industrious ants

All about a life in motion.

Month: March, 2011

New Beginnings

There is nothing new under the sun.

 

The last letter I sent out saw some very touching responses. Thank you for thinking of us and staying on top of all the issues that are constantly unfolding in Japan. It means a lot to us that you are so involved. It made me think that maybe now would be a good time to restart my long dormant blog. It’s been a couple of years, and I am definitely a little writing-rusty, but I just can’t keep all my thoughts to myself anymore. I find myself writing more and more group emails, so it feels like this is the best way to keep family and friends informed about what is happening to us on this side of the world.

After reading some of your emails, I went back over my last letter to make sure I didn’t make any glaring spelling or grammar errors, which tends to happen often these days! It’s really embarrassing when a Japanese student of mine catches a mistake. “What do you mean you don’t know how to spell SPEECH?!” That’s when I feel like I have really been in Japan too long! After almost two years of trying to cram Japanese into my head, English seems less and less familiar. I’ll write a word on the blackboard and think automatically that it looks wrong. Matt is constantly correcting my pronunciation these days…the word ‘pronunciation’ is a good example. I’ve started saying it “pronounciation”.

My brain is already full of English and French, and there is a dash of Spanish in there too. Now Japanese is fighting for space. It’s pretty hilarious when I talk to the Peruvian mother of one of my students. She doesn’t speak English, but understands some Japanese. We end up sounding like we are talking in Esperanto, because every other sentence has words from 4 different languages all blended together. Still, we get what each other is saying.

Anyway, moving on.
We recently took a vacation from the disaster media coverage and visited the neighboring island of Shikoku. No internet and no large doses of international news coverage left me feeling both relieved and stressed out, probably how a junky feels when they first check into rehab. I was constantly asking my Japanese friend what the situation was like with the reactors, and he would calmly reply “not good” and wouldn’t elaborate any further. Halfway through the road trip, we started listening to Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, and it helped me take my mind off the things happening far away that I had zero power to change. Instead of picturing scenes of nuclear fall out, I found myself visualizing possible exercise routines and jogging schedules that I could tackle once the baby has been born. While Murakami comes off as being an overly self-absorbed egomaniac, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, was probably the best kind of CD-book to listen to on our 3 day sojourn…it was positive, inspiring and much more uplifting than listening to something like Neville Shutes On The Beach, which is essentially what CNN feels like these days.

Shikoku was filled with good company, but overall was not all that exciting. We’ve seen a lot of Japan, and the truth is that after a while it all looks the same. It’s not the geography that is un-amazing, and the people are always wonderful, but it’s the architecture and urban planning that leave something to be desired. There is just too much pavement in places that don’t need pavement. Everything is paved, even the shorelines and sometimes the mountainsides. Then there are those poorer small towns that haven’t been updated in years. They are much like the fishing villages you’ve seen on the news being wiped out by that huge expansive wave. These homes are still made of wood and aluminum siding. They look much older than they really are, as hard weather conditions run down their exteriors quickly.

Structures here are not built to last, perhaps with the exception of schools and hospitals, but I am not sure why. I have been told that the value of a house drops the moment it is moved into. The house is really worth nothing…but the land is definitely pricey. Families don’t renovate homes, they just tear them down and build new ones, or they abandon them and move elsewhere. Our town is full of old empty buildings that no one wants to live or work in. It’s probably also a sign that this place has seen better days. A great blog to read about the current housing situation in Japan can be found here:
http://catforehead.wordpress.com/

News of the northern disaster is still very much on our radar, but it’s astonishing how fast the urgency of it has dissipated. The last few days I’ve woken up in the morning and completely forgotten that there was even an earthquake to begin with. It’s sad really. Time makes you forget, and the crunch of life and the physical distance buffers us considerably from the reality that continues to unfold up there.

We don’t have a television, so all our news comes from the internet. Lately, the international media’s focus seems to have taken a hard left turn into Libya, and Canada has got an election on its hands, so there is home grown fodder to feed on there. Locally in Japan, the northern reporting is still strong. A friend’s boyfriend works for NHK News, the national media provider. He is scheduled to fly up to the disaster area shortly to help out with the reporting duties. Apparently all prefectures in Japan are sending their local reporters in shifts to the effected zones, to help share the load of keeping the public informed.

The nuclear plant continues to be make very slow progress, if any at all. Still, no one here in Miyazaki seems to be panicking. While they won’t talk about it up front, if you ask them directly “Aren’t you worried?” they will definitely say “Yes” but they don’t say much more about what it is that they are feeling. It does makes sense though. The Japanese, as far as I my own experiences go, are a people of very few words, but I have found over time that if you read between the lines, there is a lot being said.

