Memoir

Distant Disasters

1.

On August 16, 2005, not long after I moved to Japan to teach English, a moderately large earthquake hit off the Pacific Coast of the country’s main island. The epicenter of the magnitude 7.2 quake wasn’t far from Sendai, a large city an hour north of Fukushima Prefecture where I was living.

It was the Obon summer holiday, but I was technically a “town employee” and not just a teacher, so I spent the day sitting at a desk in the Board of Education, where the bureaucratic functions of the town continued. I sent emails to friends back home and worked on proposals for cultural exchange events.

Nishiaizu, the town of 8,000 where I was living, is two hours southwest of Sendai, but despite this distance, when the quake hit, the aged BOE building began to shake noticeably. I looked up from what I was reading at the employee across from me who was absorbed in his work. Initially he either didn’t notice or didn’t react.

“It’s an earthquake,” I said.

“Oh!” the employee said. “You’re right.” He looked askance into the air.

This wasn’t my first earthquake. I had studied in Tokyo for a year before graduating from college, and during that time there had been a number of small tremors, even ones that made my classroom on the tenth floor sway gently, but this one seemed more intense.

“Is it okay?” I asked.

The man paused for a moment as the room continued to shake. “If it doesn’t get much worse, I think we’re okay.”

A few seconds later, the room stopped shaking, and the man went back to his work, and I to the computer. Ten minutes later, my supervisor returned from an errand, and we went to pick up lunch at the 7-11, the only convenience store in town. The news reports that evening showed Sendai shaking and reported injuries and one death at an indoor pool where the ceiling had collapsed.

One of my friends in the program was living in Sendai, and he had been riding his bicycle home when the quake hit. He panicked and quickly returned to his office. When he asked the office what they should do—was anyone injured? were there any precautions they needed to take?—the Japanese workers laughed at his reaction, and, stung by the experience, he wrote a bitter post about it on his blog. But what was there to do? The shaking had stopped; life continued as normal.

 

2.

School opened again after the Obon holidays, and I returned to my routine. I had a bike provided by the town, and it was enough to get me the five minutes down the road and through the rice fields to the junior high school. Classes weren’t in session because it was still summer vacation, but most of the students came to school every day to practice sports or participate in club activities. I worked with students who were set to participate in the English speech contest in September.

The kids went home early in the afternoon, and I was left to sit alone in the expansive school building while the afternoon sun set and shone through windows that looked out from the classrooms onto the track in front of the school. I found a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on a bookshelf and killed time by reading it. At 4:15 work ended, and I biked up to the main part of the town, filled the basket on the front of the bike with groceries, and pedaled back to the TV in my apartment in a complex owned by the town and rented out at low rates to teachers. On Thursdays I watched the serialized drama Densha otoko. On Saturdays I watched the skit comedy show Mecha-ike. I illegally downloaded The Outsiders and watched it while vainly attempting to make baba ghanoush. Mostly I made omelets and other simple food. Then I got up the next day and did the same thing.

During the summer break there was no school lunch and the teachers ordered delivery from local restaurants. After morning practice, the students ate bento lunches in groups, and the teachers gathered in a small snack room at the back of the teachers’ office. There was a small, short table, and surrounding it were a sofa and a few chairs. Next to the sink was a plastic rack where the teachers dried the coffee mugs they brought to work.

Later that week, one of the Japanese teachers of English, Watanabe-sensei, was talking with others about the earthquake while eating a bowl of ramen with a side of fried rice. Watanabe-sensei buzzed his hair close to the skin, and drops of sweat glistened on his head. He periodically wiped his face with a small white towel hanging around his neck. “I was in a mahjong parlor when it hit,” he said. “In the toilet,” he added. The teachers all laughed. “I was squatting there and everything started shaking.”

The mahjong parlor had had a Japanese-style toilet which requires the user to drop trow, assume a squat, and—for the uninitiated—hope that he aims well enough not to soil his pants. “I just kept on praying,” Watanabe-sensei said, milking the joke. “Please don’t let me die in a mahjong toilet. That really would be the worst way to go.”

 

3.

Two weeks after that, Hurricane Katrina hit my hometown of New Orleans. It had formed on August 23 as a tropical depression over the Bahamas. Two days later it hit Florida as a small hurricane and then moved into the gulf where it strengthened. Everyone knew it was coming. Some prepared to evacuate, and others got ready to ride it out in the city.

On Monday, August 29, 2005, I walked five minutes down the street from the junior high school to Onomoto Elementary school where I taught elementary school for the first time. I’d been teaching at the junior high school for a week and had a PowerPoint presentation I’d prepared to introduce myself and where I was from.

