Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dark days

It was my five year anniversary with Japan the week of 3/11, and what a show she put on for the occasion. I wonder what all the Iwasherefirst-gaijin think of the mass exodus of "flyjin." I suspect they are tickled pink, feeling as if this disaster has really separated the worthy from the unworthy. Because of course the gaijin community here needs yet another line along which to divide itself. (And it goes without saying that you only deserve to be here as a foreigner if you can carry on per usual with your chin up while the country is embroiled in a large-scale disaster.)

I have been trying to reconcile my guilt for leaving my home in its hour of need to go ahead with rather timely travel plans booked months ago. Yes, home. Tokyo will not be my home forever and while I may not appear to be her most likely resident, I am one. I have a healthcare plan here, an employer, shitloads of taxes to pay, an apartment lease, a vehicle (albeit small, two-wheeled, and pink), bank accounts and credit cards, a very expensive kimono, a secretary who drives me crazy and of course, what for all intents and purposes is family. It was not exactly a viable option for me to just up and leave, although I certainly can't begrudge those who have. I did, however, have a ticket out for a few days, which I decided to use after much pillow biting, if only to restore a measure of my sanity that had seemed to evaporate all at once when I was sent home early from work one day with no assurance that it wasn't because they thought we were destined for a major nuclear disaster.

You never think it will happen to you, but you should. (Morbidly enough, this sentiment put me in mind of a self-defense class in high school where the instructors told us to assume we would be raped at some point.) The sheer number of people who have contacted my family, from mildly estranged relatives to the woman who runs the Italian grocer we always shop at, was so humbling it physically hurt, causing my throat to squeeze up and tears to quiver in place, threatening to spill over as I read another email from my mom telling me who had called that day. Would I have done the same? I always tell myself that I am so disconnected from everything and everyone when in fact, there are a lot of people looking out for me. I will try to be better, but I still can't promise much improvement from the shockingly rude inner dialogue that seems to flow of its own accord when I am here at home in Tokyo. I haven't verbally assaulted anyone recently, so maybe my temper has been tempered.

I count myself extremely lucky to have had very few brushes with real fear in my years until now. Vastly different from millions of others on this earth, if I were to pinpoint the times when I've feared for anything close to my life, it would have to be a couple adventurous family vacations in New Zealand involving a lake and later, a volcanic mountain (when I mention this to my family, they are surprised that I felt so "strongly" about the whole thing, so maybe memories change).

Sometime around midday some days into the tragedy, the Kaisha suddenly sent out an email ordering us all home within the next hour, citing vague reasons. When they finally got it together to send out an English translation, some poor soul had thought to translate this vagueness into "one of the reactors has broken." Well then. The secretaries started tittering and one particularly panic-stricken co-worker informed me that his wife had already spotted the radioactive cloud creeping over Chiba from one of the plant explosions. Well then.

Up until this point, it had been a bleak few days, with the news on during all waking hours, reports of friends leaving just beginning to filter in, and the overwhelming sense that I no longer had any interest in a trip I had so looked forward to only days before. The initial days of work after the earthquake went by, with my concentration at an all time low and one eye on news websites and a couple tweeters who seemed to have overwhelmingly good sense. I felt like if I went on my trip, I wouldn't be able to keep an eye on things at home, as if my watching it unfold would somehow make it better. As a co-worker and I walked to the station together that day, my until-then calm began to swell into a thick panic. He stopped to buy a face mask and insisted we take the closest underground passage, thus limiting our exposure outside. Was this really happening? Across the globe and 24 years ago when I was little, my parents staged demonstrations against nuclear energy and now here I was in Japan of all places on the edge of a nuclear crisis.

Parting ways at the station was horrible. Co-worker indicated that he would be moving his family out of the Kanto area and implored me to do the same. We shook hands and he held on too long in that this-is-goodbye-too-much-eye-contact way and I started to get choked up. What the fuck, I know. I was there. The dark edges of panic started to creep to my peripheral when I got home and saw the beau. Nevertheless, I thought, even though there is no immediate reason for us to leave Tokyo, let's just head south for a couple days to put some distance between us and the situation. I would much rather leave and feel like an over reactive idiot on the way home than stay and realize we should have left and now ohmygod we can't. I couldn't even get over the roadblock in my imagination where we would actually have to leave Tokyo - for that would mean everyone else would have to leave Tokyo - and how exactly do you propose we evacuate 13 million people? That's what I thought. It's so unthinkable it almost makes me giggle, except I wasn't laughing, I was fucking petrified.

