Mister asked me to see Jane Birkin. She’s an English actress who was famous for being a French singer and the lover of Serge Gainsbourg. I was delighted because every time I hear Je T’aime,…Moi Non Plus, I swear I lose my breath. We arrived at the Portage Theater and headed for our seats. It was quite a thrill for me as Mister and I very rarely break away from our routines to enjoy a live music show. It was exciting not only to go to the show, but I felt blushy because I loved the idea that Mister acted on a request that I’ve had to do more of “these kind of things.”
As we settled into the Portage Theater, the lights dimmed and a band of four Japanese musicians took stage. After a short musical interlude, a woman appeared dressed in a over-sized white dress shirt that billowed around her thin body with just one too many buttons unbuttoned. In one hand, she held a microphone and slipped her other hand into the pocket of her pleated black slacks. As her red lips moved away from her bright white teeth, French lyrics jauntily came out of her mouth and spread wildly throughout the room. Her short light brown bouncy curls hit her face while she sang and bobbed her head. I couldn’t be happier.
Birkin sang a number of songs, until she felt it was time to properly address the audience. Unbeknownst to me, she was touring to raise funds for the victims of the tragedy that rocked Japan earlier this year. She already had my attention through the music, but now she was grasping my heart. When she began singing again, all my memories of the island came rushing to me. Without warning, I cried so hard that I thought I would drown in my tears.
In February of this year, I had the good fortune to live in Tokyo for thirty days through a Rotary International Professional Group Study Exchange. The Tokyo team that hosted us was attentive, considerate, and ardent. We spent our mornings eating lavish traditional Japanese breakfasts. We spent our afternoons giving presentations and going on tours. During weekends, our Japanese counterparts took us on adventures that included pirate ships, ropeways, and even monkeys that attacked us for our soba noodles. Evenings were filled by sake, sochu, Asahi beer, and endless amounts of delicious yummy eats.
We spoke in broken English, which reminded me of growing up with my mom. For some reason, when Americans speak to people who don’t understand us, we get louder and speak slower. When a foreigner looks at us perplexed by our reaction, we make hulking hand gestures and continue yelling as if the volume made a difference. Whether it was the goofiness of our attempts to communicate or the joy of finally understanding what was trying to be expressed, this game of charades brought us together. We became friends.
We were scheduled to leave on March 12th, the day after the tsunami and earthquake hit. I made a promise to my team and myself that I would always talk about the trip itself and try to divert the story to exclude the earthquake we experienced and the tsunami others experienced later that day. We didn’t want to turn our trip to Tokyo into a horror story rather than the wonderful trip it had been for so many days before.
As I sat in the Portage, sobbing, I realized I needed to write about this. I mean, I needed to not write about the tsunami or the earthquake. I needed to write about my reaction to it all. Prior to the earthquake, I already felt changed as a person. Something in me shifted because of my experience there, my exposure, and the relationships I created. It was clear that I could not come back the same person no matter how the trip ended. I was sad to leave but excited to come home and share the new things I could now see.
As I stood in the hotel as it was shaking from the earthquake, I felt frightened and nervous. I don’t think I ever thought I was going to die or get hurt. Either way, I couldn’t focus on it because I wanted to keep my head. People were crying. Hotel staff was twittering about. During the pauses in the earthly shakes, my friend and I would make jokes about each other. We both had ran from our rooms to the lobby donning bathrobes with nothing underneath. I wore running shoes and she had her vinyl red clutch purse.
As the earthquake progressed and more news came to us, our hosts and team members started calling their loved ones concerned about their fate. I, on the other hand, wanted to make sure not to worry anyone until I knew that my situation was serious. This is the kind of reaction you have when you’ve been raised by a stoic Asian mom. I imagined the phone call between her and I would be like this,”Mom – Hey, Mom? Sorry to wake you, but there’s been an major earthquake in Tokyo.”
Mom: Ohhhhh….Risa, where you?
Me: In Tokyo, Mom, I’m in Tokyo. Remember I’ve been gone for a month? Anyway, there’s been a terrible earthquake.
Mom: OH! You ok?
Me: Yes. I’m fine.
Mom: Oh…then why you no carr me tomorrow when I wake? Why you carr now? (BIG SIGH)
So, I opted not to call anyone. It was getting late at the hotel. There were piles of people huddled all over the place drinking tea, eating the snacks they found in their bags or pockets, and speaking in Japanese, a language I have yet to master. A television was in the lobby of the lower level where members of my team and several Japanese gathered. By the looks on their faces and the intensity of their whispers, I knew I couldn’t look. If I looked I would fall apart.