The elementary school had no projectors or computers in the classrooms, so I held my MacBook in my arms and walked up and down the rows of students showing off my family members and our dogs and cats. I did this for five classes, and each time I thought about how my dad was hunkered down in the hospital where he worked, how my mom and younger brother were in Memphis with the dogs, and how the cats had been left behind at home and were probably hiding under the couches.

I ate lunch with the students in their classrooms, and when I finished I retreated to the desk reserved for guests in the teacher’s office. Ordinarily I would have read or studied and tried not to draw attention to myself, but it was still Sunday, August 28, in New Orleans, and the hurricane had not yet made landfall. I asked if I could use the blocky gray desktop in the office to refresh the latest satellite images. We all watched the swirl of clouds move into the Gulf of Mexico, grow larger, and take a bead on the mouth of the Mississippi.

The Japanese teachers looked over my shoulder and asked me questions. They were all familiar with a storm watch and the cone-like paths that meteorologists generate; Japan gets hit by waves of typhoons during the rainy season, but by the time they got to the north where I was living, they were at worst torrential rains that occasionally resulted in minor landslides requiring road work.

When I went home I turned on CNN World, one of the few foreign channels the local cable company offered, and watched reporters stand in the wind and rain.

Anderson Cooper was reporting live from “East Baton Rouge,” also known as “The Crane Next to the U.S.S. Kidd”: “As you can see it’s swinging wildly about,” he said. “I can’t really tell if the barge is tied down, or maybe there’s an anchor or something holding it down, but if the crane fell off… Uh, there’s a casino boat down the river and it could present a problem… The Mississippi River has whiteheads and looks more like an inland ocean of some sort… This rain is the stinging kind. It hurts to look directly into it. I’m facing south now and I’m fine, but if I turn north… Yeah, that stings.”

 

4.

The next day, I purchased a calling card on the internet and called home for the first time in a month.

I called my mom in Memphis at my grandfather’s house. It was early in the morning, and I woke them up. I’d been in touch via email, so I knew that everyone was safe, but it was the first time I called since I’d arrived in Japan.

I called my dad and he had made it back to our house to check on the cats. He seemed shaken and confused. He left a couple days later with two of the three cats. The last cat got left behind outside and ended up being our only Katrina casualty. My mom had trained it to ring a bell attached to the handle of our back door. For two weeks it sat and pawed at the bell hoping someone would let it in, and when my mom found her alive weeks later, she was too malnourished to survive the recovery.

“So do you think you want to go home?” my supervisor asked me a couple days later, after the levees broke, after the city flooded, after my dad got out safely, and after I’d realized that even if I did go home there was hardly anything I could have done; it all just seemed too incredibly large.

“No,” I told him. “I don’t think there’s anything I could do.”

I was still in the countryside, trying to find my place both in the classrooms and in the social life abroad. I was biking everywhere; the Sunday before my first day of elementary school, I had spent the entirety of my first paycheck and half of my second on a car payment and a cell phone. I was waiting on a few repairs and insurance and I would be free to join the other teachers in the prefecture on the weekends.

At night I returned to my apartment and continued to watch TV. Reporters like Soledad and Miles O’Brien encamped themselves in the city and reported anything they thought might be of interest. One night they stood with a plume of smoke behind them emerging from New Orleans’s low skyline:

Soledad: Clearly something is burning off in the distance.

Miles: It’s still burning. Clearly no sign of it being put out.

I drank beer alone and yelled at the TV. I wrote angry LiveJournal posts. But there was little I could do.

 

5.

I eventually got my car and learned my way around the prefecture before the winter set in. I climbed mountains with other teachers in the programs and drove to larger cities on the weekends to shop in big box electronic stores and dance at clubs until the early hours of the morning.

I survived my first winter, but not without incident. Several meters of snow fell on Nishiaizu in December and January and kept me indoors much of the time. I caught pneumonia in February, relapsed in March, and finally kicked it in time for the Golden Week holidays in early May. In mid-May, I took two weeks off and went home to see my younger brothers Tim and David graduate, one from high school and one from college in Houston.

Tim had gone to San Antonio with my mom after leaving Memphis. They set up in the small house that my grandparents used to live in. They moved home for spring semester, and when Tim graduated, there was still a large boat resting in the grassy neutral ground between opposing lanes of traffic on the road just outside his school. Houses in the neighborhood were blighted and empty of residents.

During the winter in Nishiaizu, I had taken up swimming in the town pool since there was too much snow to jog. New Orleans in May was already hot and humid, so it was pleasant to wear shorts and run around oak-covered Audubon Park. One day while I was running, I overheard a small piece of conversation; a college student walking around the park in sandals was talking on a cell phone to someone: “Yeah,” he said, “everything’s back to normal.”

 

6.

