Sunday, September 11, 2011

As Tears Go By, 6 months after – Miyagi Volunteer Experience (English)

"As Tears Go By, 6 months after – Miyagi Volunteer Experience"
中文版 - here
日本語 - here

"The Weights in the Hands"

I had heard of the bad smells and hygiene problems in the disaster area.
I finally made my way there in July and saw foods which had been sitting outside for the past 4 months, covered with flies and various kinds of bugs, although the smells in some parts of Delhi were even worse when I was there before. (Don’t get me wrong, I love India.)

The volunteer group that I joined arrived in a fishermen’s village near Ishinomaki, Miyagi.

The disaster area was the same as the one I saw on the news.
I didn’t know this place, and I had no personal connections with this village. I didn’t know what it had looked before the tsunami. This was the way it looked now, and it might always have been like this.

Some houses were collapsed, some sunken in the ocean, showing only their triangular roofs.
Beneath the sea surface, a broken and twisted paved road with dashed white lines was showing the way to another world.
In many places, it was difficult to tell the borderline between land and ocean.

Before we arrived at the fishermen’s village, we passed by an area where the clearing was almost done. In front of my eyes was just a wide open area. It was only after I looked more carefully that I could see the endless number of building foundations still there on the ground, spread out across the field to reach the base of mountains in the distance.

Pictures and videos of the disaster area had constantly saddened me since the disaster happened. but as soon as I was physically there, seeing it with my own eyes, that sad feeling was gone. The tears that this scene used to put in my eyes had stopped as well.

I only thought, “It’s finally time to do something for this village.”

I took out the charity postcard that my friends and I have been using to raise money in Tokyo, and stuck it onto my helmet. I thought of the support I had received from them and friends around the world, and I thought of the many stories that happened during that chaotic period of time.

We spent 2 days in this fishermen’s village, cleaning up houses and warehouses.

I didn’t know much about fishermen’s lives. Besides fishing nets and hooks, there were many other tools of their trade that I had no idea what they were.

There were piles of paper trash and bags of powder inside the warehouses. They were still soaked with sea water and weighted like big bags of rice.

We had to use heavy-duty hammers to break up tables and doors so that they could be moved easily.

While we were cleaning one of the houses, I didn’t know for how long, a skinny old lady arrived. She checked into the things that were nicely organized and placed in the front yard, then proceeded to the main house. She sat on the wooden platform/corridor that went like a belt around the house: A place that I, a newcomer, hadn’t noticed – from there, you could see the front yard and the ocean ahead of you.
Her dress and the way she sat fit the house at her back perfectly.

I could never know exactly how she had felt while watching volunteers moving things out from the warehouse, breaking things apart, and tossing them onto the back of a truck.

It’s just my own imagination that there’s where she used to sit while looking at the ocean and fixing fishing nets, watching her husband and family members coming back from fishing, sharing laughter or fighting with them, watching her grandchildren playing the front yard, exchanging gossip with her neighbors.

I kept on thinking what her life must have been like before the tsunami.

During the two days that we were at this fishermen’s village, we continuously found victims’ personal belongings – books, magazines, decorations, clothes, shoes, dishes, chopsticks, spoons, cassette tapes, video tapes, records, laptop computers, etc. etc.

Our hands were unfolding victims’ lives from the debris, unfolding their history.

At one site that I was cleaning at, I found a trophy for a kindergarten child dated "Heisei 18th year" (5 years ago), a couple of children picture books, and toys.
Holding the trophy in my hand, wiping off the sea mud and sand, I thought of images that I really didn’t want to think of.
The only thing I could do was to wish the kid the best of luck, even though I have never met him or her.

At times, I could see other volunteers staring at something they found, and pausing for several seconds.

Everyone’s faces were covered with helmets, goggles, masks. But their feelings were clear through body reactions.

Rocks and stones from broken walls, sea water soaked blankets, futons, and tatamis, they all needed a few people together to move.
In my own hands were personal belongings of numerous victims.
My body and my mind slowly adjusted to the heaviness in this area, the weights from the things that the tsunami had swamped.

Even for the newest items, sea water, mud and sand made them look old.

Standing in the middle of the debris, I didn’t know how I should feel about it.
And when I had time, I could only think of jokes to share with the people around me, or to talk about all these strange looking bugs that the air was filled with.

It may seem strange, but breaking walls and doors, tossing things up to the top of trash mountains, all helped me to get rid of the stress from my everyday life.

My mind used to tangle up every time I thought of this disaster. Throughout this trip, I found myself organizing my tangled mind like separating debris into woods, metals, rocks, plastics, burnable, and unburnable items.

I thought of my body as a great divider and it helped to reset my mind.

"Keeping Others' Memories"

We went to a gym during the last day of my volunteer trip. Our job was to clean up personal belongings found from the debris.

All the personal items were nicely placed in the gym, and they were well categorized – clothes, calligraphy screens, backpacks, hand bags, receipts, certificates, sports equipment, trophies. They were all sitting there waiting for victims to pick up.

Especially pictures, they were enough to cover half the gym.

Pictures of family gatherings, weddings, graduations. Probably because pictures of recent days were all digital, the hairstyles and fashions in almost all the pictures were from the 70s and 80s.

My job that day was to clean up backpacks and hand bags. Volunteers used brushes and toothbrushes to remove mud and sand from the items. Almost all the bags were emptied. Only on a few occasions, did money or IDs come out from the bags. If that did happen, the team leader would copy the names on the IDs onto a piece of paper. He would then wrap it around the straps.

There was another group of people cleaning pictures in a pool of water, rubbing dirt off with their fingers.

We did our cleaning work outside the gym, only going inside when we finished cleaning one bag and went to grab another one.