After a little half-hearted begging on my part, I realized the beau was not to be convinced that we should leave Tokyo, and in case there was any question, by god, I'm going to work tonight. I considered working myself into a hysterical fit and throwing myself in his path on his way out the door, but inherently understood that that would be a futile endeavour as well. Besides, I had to save some of the ugly crying for later. Which I did. That afternoon I began a Skype marathon so that it felt like for the next 72 hours I was always on with someone. First order of business: break down in front of my parents and wail and snuffle about how the beau wouldn't budge. Never one to care whether I marry or not, my dad gave me permission to relate to the beau that going somewhere with me would be looked upon as a personal favour to him and would weigh heavily in the scales when it came time to give our official union his blessing. Nice sentiment but I knew the beau would see through it. Friends called asking for advice I was not qualified to give, and I knew not what to tell them. My brother who is busy getting through school and his own life even seemed worried, and made sure to keep more in touch than he had as of late.

I was told work would continue on as normal bar any further developments and I stopped going in. I couldn't. How could I possibly give my all to work when there was news to be closely watched and hands to be wrung. Evenings were spent alone keeping vigilent watch over the TV and trying to intersperse that with some mind-numbing shows from the States. There were none of those variety shows or close-ups of steaming food on TV, it was news 24 hours across the channels (as an aside, I would recommend turning off the TV before starting to have sexy times). I began to watch Twitter for the first time ever, finding a few people to act as my guiding lights. Personal hygiene went down the tubes and I tried to drum up an appetite (this was a personal first).

I appealed to the beau's mom, thinking she might hear my desire to leave Tokyo for a few days and command the beau into action. No such luck - she basically intoned that if there was a large-scale meltdown, we would all be fucked anyway. I know my parents were worried but they did a pretty good job of not telling me to come home, only that they would take care of us if we did need to leave. At one point my dad suggested I at least get stuff packed up and ready in the event we did need to leave but as I looked around the apartment, the possibility of trying to tie up our life here in 24 hours was was the cool kids call "ridic". I also realized that if we did really have to leave, I would be able to simply take off with a passport and the clothes on my back. All those possessions amassed over the last few years suddenly didn't seem very worth it at all.

The beau would come home in the middle of the night and I would still be up. Sometimes there would be crying and others very calm and practical conversations. He told me to go ahead with the trip because even if it did come to leaving, he would be able to get out faster on his own. We talked contingency plans and meeting in places like Hokkaido and Korea. I slowly came to understand that me leaving for Osaka for a few days would do nothing if it got really bad and furthermore, it was much cheaper to go on the planned trip. I finally decided 24 hours before we were scheduled to leave that I would in fact, leave. I was devastated to be departing without the beau but there was no moving him, not even further south. Rather than remain in Tokyo with fear giving me the trots daily and a never ending haggard appearance on Skype, it seemed best to get some distance, if only for a small piece of mind.

As soon as I set the ball in motion, I started to get all my affairs in order, as they say. Halted preparation for the trip aside, I set up an email and Skype account for the beau and wrote out a page-long information sheet with passwords, addresses, and numbers, and laid his passport on top. A small suitcase was placed nearby. On my last night here, I was up as usual when the beau got home and we sat around with some wine until it got light. I was seeing it get light a lot those days and even after only three hours sleep I would be upright ready to take in more bad news.

The beau kept reassuring me that by the time I got back from "vacation," the reactor situation would be under control. I made him promise to bolt at the smallest sign of something bigger. As the elevator opened I managed to hold it together as we said goodbye and only after the doors had closed on the brown door to our life together, did my face get hot and my eyes wet.


kathrynoh said...

It is hard when there is really no one who knows what's going on. I also have this huge fear that everyone would be leaving Tokyo at the same time and it would be like a scene from a disaster movie, with blocked roads and people camping out at the train stations.

Generic Jen B said...

I was really surprised too at the number of vague aquaintances who directly or indirectly asked about how I was doing; I think that it was such a big deal for everyone a couple of months ago, outside of Japan too, that it probably made things a bit more "exciting" to go to work and say "I know someone in Japan!". Brings you closer to source of heat.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Kathryn: indeed. I can hardly blame people who took off. I was in that I could understand the basics from the news and would get the beau to explain the rest. For people who can't understand the local media and have no one to break it down, you can't help but rely on the overseas media. Plus I feel many foreigners innately mistrust what the government is telling us, and I don't think it a bad thing to question information we are given.

Jen: I felt the same. For most I know it was genuine concern but horrible as it is, it seemed like some people liked being able to say "I have a friend in the middle of the crisis in Japan"...guess that's the way it goes with tragedies

Clara said...

Thanks so much for sharing how you experienced post 3-11!

Anonymous said...

No offence, but are we really calling this 3-11 now? Geeeez.
I really enjoyed your post and certainly identified with your feelings towards packing up your life in Japan. I ended up leaving, too - baby under one arm and a duffel bag in the other. I couldn't have cared less for material things I left behind, as long as my family was safe.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Kathryn: "I was LUCKY in that"...I should stop replying to comments with a phone in one hand and a drink in the other :)

Clara: Thanks for reading! I started this post as it was happening and should have finished it then as it seems to have run away from me a bit :)

Poppy: Thanks for reading! I think I have seen "3-11" used by the Japanese media as well as by Japanese individuals. If the connotation with 911 bothers you, maybe say out "March eleventh" when you see it?