After my trip, my life returned to normal, and the rest of the prefecture opened up to me when I began dating another teacher. She lived three hours away on the coast, so we traded weekends at each other’s apartments. She arrived on Fridays, and often I had dinner cooking. I stopped to pick up ice creams and beers from the convenience store near her house. We watched movies and American TV shows. Sometimes we visited friends or ate out. We swam in the town pool. We indulged in the Japanese tourist track and did things like soak in hot springs and eat at roadside restaurants. When we had vacation time, we went on long road or train trips across the country. She convinced me to go on a few snowboarding trips.

Once, while in my apartment, she noticed something under my desk. “What’s that?” she asked. She pointed to a small green bag made of waterproof plastic and drawn tight with a drawstring.

“That’s my earthquake kit,” I said.

“What?” she asked and smiled. “What’ve you got in there?”

“Water, a bottle of tea, a can of refried beans. Check it out.”

She pulled it from underneath my desk and laughed as she took out the items: she loved it. In addition to the items I’d mentioned, there was a small packet of kaki-pi—a Japanese snack mix made of small crescent-shaped crackers and peanuts.

She held up the plastic bottle of tea. I’d gotten it for free as part of a bento lunch at some point, and when I came home with it unopened, I threw it in the bag. “A bottle of tea?” she asked skeptically.

“If there’s an earthquake, I want to make sure I have my caffeine.”

She laughed at me again.

 

7.

After three years in Nishiaizu, I broke up with the girlfriend and moved to Tokyo in 2008 to work at a translation company. After realizing it would cost an initial four to six thousand dollars equivalent in yen to start a lease in my name, I started looking for shared housing. I put an ad on roomshare.jp and introduced myself and all I had to offer: I had a job, a high definition TV, a Nintendo Wii, and I could speak Japanese.

In a minor miracle, I was contacted by a young Japanese man who facilitated an apartment share just ten minutes by commuter train from where I would be working. He told me to come meet everyone, stay a night, and see what I thought. I was wary at first, especially about imposing on a stranger, but I took an afternoon bus down to Tokyo and waited outside the McDonalds in front of Nishi-Oi Station for Teppei to meet me. There wasn’t much around the station area: just a grocery store, a few small restaurants, and a dry cleaners. A handful of tall apartment buildings bordered the station, and the rest of the neighborhoods quickly became short and residential. Teppei arrived in a taxi because of the rain, and we rode the two minutes to the apartment.

The first floor of the square building had a wide entrance, almost like a driveway, with a metal awning that was rolled up. Employees in uniforms, hair nets, and mud boots were hosing down the floor and aluminum tables with pressure washers. A rusted metal staircase ran up the left side of the building to the apartment entrance on the second floor.

Teppei let me in, and I put my stuff in the available room, which was currently outfitted as a living room with a table, a low sofa, several floor cushions, and a furry rug. “This is it,” Teppei said. “It’s not much, but it’s pretty nice.” The room was very small. It had no closet and was only nine feet by twelve, much smaller than the spacious two-room apartment I’d lived in for three years. “And it’s a little loud,” he added. Apparently the first floor was a chicken butcher. Every morning a truck pulled up full of frozen chicken. “And they raise the awning rat-tat-tat-tat at around five or six in the morning,” he said. They spent all day breaking down the chicken and then hosed the excess bits into drains in the floor in the evenings.

That night we walked over to the station and ate at a Chinese restaurant. One by one, each of the roommates showed up after they finished work. There were four total—two men and two women. A Korean exchange student joined us midway through; he was considering sharing Teppei’s room, which was larger than the four other rooms in the apartment.

I woke up hungover the next day, and Teppei walked me back to the station so I could visit another apartment across town. On our way down the staircase I asked him how old the building was. During my apartment search, I had done a few internet searches and discovered that buildings over fifteen years old were built under a different code and therefore less sturdy and reliable during larger earthquakes.

“Hmm. I wonder,” he said. “Pretty old, I think.”

On the train, I worried about the building. If “the big one” ever hit Tokyo, it would probably crumple in on itself. It was only a two story building, though, so I thought I might land on top of everything. Besides, the roommates seemed so perfect.

The other apartment was on the seventh floor of a nice new modern building. The room had large closets, and the kitchen was spacious. And it seemed sturdy. It would have cost me about two-hundred dollars more per month to live there.

As we walked through the apartment, the one roommate, a Japanese man in his late thirties, whispered to me, “The other roommate”—he thumbed at the closed door—“he’s a new-half.” He used the loanwords that had recently come into use to describe transsexuals and transvestites.

The one roommate used the living room as a bedroom, and the kitchen was a shared space. A balcony looked out onto a neighborhood that was even less exciting than the residential area I’d stayed in the night before: tall office buildings surrounded the immediate vicinity. The neighborhood was all on a small island in Tokyo Bay. As I looked out, I realized that if the big one ever did hit, the island itself might just dissolve into the bay; much of the Tokyo coastline is made of reclaimed land and is therefore susceptible to liquefaction. A few days later I texted Teppei and asked to live in the affectionately termed Tori House, or, Chicken House.

