 minutes,was incredible, especially in the winter. The train wound through a heavily forested valley, a veritable fairyland, where snow lay many feet deep and icycles sparkled in the trees. On Thursdays, I took the shinkansen up to Morioka to teach bored engineers at a large car manufacturing company. Early autumn was my favorite season there: I loved seeing the rice fields full of golden grain, the wind making the paddies wave and ripple.

The students I taught in Sendai were a varied bunch: children, business people, doctors, and housewives. The housewives were my firm favorites. They were quirky and funny and infinitely kind and helpful. One woman, Yoko, the fifty-something wife of a lawyer, used to come to school parties dressed in a Korean kimono, or hanbok. There is a long, complicated history of enmity between Korea and Japan, and this isn't something Japanese people usually do unless they happen to be of Korean ancestry. Yoko wasn't even part Korean. "Aren't you afraid people will mistake you for a Korean?" a classmate once asked her. Yoko raised an eyebrow. "I would be so proud if they did," she said firmly. She kept her hanbok flawlessly clean and got a lot of wear out of it.

Chizuyo, another one of my housewife students had been training to be a math teacher when she got married. She loved her husband and children, but advised all the younger women against getting married. "You have no idea how lucky you are! I am trapped -- trapped!" she used to say gleefully. Chizuyo and her husband went to live in the States for several years. Their first day there, they got picked up by a scam artist at the airport who left them stranded in a remote desert town after relieving them of all their cash. But despite this experience, they had a wonderful time in the States. "I'm finally tutoring math!" Chizuyo wrote in the last letter I got from her. "No more just being a housewife!"

I had many wonderful colleagues in Sendai too, including the head teacher at our school, Brenda, who'd interviewed me at a teachers' conference in the World Trade Center. Brenda intrigued me: a fellow Californian and Japanese-American and she looked exactly like a man I'd studied Japanese with five years earlier, in Tokyo. When I mentioned the uncanny resemblance, it turned out that my fellow student was actually her brother.

My landlord in Sendai was a widower who lived right downstairs from me. I can't get over how lucky I've been with Japanese landlords: three times now I've lived in places where the landlady or landlord lived only feet away from me, but they never caused any trouble. Mr Arisawa was a gentle, kind man -- and a packrat. Every room in his apartment was chock-a-block with the most hideous junk you've ever seen, and he obviously had a penchant for plastic. He had massively chunky plastic clocks, outlandish plastic light fixtures, and a whole selection of worst plastic kitchen items you've ever seen. He somehow lived among all these things, packed in boxes right up to the ceiling. His hoarding must have caused him no end of inconvenience, but he always seemed so happy -- even when I (gently) turned down his offers of plastic light fixtures and chopping boards.

I've lost touch with all of these people. I have no idea how they're doing, or whether they've survived yesterday's terrible earthquake. I was able to contact one friend and find out she and her family were safe, but the rest -- I have no idea. It is so hard to see the images of buildings burning, cars washed off bridges, boats tossed about like Lego toys, and remember that I used to cycle down those streets, buy the fish from those boats, walk past those buildings.

Sendai was one of the calmest, pleasantest towns I've ever lived in. But like all of Japan, it's sitting on a ring of fire.

To donate to Japanese earthquake victims through the Red Cross:


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your memories of Japan. It's so hard when you watch disaster hit a place you used to live, isn't it? The pictures are incredible; I can't imagine how it must be for them now.

Tabitha said...

Such beautiful memories. I truly hope the people you knew are all right, and that Japan is back to it's former self soon.

Charles Gramlich said...

I imagine my school will have an earthquake relief program. If not I will find another way to donate. Very sad.

Bish Denham said...

It must be hard indeed, having lived there, to see it in such a state. Living with tragedies like this one (and Christchurch and Haiti) is the price we pay for admission to this wonderful, beautiful and living planet. My heart goes out to all those who suffer from natural disasters and I give what pennies I can....

Postman said...

That must be horrible, not knowing what happened to the charming, friendly, interesting people who entered your life back then. I'm a bit concerned myself...your descriptions are so vivid I find myself fearing for these strangers' lives, even though I've never met them.

And I know how hard hanbok is to clean, so I don't want it to get wet.

Kim Ayres said...

I've been watching events unfolding all day - horrified yet unable to look away. I've been thinking of you and your connections there many times today

Mary Witzl said...

Elizabeth -- This is the flip side to living abroad: the more places you've lived in, the more chances there will be that something bad will happen in one some day and you'll feel so sad and disconnected. I can't do anything -- and anything could have happened to these people. So frustrating!

