Sunday, March 27, 2011

From Paris

Something wonderful happened today. But as much could be said of every day since I arrived in Paris.

For example, on Friday morning as I was sightseeing around the Notre Dame, I randomly spotted two familiar faces: a couple whom I recognized from my university. Though they didn't know me, we are connected by rather significant mutual friends and the three of us were appropriately amazed by the improbability of such an encounter.

Seeing fellow APU alumni had an assuaging effect on the creeping loneliness and slight homesickness that, mingling with my lingering jet lag, had managed to put me in an unfortunately unpleasant mood that morning. I decided to make this trip to Paris (consisting of a three-week French language course and homestay, to be followed by six weeks of additional travel in France and Spain) only about three weeks ago. And though this seemingly rash decision was actually preceded by several months of related "what if" conjectures, the short time that I had to prepare--practically as well as mentally and emotionally--made it easy for me to interpret the stress and fatigue I was feeling at the moment as possible indicators that the whole trip had been a mistake. This is, of course, probably not the case. If anything, it's quite possible that this trip will turn out to be one of the best decisions I've made in my life. Running into a couple of APU alumni in front of the Notre Dame somehow helped to remind me of that.

Another example of a wonderful thing: yesterday I visited the grave of Frederic Chopin. Though I had been looking forward to seeing the final resting place of the composer whose works I most adored as a teenage aspiring virtuoso, I had not anticipated the great and reverent sense of gratitude that overcame me as I stood before that lovingly adorned marble tombstone. Seeing the graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Molière was certainly interesting, but standing next to Chopin felt rather profound.

And today's wonderful event? As I arrived at the apartment building this evening where I will be staying with a French family for the next three weeks, I passed by two women who appeared to be mother and daughter an who looked like they could be Japanese (I always keep an eye and an ear out for Japanese people; I can't help it). Sure enough, I overheard a few Japanese words and noticed that the daughter was holding a piece of paper that I recognized as the letterhead for the French language school that I will be attending, starting tomorrow. I approached them and spoke to them in Japanese. It turned out that the girl was starting a homestay that evening with a different host in the same building, and she and her mother were struggling to little avail to communicate over the phone with her host family, to let them know that they were outside, waiting to be let in. Happily, they handed the phone over to me and I was able to convey the message in English. Jubilation! The mother remarked that God must be looking out for them. I didn't tell her so, but I'm absolutely certain that this is the case. And that the same goes for me.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Disaster in Japan

This morning I awoke to the ring of my cell phone, Josiah calling to make sure that I had heard the news: Japan had been hit by a massive earthquake, magnitude 8.9, the largest earthquake in their recorded history. My mind, somewhere in REM sleep only a minute earlier, snapped into gear. Josiah and I spent the summer of 2008 to the summer of 2010 living and teaching in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan--only two prefectures south of Miyagi Prefecture, where the devastation had been most concentrated.

I opened my web browser to BBC News and turned the t.v. on to CNN. I scanned Facebook for updates from any of my friends who are in Japan. One friend had changed his status to say that he was okay, just without water or electricity. This was reassuring. But the video clips flashing across my parents' high definition television screen provided less comfort. Image after image of great walls of sea water rushing forward to take out entire towns, businessmen stumbling about swaying office buildings, people running terrified out of their homes. But never a word as to where these videos were captured. In Miyagi? In Tokyo? It was several hours before I was able to get in touch with friends in Tochigi and get an idea of what the situation was like in my once-hometown of Moka.

In Tochigi, people were scared, but fine. Many spent almost a day shivering in their homes without water or electricity, but hardly anyone--as far as reports have shown--has been seriously injured. Tochigi prefecture is completely landlocked, far enough inland that tsunamis do not pose a threat and--as anyone who has been following the news today is now well aware--buildings in Japan are specifically engineered to withstand violent earthquakes, so the damage to homes in and around Moka has been relatively minimal. I heard a report that a friend's parents' roof was significantly damaged, but her parents, physically, are fine. They are fine!

But my joy at knowing my own friends have been spared is put on hold in the face of the devastation that has taken place in the coastal prefectures to the north of them. Japan is my second home. It is part of who I am now. I am reminded poignantly of the truism that inviting others into our lives means sharing not only their deepest joys, but also their most painful sorrows. As the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz empirically reasons, "Now I know I've got a heart, 'cause it's breaking." If I had any doubt before as to how significantly my time in Japan had impacted me personally, it has been wiped out of my mind by the aching of my heart as I watch the tragedy unfold on the news.

I was deeply impressed by a certain video clip that they have been repeatedly showing in the mainstream television coverage of the story. On t.v., they only show a small portion of the video, but a longer version is available on Youtube. We watch as, in a supermarket, workers forgo running to safety in order to help one another hold the wine shelf in place and to rescue some of the store's most valuable merchandise.

The video reminds me, first of all, of how shocked I was when I first felt (what I then considered to be) a big earthquake in Japan: I momentarily "freaked out" and looked for a place to duck and cover; but, in looking around, realized that everyone else in the room was ignoring the quake altogether! It occurred to me then that earthquakes were so much a routine part of life in Japan that it was not worth it to even acknowledge the relatively small ones.

But, even more than that, these video images remind me of the pervasive sense of "team" that runs throughout Japanese culture. Americans working in an American supermarket during a natural disaster would sooner be concerned with protecting themselves than protecting the merchandise of their employer, I think. (And here the American side of me wants to chip in, "And rightfully so!" But the veteran gaijin side of me sympathizes with a mindset in which duty always comes before self.)

The hardships that Japan and its people face today and will continue to face in the months to come are unimaginable, but I know that this culturally embedded sense of dedication to the group over the individual will play a vital role in their rehabilitation. Somewhere, several months from now, healing will happen. But today, my heart aches alongside hearts in Japan and throughout the world. Please, now, as you finish reading this, pray for Japan.