 

8.

In the end, the location and the apartment didn’t matter: I left Tokyo after two years in the summer of 2010. I was wounded when my exaggerated expectations of a long distance relationship didn’t work out, but Tokyo itself was intact, and so was Tori House. When I moved into the apartment, I bought a slim futon and every morning I hung it on a bar that stretched across the room to free up space on the floor. We were close to the bullet train tracks, and as I napped on weekend afternoons, sometimes the shaking from the tracks felt like a phantom earthquake. The only real disaster that happened was an October typhoon that delayed my morning commute a few hours.

Things in New Orleans were strange. It was the summer of the BP oil spill. The local Gulf oysters had been replaced with smaller imports from Maine. Beaches along the Gulf Coast were closed, and I visited Grand Isle with a middle school friend to see the affected area for myself. Large men in golf carts patrolled the beaches, frightening off potential bathers.

I experienced reverse culture shock. I was uncomfortable with central air conditioning; everywhere was frigid. Wearing shoes in houses gave me a visceral feeling of discomfort. But I survived. I went to grad school in the fall and worked on my writing.

Nine months after I moved home, the fourth largest recorded earthquake since 1900 hit off the Pacific Coast of Japan. I was sleeping over twelve hours’ time difference away, just as I had been when Katrina hit New Orleans. It was Mardi Gras vacation, and because the Catholic calendar put the holiday so late in the term, the university where I studied had given us the whole week off in lieu of a spring break. When I woke up, I had an email from a close friend, more of a night owl than myself, saying she was sorry about what happened to Japan.

I quickly checked my Twitter feed and found total chaos, and I tried to piece together what was happening as I went downstairs and turned on the computer and the TV.

It was Saturday. I’d planned to spend the weekend writing, but instead I watched a stream of NHK news on my laptop and followed my friends on Twitter. The whole coast of Fukushima was devastated, and the nuclear plant I’d driven by on numerous occasions, just a few miles south of the town where my ex had lived, was in danger of going critical. One hundred miles to the west, students I’d taught had been at school for graduation when the quake hit, and now they had to worry about power outages in the cold of winter. It snowed on the coast and in the mountains that day. Every few hours, aftershocks hit, and the shaking didn’t go away for a while.

In New Orleans, I wasn’t as isolated or distant as I’d been in the countryside, but on that day it felt no different.

 

9.

During my second year in grad school, I started teaching one section of freshman composition. I made mistakes my first semester teaching and corrected some but not all of them the second semester.

During that second semester I ran into my AP US History teacher from high school. She’d been a firebrand young teacher when I took her class, and she was one of the first teachers that challenged me. Up until her class, I remember naively believing that anyone could achieve anything as long as they worked hard enough.

“Not true,” she’d said. “Some of you are more privileged, some of you are more gifted than others.”

I was on the debate team and thought that I could argue about anything, but that shut me up for a while. In addition to the textbook, we read chapters from Howard Zinn and other copies she made from college-level texts. I hadn’t made A’s in her class, but I did get a five on the AP and eventually asked her to write me a letter of recommendation for college.

It had been close to ten years since I’d seen her at my brother David’s high school graduation and seven years since Katrina. The day I ran into her, I had biked over to the Fly, a batture area next to the Mississippi that is full of grassy space where elementary schoolers play league ball and Tulane students sunbathe and drink keg beer.

My teacher was in a gazebo along the river with her daughter. She looked older than she did when she taught me; her short curly hair was streaked with gray, and her eyes looked tired.

“She’s sick,” she said and pointed at her daughter. “So we’re taking the day off.”

I was there to meet a friend and drink beer, so we made plans to get in touch and get coffee later, which we did. We met over coffee and talked about teaching, and eventually we got to what people from New Orleans always get to at some point when they’re catching up: Katrina.

“I feel like I’m missing that badge of honor,” I said. I hadn’t had the chance to help out with anything at all, nor had I gone through it. Same with the earthquake and tsunami, although I had found a way to volunteer my time in Japan and to raise money for rebuilding efforts; there was some benefit to being in a city.

“You don’t want it,” she said. “Trust me.” She smiled and ran a hand through her hair. “There are some days when I can still see it in people, just below the surface of the skin, and you think that they’re going to just break down and cry. If you don’t have to have it, you don’t want it.”

Daniel Morales is enrolled in the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. His writing has been published in The Threepenny Review, The Japan Times, the web journal Neojaponisme, and elsewhere. He blogs about Japanese at How to Japanese and about Kickstarter at Kick What?. He will also be blogging for Ploughshares in 2013.