Tabitha -- Thank you, me too. Though I have an awful feeling this is going to be really bad, with that nuclear reactor leaking radiation. And Japan was already badly in debt as it was.

Charles -- Good for you. The fact that the Japanese government immediately accepted offers of help shows just how serious this is. They tend to be a bit leery of international offers of help.

Bish -- Actually, the earthquake in Haiti gives me a little hope. The fact that Haitians have coped so well with a far worse economy and infrastructure is truly incredible and inspiring. But yes -- disasters like this are all part and parcel of living on earth, along with man's inhumanity to man.

Postman -- I've kept in touch with only half a dozen people from Sendai, and sporadically at that, but just the other day I was thinking about some of my old colleagues and students, remembering how funny and nice they were. And now this.

Yoko always looked like a million bucks, swanning around in her hanbok. How do people do it, I wonder? I wear jeans and tee shirts and manage to look frumpy and disheveled.

Kim -- Thank you. One of my neighbors said, "Oh, you must be so glad you're not there!" But in fact, I feel the opposite. I wish I were there and could do something -- even just making sandwiches or rice balls, and tea. All I can do is watch my Twitter account and bite my fingernails.

angryparsnip said...

I wondered if you knew anyone from that area. I thought about you today.

When I got up this morning I saw the news, as I didn't get a call from my son I assumed all was fine. So I checked my computer and had several e-mail from him.
So far my family, extended family and many friend are all fine. They are mostly based in Osaka and Tokyo and Inland.

David ( sleepytako on twitter and blogspot) was teaching at the time and said the quake lasted 30+ seconds and rolled, not at all like the California quakes we are so use to. It made his student somewhat nauseous.
He has been twetting (?) all day yesterday and his blog is posting updates and a link to a live NHK feed.

I will be posting on my blog besides the Red Cross another place to donate that rescues animals.

I hope all your friend are safe.

cheers, parsnip

~meredith~ said...

Thanks for sharing your memories. I hope your friends from back then are okay.

Carole said...

I am sick with the news of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant radiation. I can't imagine how awful it is.

Carolie said...

Keep recording these wonderful memories, Mary. Thank you for posting them.

Girl Friday said...

This was a lovely post. I really hope you hear from your friends soon and that they are all okay.

Ruth Horowitz said...

Beautiful post. I have been following the unfolding catastrophe in Japan in horrified fascination, unable to look away and feeling increasingly helpless. Of course I've known there were real people behind the images of destruction we've been seeing, but I couldn't really imagine them. Your memories begin to fill in the picture. Thank you.

Mary Witzl said...

Meredith -- I keep checking. So far, seven are accounted for. It is so hard to see the fatalities mounting.

Carole -- I know. It's horrible to imagine how this feels; I'm filled with such dread when I wake up in the morning.

Carolie -- Thank you. Still checking that list.

Let me know if you hear of any need for volunteer interpreters and translators. Even if I could work from here, I'd do it.

GirlFriday -- Thank you, I hope so too.

Ruth -- Thank you.

When we were living in Tokyo, there was a big earthquake in San Francisco, where I spent a dozen years. Seeing pictures of streets I'd walked down torn up, street signs toppled like popsicle sticks, was horrible. This feels exactly the same. It's bad to see a place you don't know go through this sort of devastation, and even worse to see one you do.

Mimi and Tilly said...

I can really relate to your feelings. I lived in Japan for five years, and have been watching places I visited, travelled through, or lived in being shown on the news. Luckily my friends living over there are all safe and well. I have lost touch with a friend who lived in the north and I have no way of knowing if they are safe. I thought of you as I watched things unfold, as I remembered reading about your experiences in Japan, and just wanted to send warm wishes after reading this post. Em x

Robin said...

How scary! I hope they're okay! Those memories are just lovely.

Stella said...

Thanks for sharing your memories, Mary. My heart goes out to the people of Sendai and the surrounding areas.

Kit said...

Thank you for your stories. It makes it seem more alive and real, with real people, rather than just another disaster, harrowing but distant, on a news reel. Good to get the human perspective to be able to relate to it.

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

It is so distressing to see the horror so graphically displayed on TV, and for you to see it happen to a place you've loved and known makes it a lot worse yet. Especially because you have no idea what happened to the people you knew.

Suelle said...

Mary, I thought of you immediately when I heard of the earthquake. I knew you'd lived there & I was sure there were many people you cared about that were affected by this. I hope very very much that they are all ok. Your descriptions of them bring them alive for me as well.