Fortunately for us, the foreign community does a good job all on its own at keeping us in a constant state of mini-panic, which I don’t think is an entirely bad thing either. While I want nothing more than to remain calm and level headed during this time of disaster, I also can’t let myself believe that everything is business as usual. The truth is that it’s not. The other truth is, that we are far away from the hot zone, so it’s best to find a healthy mental balance and stick with it for as long as possible.

Something that helps us keep the Fukushima issue in perspective are the daily radiation readings for each prefecture. I check them here:
http://www.mext.go.jp/english/radioactivity_level/detail/1304080.htm

If you take a look, Miyagi and Fukushima aren’t listed, because they are probably off the charts. Ibaraki to Kanegawa, including Tokyo, are all showing higher than normal levels, though some minimally. South of that is all very normal and within range. The readings haven’t changed in our prefecture since before the Tsunami, which is a relief. I am also happy that we aren’t connected in anyway to the main island of Honshu, so water contamination at this point does not seem to be an issue. A ban has been placed on all the produce coming out of the effected regions and Japanese people are likely to shun the food that comes from these places for years to come, even if they are eventually proven to be safe. Japan is very particular about what it eats. It’s the only country I’ve ever visited where imported tropical fruits are cheaper and less desirable than locally grown potatoes.

Another good example of strict food regulation has to do with a few cases of hoof and mouth disease that were detected in our region last year. It resulted in the culling of thousands of cows and the unfortunate suicide of the farmer whose cow apparently started the whole thing. A massive sanitizing movement started, which saw people cueing up their cars on the highway to have them sprayed down with disinfectant, and everyone voluntarily walking their shoes through cleaning solutions almost 10 times a day to help stop the spread of potentially diseased dirt fragments. I noticed more Australian beef at the grocery store, which was cheaper, but seemed unpopular. I assumed it was because it wasn’t up to Japanese tastes. In the end, I think most people just switched over to chicken. I can’t even imagine what a radiation scare will do to the farmers who live in the north. To me, their livelihood seems doomed.

Regardless of everything, we continue to plug away at our daily lives. The weather is warming and the cherry blossoms are just now starting to reveal themselves. Seasonal picnics under these beautiful blossoming trees is one of the few places that Japanese people find true repose from their otherwise busy and culturally demanding lives. They take real pleasure in the fleeting beauty of the pretty pink sakura flowers. It’s a great experience to sit there with them and admire something as simple as the season changing. Truly, you realize it’s not that simple at all. It’s basically the whole world around you being dead and colorless and all of a sudden, miraculously, it comes alive. For those people who survived the Tsunami, who have been evacuated from their homes and who have no certainty about their future or the future of their children, I hope somewhere nearby there is a blossoming cherry tree. Maybe they can look towards it and know that even through the darkest of times and the coldest of winters, even when everything surely seems dead, life begins again.

March 28, 2011

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A Letter Home

Hey Family,
Seeing as there is so much running through my mind lately, and probably your own minds as well, I thought maybe it would be an idea to write you all an update of how we are doing, and stay a little bit more in touch…especially considering Japan’s current situation.

Matt and I are doing very well. The baby is kicking up a storm lately. Hard to believe that I am almost 7 months pregnant. I get lots of tummy rubs from my students…apparently that’s ok here…back home I would probably have a lawsuit on my hands 😉

Since the earthquake, life in Nobeoka is eerily normal. Almost too normal. Sometimes the normal-ness of it all is a bit much to take. People are still shopping, eating out, going to school, driving, biking, surfing and taking vacations. I almost want to scream “Would somebody just panic already!” Ha! Totally not the Japanese way. It’s a good thing though. Trust me. Better than having people rampaging around town, buying up all the ramen noodles in sight, pushing, shoving and turning a cold shoulder to everyone else.

Some of Matt’s students have families in Sendai and the affected areas. While my school life is business as usual, I think a lot of his classes have been cancelled as his students struggle to make contact with their families, or head up north to find them themselves. But really, that’s the only change in our work lives so far.

This time of year is the time for work parties. It’s the end of the business year in Japan, and traditionally there are a large number of goodbye/welcome parties for the staff that gets transferred from one place to another. It happens in my school too. This year we are transferring 5 teachers out, and at least that many new teachers will be arriving shortly. I thought the parties would be cancelled due to the tsunami, but I was wrong. We had one last night, and I felt pretty guilty, sitting there and eating my sashimi and beefsteak. It just felt wrong to be out wining and dining when there is so much hunger and suffering going on, and in this very country. Also, no one uttered a word about the recent events. I could tell that people just wanted a moment to forget, so I let them have their moment.