I slept like a baby the night of the earthquake, but my two roommates weren’t so fortunate. The next morning, it turned out my mother was worried for me and trying to get in touch with Mister in Chicago to find out if I was alive. After some hubbub, many phone calls, and several onigiri later, we ventured to the airport in hopes to get back to Chicago. Exhausted, I immediately took the first seat on the bus. My friend who had the purse sat across from me. We both laid our heads on our respective windows in hopes to disappear from the world for a moment. Our other teammates and Japanese hosts were buzzing in the back of the bus. They discussed what had happened and the results of the tsunami, when one of them said, “The whole town is just gone.”
I looked at my friend across the isle and she at me. Tears came to our eyes, but there was nothing to say. So, we both laid our heads down again and stared out of the window in silence. How could that be? Those poor people were simply swallowed by the universe? Gone. I just kept rolling that word around in my head. Gone. Gone. The word flipped and circled in my brain until the only thing I could do was try to sleep. Gone.
We were the first plane to land from Japan. Reporters from all the major news stations came running toward us. Someone from NBC shoved a microphone in my face and said, “Did you just arrive from Japan?” Jet lagged and eager to see my family, I sighed and said, “Are you kidding?” Then, I pushed my way past him and fell into the arms of my family.
Mister and the Girls took me to one of my favorite spots that night for a martini and a burger. I was so happy to be home that I thought I might be dreaming. I ordered my martini up with a twist (no vermouth) and asked for a burger medium rare. The girls asked me a million questions about my trip. The Mister squeezed my hand and listened quietly. The waiter put down my burger. I cut it into quarters, which I never do, began to pick it up and something shifted. I felt like someone took a spoon and scooped out my insides. My chest caved and my shoulders hunched over my dinner plate as I stopped breathing because my tears where choking me. Everything around me disappeared and that word laid itself across my soul. Gone.
After leaving the restaurant, I came home and turned on the television. For the first time, I was faced with rolling images, such as these:
It didn’t stop. The images, the scenes kept coming. Everywhere I went, everything I heard and saw was about the destruction of a world and culture I had just come to love. I felt guilty that I had the good fortune to leave Japan while others were being completely wiped off the face of the earth. At the time, I didn’t know what would become of the friends we made in Japan. For weeks after, I kept hearing about the turmoil and possibilities of more loss. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. With one swipe of a mad and hungry wave whole families had just disappeared.
When I came back to work, acquaintances I had hardly knew, called my office in morbid excitement to get the details of my trip because it ended in a horror that was thrust upon Japan and its people. All I could think, but not say out of fear of being considered impolite, was “You are a dirty horrible person. You want a story to tell over dinner about someone you knew who was ‘there’. People have died. People have drowned. People have burned. People are now wandering around without homes, clothing, food or jobs. People are mourning. There are people who could possibly still die. And you call me to get a little taste of that pain? You disgusting wolfish shameless monster. How dare you?”
Instead, I would say, “Thanks, I appreciate the call.” My office became unbearable because I had to discuss garbage collection while Japan was on the brink of nuclear disaster.
I know that some truly cared. I do. People who loved me and were happy to know that I was safe. But, I was angry. I’m not even sure why. In Japan, my hotel rocked back and forth and I was very scared, but nothing happened to me. But, something did happen to me. The realization of how small you are in this world is rather shocking. Then, to realize not only are you small, but all that you know can be taken away with one movement is devastating. Guilt took over me because I couldn’t do anything here. I felt guiltier because I couldn’t do anything there, either. I had become useless and some days I still feel that way, like a walking carcass with no purpose and little meaning.
Like anything else, the days go by and it gets easier. Though I started to drive these images from the present to the past, I still feel it around me everyday, hanging like a heavy cloak around my shoulders. Seeing Jane Birkin was a reminder that I still live in great sadness for the Japanese. It’s not just for them, it’s also for the residents of New Orleans or the Haitians. It’s for anyone who’s lost anyone through situations out of their control. There are days were I cry uncontrollably because there is nothing that I can do to stop the suffering and madness of the atrocities that I read about daily.
Then, I think, there must be at least one thing I can do, just one. I can’t save lives or stop a tsunami, but maybe for the time that I am with those I love or with strangers that I do not know, I can do something very small. I can show compassion and share the love that seems to flow out of my heart endlessly. I can find a cause and volunteer. I can offer assistance to someone without expecting anything in return. I can make one more person laugh out loud. I can make someone less lonely by actually calling to say hello instead of texting it. I know these are small things. I know it won’t stop the floods from coming. For the time being, though, maybe it makes life a little nicer for everyone before we’re all gone. And that’s worth something, isn’t it?