Friday, March 25, 2011

Stateside: With a Cobb Salad of Emotions

Yes, I said cobb salad. Since arriving back in sunny California a week ago in an effort to remove myself from Japan’s nuclear situation, I have felt happy, sad and everything in between. As I was falling asleep last night I was trying to figure out how to describe the plethora of emotions swirling inside me, a task which turned out to be tougher than I realized. A roller coaster of emotions wasn’t an accurate description, because I don’t really have highs and lows. A whirlwind of emotions didn’t work either as these emotions are not happening all at once, nor are they swirly, or even windy. A cobb salad. Yes, that is the correct term. I have been made up of about 7 different emotions that are all somewhere within me and seem to rotate in intensity, just as with each bite of the salad. Sometimes more tomatoes than chicken, other times the bite is completely covered in dressing masking any actual salad flavor. At the moment this is me. 
March for me was supposed to consist of a visit from Jessica and Julia, with all of us embarking on a trip to Hiroshima. Then celebrating the last week of school with some of my favorite middle school teachers before they are rotated out to other schools. I was then planning a week in Korea to visit a friend, all the while attending various events as Tokyo’s Irish Parade Queen. All until April 2nd where I was going to attend a massive daylong concert in Tokyo, called SpringGrove with big name artists. I was thrilled. I was creating a life for myself. I had a job, great friends, awesome co-workers, a darling apartment, and amazing experiences that I did my damndest to create and take advantage of. To boot, all of this was in a foreign country. I was so proud of myself.
And then the tectonic plates decided they just couldn’t hold it any longer.
What resulted was the largest earthquake in quite sometime, followed by tsunamis and a nuclear crisis. Devastation everywhere.
The earthquake happened on a Friday afternoon. By Sunday night, as the nuclear system was not under any type of control, nor could anyone really explain it to me, I was considering going home. I called my parents when I woke up at 10am Monday morning, I didn’t have work as Saturday was graduation. By 11am with the assistance of both my parents, a visiting Ed Bardzik (expedia member!) and one of my best friends Lauren on speaker phone, I had a plane ticket booked for the 6pm flight that night. Throughout the entire conversation I was under the impression that this was a temporary visit home. I said something along the lines of, 
“Well I can do that when I get back to Japan,” and my mom responded, 
“You want to go BACK?!” 
I lost it. 
How could I not come back?! My life that I worked so hard to create is here, I couldn’t just leave it. I had dinner plans, I was supposed to go as a guest to an adult english class, I was supposed to do laundry and go to the bank. I realize how superficial it all sounded, but I felt like I was literally being ripped away from everything that had become so familiar to me in the past 7 months.  
I couldn’t think about it. I had, at most, 3 hrs before I had to leave for the airport, whether or not I would make my flight was still up for grabs. I wiped my tears and sucked it up.
I called the other JETs who graciously came over to help me pack. I opened my closet and starting flinging my favorite things on my bed. Sinapi sat on the bed rolling the clothes I chucked at her. Jessica was on skype, calming me down while checking the baggage allotment for Singapore Air. She confessed that watching me pack was making it real and essentially scaring her. While she was way in the north and safe from the radiation scare, the main reason I was leaving, she was also essentially stranded. The airport she usually flies out of is Tokyo’s Narita, which was up and running, though the only way she could get there was by bullet trains, which were not. The airport closest to her was Sendai, which was under water. I assured her she would be fine, and meant it. At the moment she is still there, though I know her family wants more than anything to have her back in the states. 
Getting me ready to leave, both mentally and physically was a team effort for sure. Kim was there chatting with us and promising to look after my mail. She had my spare key and said she would keep an eye on the place. I told her to help herself to the lot of food I had just purchased. I took a 5 minute break from packing and scarfed down some pasta, I asked the girls to drill me on what I actually needed for my flight. All we could come up with was my passport and some cash. That in itself was a reality check. 
Ian came over with a scale and we checked that my bags made the cut. They did. Maya came over to call and see if the trains were running. They weren’t. If I was going to make it to the airport I had to leave now. I would have to take a cab, if I could get one, and their was no telling what the traffic would be like on the one lane roads, nor how hectic the airport would be. 
Maya, Ian and Sinapi kindly offered to walk me to the train station, where we hoped to find a cab. It was about 1:15pm when we walked out the door. After exiting my somewhat hectic apartment filled with frantic Skype calls, rushed planning and hectic packing, I walked outside to find Kamagaya as calm as ever. Why was I leaving again? Once again, I didn’t have time to wonder, I had a 9 hour flight to do that. I stopped at the ATM to take out some cash and transfer some money to my US account. I had been wanting to buy a new computer and decided I would when I got home. I was trying desperately to see some sort of silver lining. 
We got to the station to find it dark, an entirely new experience and no cabs in sight. Hmmm. As I turned around Maya yelled that one had pulled up. I ran to get him. The others followed and we loaded me in to the cab. Ian asked in Japanese how long it would take to get to the airport. The cabbie said he had no idea, but maybe 2 hours or more, a drive usually completed in about 30 min. I didn’t have a choice, nor did I have a choice that this was going to cost me about $170. Shogunai. I hugged everyone goodbye, there were tears everywhere. I had the most by far, as I have evidently been saving them since the earthquake hit. 
I got in the cab and cried for about the first 45 minutes of the drive. I felt for the cabbie, this was definitely NOT the Japanese way, but I couldn’t help it, and he knew that. In addition to sympathy looks, he turned around every so often to give me green tea, tissues and sweets. Through sniffles and tears I thanked him as much as I could. 