These things are not easily talked about with the Japanese….sad things make them very uncomfortable. There is a time and a place to address certain issues like death, or the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, and now, this very horrible event. I am convinced that they are feeling the sadness more deeply than I can imagine, but are hiding it in a place within their hearts where it won’t disrupt their sanity. I think this routine of doing what has always been done (like year end parties) is partly a way for them to cope with the immensity of it all. They are a very composed people, and find reassurance in schedules and systems. If the system stays in tact, everything will be ok.

I hope to make a suggestion of canceling some future events so we can donate the money to the relief effort…but I will have to approach it in the right way…with respect and merely as a friendly suggestion. If they decide not to, that’s their decision, and I am not about to play the role of the foreigner who throws a fuss over what I think is the best way of doing things. I am still only a guest in their country, and I can’t push my beliefs on them in that way. They won’t understand and nothing productive will get done.

In saying that, I plan on making a personal donation to the Red Cross Japan tomorrow (pay day) along with a good contingent of other English Teachers who are pledging to do the same…I hope you will help out where you can. Giving money to a reliable organization would be a good first step, and I am sure that there will be other ways in the future to continue helping those in need.

Please don’t take my above example of ‘office parties’ as reason to think the Japanese are an insensitive people. It is quite the opposite actually. They are the most intuitive and feeling people I know. They have an amazing spirit and generosity beyond anything I can sometimes imagine. They pull together to help their neighbors out. It is a very communal society. Because of their calmness, as well as their generosity, I fully believe they can rebuild their lives and they can overcome this immense catastrophe. They are probably the most mentally equipped to do so, more than any other people I have met. However, they will definitely need a helping hand wherever they can get it.

Our town has already organized 2 trucks of supplies to head north, with water, food and clothing. Iwate is actually a sister city of ours, so our town takes their situation quite personally. Our prefecture has opened up 107 apartments for refugee families. I hope that number grows, and I expect that other, more well-off prefectures than our own are also doing everything they can for their fellow Japanese countrymen.

Finally…
Probably, at the forefront of all your minds is the radiation issue.
Trust me, Matt and I are thinking of it every moment too. Today, I am at school participating in a Student Sports Day and it is so hard to focus on anything else but the headlines in the news. When the wind blows, I think of what direction it is coming from.

Here is a link my friend sent me today that was very coherent and informative. It’s the transcript from a panel discussion held yesterday by the British Embassy. It is basically a group of experts discussing their take on the situation and analyzing likely disaster outcomes, as well as worst case scenarios and answers to very good questions. I encourage you to read the whole thing, because it is a quality transcript without all the hoopla of the evening news. It’s realistic, and at least for myself, put me at ease about the threat of radiation poisoning to Tokyo and especially here in Nobeoka…where we are very far away from everything that is going on:

http://ukinjapan.fco.gov.uk/en/news/?view=News&id=566799182

Also, a great blog page to read on what is actually happening in Tokyo is the following:

http://hikosaemon.blogspot.com/2011/03/tokyo-japan-situation-march-16.html

I found it very enlightening and think you should all read it as well.

Of course, many of my expat friends are feeling extreme pressure from their families to bail out of the country now and head home. One girl I know has already decided to go, but she admits it has more to do with the fact that they live 400 meters from the shoreline and if a Tsunami were to hit their town, if she were in the house, she wouldn’t stand a chance. She was scheduled to leave in 4 months anyhow, so she figures it’s just an early departure. She is taking her son with her. Her husband will stay to finish his work contract and then leave as scheduled.

That all said, Matt and I are always having conversations about what to do if ________ happens. The important thing for us is to remain calm, level, logical and to not freak out. We have our various contingency plans, and hope we never have to use any of them, but they are there in case we do. We don’t take the situation lightly, but we hope that you would all respect our decision to stay (at least for now). Pray that if it is time to leave, we would feel it, and that God would show us a clear path to do so. More importantly though, pray it won’t be necessary.

I know it’s hard for any of us to think of anything but nuclear fallout, but please continue to think of the people that have lost their loved ones, for those who are buried alive and will not be reached on time, for people out of homes, out of food, and who have nothing left to their name…think and pray for them most of all. As it stands, we are unscathed by this tragic event (except maybe for some devalued yen in the bank). We are blessed and lucky and fortunate and so many other good things. We really don’t deserve it. Although the future is very uncertain, I don’t feel afraid, and that’s the truth. So, please don’t be afraid either. Don’t be driven by fear…but by love and a sound mind.

We miss you all! Stay in touch, stay positive and keep praying.

Xoxox
Me, Matt, Baby and Roger (the Cat)