Just by chance, one time when I was inside the gym, I saw an old lady going through piles of pictures, looking through one picture after another one with a magnifying glass.

Then I heard her saying, “Oh…! This…! This is mine!” She then held the pictures against her chest with both hands. Her eyes went half open half closed. She continued in a lower voice with a smile on her face, ”Thanks. Thanks a lot.”

She kept smiling while rubbing tears off from one corner of her eye.

There were tears for having lost something important that could never be replaced.

There were tears for having found the important things that she had thought were lost forever.

At that moment, I thought I began to understand what all the work was for.

Before we took off from Tokyo, in a conversation I had with another leader, I heard, “In Japan, the way to clean up a disaster area is to use our hands, to dig into the debris and find things that may be important to victims. If we use only machines to quickly move everything away, everything would then be destroyed. Victims would then have absolutely nothing left.”

Victims’ memories were buried under the debris. Their treasures were there under the debris.

I was lucky enough to be able to see the lady’s smile. I was there for only 3 days but understand the meaning of this trip.

Whenever a natural disaster happened before, the earthquakes in Sichuan and Haiti, the flooding in Katrina, I had just made some donations and continue my own life.

But the day when this earthquake happened, it was strong and long enough that I was on my knees at my place, holding onto the door arches. My mind went blank. Then there was the continuous sadness from watching what happened in Tohoku and the fear from Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis. I saw many tears of others and my own. Watching all these, I felt as if I was being forced to read a book with missing pages. I couldn’t understand what it all meant. There were times I wanted to put down this book. But I thought to myself: this was an essential lesson for me. I chose to keep reading and started looking for the missing pages.

It was a conscious effort to control my emotions and worries over the past months since the quake happened. I kept doing different things, hoping I could find the answer. I patiently waited for the chance to come to Tohoku.

On my way from Tokyo to Miyagi, road signs of Fukushima, Souma, Miyagi, (names of places that I didn’t know of until after this triple disaster) showed up one after another on the window of my bus. When our bus finally arrived in Ishinomaki, it was as if I finally reached the black hole deep inside my heart.

I still couldn’t fully understand what I have learned from this volunteer trip. But I could see the missing pages slowly surfacing.

I came to Tohoku for myself.

And after the trip, I found myself looking at this disaster memory more directly than before.

“Thanks,”Something I wanted to say to the old lady I saw in the gym. Her smile brought me courage.

I could never imagine what she had gone through since the tsunami.

"To the Next Japan"

One day during the volunteer trip, at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a 5.5 earthquake happened. Everyone had to go up to the mountain and wait until the “no tsunami warning” notification came.

We went back to the village and were about to pick up our work again. But the officials were afraid that bigger earthquakes could be coming. Everyone had to leave the area.
Volunteers unwillingly stopped their work. No one had come all the way to Miyagi to leave work early.

In the past 2 days, we all knew rest was important especially for this kind of painstaking work. But sitting waiting while watching the debris in front of my eyes, it was a patience test.

For the 2 nights before that day, many of us had been sitting around, drinking, and chatting. But that evening, the time we could do that was a bit too long.

This volunteer trip somehow reminded me of the backpacking days - I was in a very unfamiliar environment, meeting and speaking with people with different backgrounds.

Besides volunteers from all over Japan, there were also a few volunteers from Europe and America.

One of them was Thomas, from Switzerland. He used to be a marketing manager for a travel agency that focused on Japan. But since the earthquake happened, all the Japan tour reservations got cancelled, and there was no new booking since. So he decided to quit his job and starting from August of this year, began to walk all the way down from Hokkaido to Kyushu. He hoped this could help bring positive images and messages to people.

And there was a couple from Denmark, the guy 20, the girl 19.

Also, there was a father and son from America. The boy was only 16 years old.

Everyone was upset by how news from their own countries only showed the negative side of this disaster. And quite often, the reports were irresponsibly exaggerating the situation. But everyone also agreed that’s the reason why the whole world was looking at Japan and brought them over to disaster area to help.

There were many Japanese I met who have done volunteering work more than once.

Mr. Kurihara, a 70 year-old man, who kept on thanking us, a group of foreigners, who came to help. He was also always buying us beer during dinner.

Another woman I talked with was already in her fourth time doing volunteer work. Both of her daughters were now volunteering in a hospital near Fukushima nuclear plant for 3 months.

It took about 7 hours to come back to Tokyo from Miyagi. Since one person’s birthday was nearby, we bought a cake and drinks from a rest area and had a little party on the bus.

While I was in Miyagi, I also found out that a friend of mine was doing volunteer work in Iwate.

There were also many other stories I heard during this trip. The joke that I quite like was, if you translate “Ishinomaki” into English, it could be “Rock and Roll City.” (in Kanjis, “Ishi” is rock, and “Maki” is roll.)

When I was back in Tokyo, I looked at all these random things I had in my sitting room, thinking of their stories and histories. I pictured a scene of volunteers finding my personal items in a big ruin.

Since I came back, I have talked to a couple of friends about this experience ( especially to the people who were originally from Tohoku), they all thanked me for helping their homeland.

I was thankful for their compliments. They made me feel good about myself. But I also understood that, I went to Tohoku just to make myself feel better. And during this trip, I got more than I gave.

Besides, there were many more volunteers who were devoting themselves to helping Tohoku, much harder than I did. There were many more people doing something much more meaningful. What I did was small.

No matter how explosive or eventful the 311 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant crisis were, the most important part of this disaster was the process of Japan standing up again.

I hope Tohoku will get well soon. I will go there again.

Sept 11th, 2011
Tokyo Ebisu

日本.再出発 — 在日港人311地震後感 
by 22 HK people living in Japan
Joint Publishing (HK)

Kachun is one of the 20+ writers of this book for charity


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