I arrived on time to a very busy, but organized and relatively calm Narita airport. Waited for over an hour to check in, but after that security and customs were a breeze and I sat at the gate eating sushi. I watched passengers file in from a plane that had just landed and wondered where they were going within Japan and why they got to arrive while I had to leave. 
My phone was on it’s last leg as I responded to emails and facebook messages explaining my decision to other JETs who were currently trying to choose between staying or going. All of us had the same problem, no one wanted to go but all of our families were begging us to get out. We were in two mindsets and their was no way to please everyone.
As I sat at the gate, I met a few kids my age all doing what I was doing. We were all heading somewhere in America, in the process, abandoning apartments, jobs or university programs until Japan was back on it’s feet. 
I started to feel guilty for not staying to help. I was so in love with this country that had accepted me with open arms over the past few months. We had a partnership, an understanding. I would try my best to learn Japanese, and do my best to teach English, while everyone in Japan would be patient with me as I learned and teach me about Japanese culture. Yet, here I was in the airport, fleeing, and essentially leaving Japan with an ultimatum. 
Listen Japan, as soon as you get it together and are safe enough to return, I’ll be back. 
What the hell kind of partnership is that?! 
Why do I get to go? Do I have higher standards since I was foreign born? And how was this country supposed to repair itself if I wasn’t going to help? I had been here 7 months now and felt just as at home here as I do in America, and here I was, leaving. That’s not right. Why do I get to leave?  Simply because I have the funds to buy a one way ticket out, and have somewhere else to go? That isn’t fair. All while my co-workers, friends and students were staying. What is going to happen to them? What about the crossing guard that waves good morning to me every morning as I ride my bike to school, who happens to be the grandfather of one of my favorite students, what will happen to him? What about the cab driver I just had? What about my Japanese teacher? What about my bosses at the Board of Ed who I meet with for weekly meetings? What about Tanaka-san who has taken on the position of my Japanese mother? What about my favorite teachers at school and their families who are all over Japan? 
They have to be having it worse than I.
I started to cry again at the gate. I turned away from the family sitting next to me and Skyped my Dad to let him know that I would be getting on the flight, and would be needing a ride from the airport. He was relieved. I felt sad, mad and guilty.
Despite all the tears, I hadn’t cried as much as I felt like I needed to and worried that I was saving them for the flight. I already felt for whoever I was going to be sitting next to. Good thing I had a window seat. 
I boarded the completely full plane to find out that somewhere along the line my 32 C window seat had become a middle 32 B. Sorry A and C. The girl in the aisle seat was a girl I had talked to while in line to check in. She was sweet and from San Diego. She had been visiting friends in Japan and cut her trip short due to the earthquake. She seemed completely content with her decision and had no qualms about returning. Clearly she wasn’t a resident of Japan. 
I arrived safely back stateside. Friends and family have been unbelievably supportive and people were coming from out of the woodwork to see that I was ok. I was so touched. The hugs were a little harder and there were relieved exhales all around. Everyone was glad I was safe, which felt great, but I am not quite as excited as they. Of course I am thrilled to be safe, and so thankful that I was in an area of Japan that was only somewhat effected. But what about everyone else? 
It seems daily, people will look at my parents and exclaim one or all of the following, “Oh thank God!  Oh I was so worried! You must be so relieved. Now you can stop worrying!” My mom confirms this with them, kisses me on the cheek and gives me a squeeze. I give a polite “thank you for your concern smile” and look down. I am no where near on the same page of relief. People have it much worse than I. My mind shoots back to everyone in Kamagaya and Japan. I am far from done worrying.
My first week back in CA, I went to a funeral for a family friend, and doctor’s appointments for my Dad’s cancer treatment. What the hell happened to my super fun month of March? My Dad’s cancer has resurfaced with a vengeance. Fucking cancer. Sorry, but that is the only appropriate adjective to describe it. You know it is.
The poor guy has been radiated, chemo-ed and cut open. As I sit here at USC Univ. Hospital, my Mom is with my Dad as they prep him for his 3rd surgery that is scheduled to being in 5 min. We have already been told that he will spend the night here tonight and that they will not be able to get it all. But we have to hope and pray for the best. 
I couldn’t go in because they only allow 1 visitor in the prep room, so we opted for the one with medical knowledge. I’m sure my mom will keep ‘em honest. My Mom told me that she was going to try and say that they had a small child. My dad and I laughed when she proposed this, I would love to see the doctor’s face when he saw Mr. Bohan’s 24 year old “child” walk in. 
Last night my little family of three prepared for surgery. My Dad had to stop eating at midnight and poor guy couldn’t have a beer with dinner. No alcohol. Lame. My mom and I packed snacks and entertainment. My Dad scoured our house for the reading material he would like pre and post surgery. He picked up a Sports Illustrated covered with players from the NCAA March Madness. I suggested the swimsuit edition that was sitting next to the Wall Street Journal in our kitchen, my we’re well rounded aren’t we?! As soon as I suggested it, I heard my mom from the other room,
 “Kaaaateee! Don’t you think that may be a littllleee inappropriate?” My dad laughed. “Not really mom. You know they get it too, and if nothing else he’ll make some friends while he’s in there.” I mean really, how funny would that be?! My mom rolled her eyes and in the end the LA Times Sports page was selected. Boring. 

