Wandering Seoul and Toeing the DMZ

This trip was full of adventures for many reasons besides the fact that Seoul is the second largest metropolis in the world (to Tokyo--w00t!). First, I've become a bit of a country bumpkin in the small town of Taira, Iwaki in Fukushima, Japan--everything from the palaces to the coffee shops, stylish boutiques, street food, diversity of street swellers, tourists, and businessmen amused and amazed me. Second, it was my first time in an full-fledged, honest-to-goodness backpackers hostel, complete with the multilingual young travelers from all over the world, communal bathrooms and living spaces, and co-ed bunk bed dorm rooms.


The Great Tohoku Earthquake, Two Years Later, and Me

Japan's flags are at half mast today.

Two years ago, on March 11, 2011, I heard about the horrible disaster that struck Japan. I was so horrified about the news that for two days, I couldn't bring myself to turn on the TV or read any articles about the disaster. I didn't know why hearing about this earthquake, tsunami, and breakdown of nuclear power plants struck me the way that it did. Perhaps it was because it happened to my birth country. Perhaps it was because I feared for the safety of my dad, mom, and sister, who were all overseas at the time. Or perhaps I felt a particular pang in my gut because by a strange twist of fate, I would end up in the very place where this disaster struck only a year and a few months later.

I live in Fukushima, one of the prefectures affected by the great earthquake, the devastating tsunami, and the radiation that continues to leak throughout the area. All of my coworkers were here during the great earthquake. They all have stories of taking shelter in the school, taking care of students, with nothing but blankets, rice, cups of noodles, and limited water, for five days. They have stories of abandoning their homes and having to start over. Other students have stories of losing loved after they became trapped under fallen buildings or got swept away by the ocean.

Many of my foreigner friends were also here during that time. During those confusing days, they didn't know if they should stay, continue to go to work, and help their neighbors, if they should flee to Tokyo, or if they should flee the country. Afterwards, they didn't know if it was more important (more right?) to come back or to take care of themselves and stay away from Japan.

By forces I still cannot understand--perhaps because I wasn't here myself or because I am a foreigner and forever outside of the deep love, nationalism, compassion, and work ethic of the Japanese people--Japan continue to recover from its damage and loss from two years ago.

What part do I play by being here now?

I am trying to help in bringing a sense of things returning to normal for my students. The number of foreigners has dropped greatly since the disaster; last year, my students did not have a foreigner English teacher. I listen to others share their stories; I hope that with every retelling, they're able to heal a little bit more and come to grips with the aftermath of the earthquake. Tourism in Tohoku has dropped and many businesses have been forced to close; I hope to send the message abroad that life persists here in Tohoku, that this area shall not be abandoned for forgotten. I hope to learn from my neighbors' fortitude in rebuilding their lives that were swept away in an instant. I want to remember that big events happen to us and can throw us for a loop no matter how much we try to plan and how many precautions we take--at which point, there's little more we can do than deal with the consequences one day at a time. I'm here in Fukushima despite many friends and family members' warnings and pleas not to come here. I didn't necessarily think that I could do anything big here to change anyone's life, but I did know that no matter where in the world I go, I can't foresee grand events or disastrous events. I was given an opportunity to come work in a new environment--a place that would offer more personal growth than I've ever experienced--so I took it. I'm glad I took it. I'm glad that I'm here.

Indeed, I have met people who inspire me with the obstacles they've overcome, their attitude, and their lifestyles. I am learning to look at my own life with a different perspectives--both because I live in a foreign
country and because tragedy is so fresh here.