With cancer and a nation disaster all happening simultaneously in my life I can honestly tell you, I have no idea what my next move is. Though I will be sure and share as soon as I figure it out. Right now lets just focus on one thing at a time, today that thing is cutting out cancer and Papa Bear making a full recovery. 
Positives thoughts and prayers welcome, 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shake Until the World Notices: Japan's 8.9 Earthquake

*You all obviously have heard about the horrific 8.9 quake that hit north eastern Japan yesterday, March 11. I am writing this blog almost exactly 32 hours from when the quake hit and here in Chiba we are still feeling some shakes rather frequently. In order to try to give you some perspective of what is happening, every time I feel a tremor I will type, (shake) for each second the tremor lasts. Anything else I write in parenthesis is happening in real time as I write this.

This is my story…

“Keito Sensei, you can go home after lunch. We are just going to be (shake, shake) practicing for tomorrow`s graduation,” says my Kyoto Sensei (VP) to me. Well this never happens! I did my best to contain my excitement and show some respect.

“Oh wow! Are you sure that is ok? I`ll make sure Keima and Namiko don`t need anything first,” I knew they didn`t. He agreed that was a good idea. (shake, shake) I checked and indeed they said go home and enjoy the afternoon. SWEET!

I biked home after lunch eager to just sit. It has been a whirlwind since (shake, shake, shake) the entire Parade Queen extravaganza as I prepare for the parade on Sunday. (I will post about that, promise!) I was needing to pay bills, go to the grocery store as I had no food, study a bit of Japanese, do laundry, and pay rent. I was eager to be productive and put my life back together. I texted two of the other ALTs trying to convince them to somehow leave early and come play with me, but no such luck.

I paid a few bills on my way home, then snuggled on the couch watching TV on my computer. I committed myself to one more episode of Lie to Me and then swore that my productive afternoon would begin when that episode ended. (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake)

I was just getting sucked in when the house started to shake. Oh wow another earthquake, I thought, we had just had one Tuesday. Earthquakes are common here and I have felt quite a bit since (shake, shake, shake, shake) moving here.

This one seemed different. After about 10 seconds I sat up from lying down. It got stronger and louder. My little apartment is sturdy but sometimes even strong winds cause it to creak, so this was bordering on terrifying. About 15 seconds in, I stood up and looked around. This was one was different for sure. My (shake, shake, shake, shake shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake) mind shot back to elementary school, (shake, shake) and our earthquake drills. Get under the desk and protect your neck. That crossed my mind for a second but it was so loud and so powerful, and as a first floor resident I wanted to be (shake, shake) nowhere (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake) inside. I opted for the outdoors.

I grabbed my phone and walked outside. As soon as I decided to exit, I got scared. To have to make the decision that this is a dangerous enough situation to take action, made it real. It didn’t help that I was alone either. I walked out and was greeted by crying kids, only confirming my suspected severity of the situation. That was exactly how I felt. My fellow evacuees and I found a spot with nothing but blue sky above us. I had my eyes fixed up in case anything was to fall. I watched a park car roll back and forth and wondered if it was going to be set in motion by all this. Car alarms started to go off. I hugged myself hoping it would stop as quickly as it came. No such luck. At one point, after about a minute of solid shaking, (shake, shake) it slowed and the fellow working on the house next door and I made eye contact, and nodded that that was most likely the end. We both took a step toward our respective homes. There was another huge shake. I retreated back to my original spot, now holding back tears. The crying kids were now accompanied by an ambulance roaring in the distance. Stop stop stop stop, pleaseeee. Finally it did stop enough to go back inside. It had been about 3 minutes.

I gingerly walked back inside and slowly opened the door to my apartment. Things had fallen off shelves, but nothing major. In my kitchen, a cabinet had opened, and for dramatic effect was swinging when I walked in. The spices from the cabinet (shake, shake) had landed on the floor. Two bottles of canola oil had also fallen from the same cabinet and opened, I had oil all over my floor. I felt like I was visiting a (shake, shake) crime scream. I did a lap of my tiny apartment not knowing what to do. I didn’t rush to clean anything up, almost delaying the reality of the situation (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, SHAKE, SHAKE, shake, shake, shake, shake…news ding dongs signifying breaking news, just notified us of another quake in Fukushima, 6.0).

In a lame attempt to do something I threw a paper towel on the floor and watched it become immediately engulfed by oil. I stood glued to the ground in complete shock. The house began to shake again. You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. Again I exited the house, much quicker this time, I was getting better at this. This time I saw smoke in the direction of our local train station. Elementary school kids were arriving home from a local elementary school that I teach at, all of them in tears. (shake, shake) This one was just as powerful as the first, if not more so. I found myself widening my stance as I stood outside. This isn’t how this is supposed to go I thought, it’s supposed to last only a few seconds and stop. (News ding dongs again signifying breaking news, just notified us of another quake this time in Iwate, 4.0).

When it finally did stop, I went back inside to get a sweatshirt as it was now cold out, and going in and out was becoming a regular event. I left my Uggs on. One shake and I’m out. 

I turned on the news and immediately goggled “Japan earthquake” and was greeted with twitter posts that were rolling in by the second. Tried to text, couldn’t; tried to call, couldn’t. Went to Facebook and used it as a way of communicating with anyone I knew in the area.

A picture of the TV, initial tsunami warnings.
Immediately I wanted to check on the other Kamagaya ALTs. I wanted them home.
Sinapi’s status read… OMG huge earthquake!! My whole school has evacuated to the field, kids crying, so scary!!!

The kids! I totally forgot about all my middle schoolers who I had just left. I emailed the teachers I worked with, and Jessica in the north. I updated my Facebook status as an invitation for comments. I wanted to talk to someone. I wanted a hug. By now about 30 min had passed and the ground hadn’t really come to a complete halt. I took my phone and went outside, so the shaking wouldn’t be as intense. I walked up and down our alley just so I could be closer to the families who were now all outside. 

Via Facebook I talked to Jessica’s grandmother in the US. Jessica’s younger sister Julia was supposed to come visit today and we were all going to go to Hiroshima this week. That is no longer happening. L Sorry Julia, you will come one day I promise!

Also, via Facebook Sinapi urged me to come to her school which is around the corner. On my way there I met Kim who was arriving home. We walked to the middle school together as she told me she was in her elementary school classroom when the earthquake hit. It had now been about 2 hours, Sinapi was still at school with all the students who were only allowed to leave if their parents come to retrieve them. Kim and I found everyone on the field, and gave Sinapi a hug as soon as we saw her. As we separated from our hug, it began to shake again as was obvious by the rattling windows, the 3 of us glanced up to look and took a step back. We discussed the damage we knew of.

-Fallen things in our apartments.
-Kim confirmed the fire I saw as she passed it on her bike ride home. It was a little restaurant.
-The water pipes broke at our local grocery store and there was flooding, so evidently I was going to have to go with plan B for dinner.

Sinapi had to stay at school. We peaked in the teacher’s room and looked at all the fallen papers and books. Sinapi’s desk had moved about 3 inches. I got back to little JET village and saw Ian was home. I had yet to clean up the mess, but didn’t want to be in my apartment, nor alone. I went to Ian’s and we watched live coverage on BBC. I showed up to his house with a blanket and Reese’s pieces. I wasn’t hungry or cold, but both were making me feel better. There were constant strong aftershocks and every time, we stopped mid conversation debating whether or not to go outside. Ian’s girlfriend, my friend, Maya, was stuck at work. She is an elementary school teacher at an international school about an hour away by train. No trains were running, so she had to stay put. When we talked to her at midnight that night, she was still there with about 35 kids that they had just put to bed. I talked to another friend who walked 5 hours home, since the trains weren’t running. Another ALT was stuck in a train for a few hours without a clue what was going on.

Teacher's room at Sinapi's school. A block from my apartment.

A few hours of tsunami warnings and devastating news later, we had to get out of the house. We opted for McDonald’s. The four of us showed up to a shockingly crowded McDonald’s. I ate only half of my chicken sandwich set. All of us had our middle school graduation the next day, and we debated if it was going to happen.

After “dinner” we got back to our little apartment complex and basically stopped outside. No one wanted to be alone. The aftershocks were still strong and when you’re alone, it can be beyond stressful. Sinapi, Ian and I headed for my apartment where we absent mindedly watched an episode of Lie to Me before resorting to chatting and drinking, all as we constantly checked our iphones to update family and friends. We decided that every time the house shook we would drink. We all needed some kind of distraction and a few good laughs. Apparently we weren’t the only ones to come up with this little drinking game, I talked to other friends today who did the same thing. We drank and chatted until well past 3am. We all had to go to work at 8, but sleep wasn’t going to happen for anyone. Hugging my stuffed dog, and covered in blankets, I watched tv for a bit and got maybe an hour of sleep total. I was 24 going on 7.

I woke up exhausted and texted Keima one last time confirming that graduation was still on. He said yes, so I hopped in the shower. Still with limited food, I had to borrow rice from Sinapi to eat for breakfast. She confessed that she didn’t sleep at all.

When I got to school I found I was significantly less stressed just by being surrounded by people. It was familiar and I wasn’t alone. Not only that, it was business as usual, a surprisingly nice distraction. A few teachers checked that I was ok, and asked if I felt it…um YA! But that was about the extent of the conversation. I changed into my suit, and got ready for the formal graduation. (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake) Their were tremors throughout the entire ceremony.

After school I came home and passed out. Woke up to hear about the nuclear explosion and was told to stay inside until they figured out exactly what was happening. Then we got an ok to leave so I rushed to the store, to stock up on everything. There was no bread, meat or bottled water, but everything else was there. After arriving home, I put some stuff in a backpack incase I need to run out the door again for whatever reason. I (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake) filled my tub in case we lose water, and put candles out in case we lose power.

No meat.
I am sleeping on my couch because in my room I have a huge dresser that literally has the potential to crush me. So I figured this way I have one less thing (SHAKE, SHAKE) to worry about. 

I haven't felt legitimately scared in a long time though it is so comforting to be surrounded by ALTs. I also came to the realization that this is effecting me on another level because when I signed up for JET I could have been placed anywhere. ANYWHERE. I consider myself extremely lucky to be where I am. Their are JETs in all the places that you all are hearing on the news. Please send prayers and positive thoughts their way. 

The latest: 
                   -Julia is not coming to visit.
                   -I am not going to Hiroshima.
                   -The St. Patrick's Day parade has been canceled.
                   -Maya made it to her parents house nearby.
                   -A few trains are up and running. 
                   -The tsunami warning does not effect me.
                   -We are monitoring the radiation. I am far enough away that I should be ok, though if the winds change we could be effected. I talked with a friend who checked and reported that the winds for the next few days will be blowing off shore. If that is the case, all would benefit. Let's hope, Japan is due for a break. 

I will update you with any new information. Though do know, that I feel completely safe, a little rattled, exhausted and on edge, but safe. 

Shake, Shake,

P.S. Make and earthquake kit. Seriously.


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