As there are continuous waves of earthquakes these days, I would like to recount my experience during the earthquake of 2011 in Japan.
I have a confession to make. The particular view I hold on certain people or objects literally last forever. One of the strongest and the most negative bias I had was towards the Japanese people. It is not because of the sad history that Korea and Japan went through few decades ago; I just simply disliked them. The smile that prevails through my chubby face was actually upside down when I was living in Japan. I always complained that I had to live with the human species that I disliked the most, and blamed my father for being in Japan to work. However, my bias towards Japanese people was totally reversed when I experienced the world’s biggest earthquake, Tohoku Earthquake. No clue had I ever had at that moment that this life-threatening earthquake would also shake my life up and down.
The primary reason to my negative view towards Japanese people is their appearances. Their eyes are matt black that I can’t perceive anything out of it, and their mouth draws a straight line without any sign of emotion. On my way to school, the busy pedestrians looked down and avoided any eye contact as if they had something to hide. Once, I conducted my own experiment to see how they would react if I were to smile at them. The reaction was as boring as they themselves were. They just simply stared at me, and some of them made a face that said ‘Are you crazy?’ However, within few seconds, all of them walked by with their own robotic posture as if nothing had happened. When I arrived at school, my first period Japanese teacher greeted me with mechanic, monotone voice that was far from euphonious. His inhumanly stable voice blocked the students from guessing what mood he was in that particular day. From their physical traits, I came up with a hasty conclusion that they were heartless robots, and restrained interaction as much as possible.
March 11th of year 2011 was just an ordinary day. Even though winter’s harshness hadn’t completely gone away, the delicate scent of flower permeated through the air as if it was foreshadowing spring’s arrival. I clearly recall that I had an English presentation that day. I also remember that my presentation had left my English teacher’s mouth agape with confusion with frowns that came afterwards which made her wrinkles thicken and double in number. Her expression was so memorable in a way that it is so deeply engraved in my mind. This was due all to my adventurous mind to start making the slides at 4AM. Therefore, due to my complete lack of sleep, I was yearning for the end of the school hour. Since pass or fail choir was my last class at school, I completely relaxed, and let the atmosphere absorb my body. My mind had already gotten on the train back to home, and my body just had to follow along after this class. However, since I am a dedicated student, I moved my mouth up and down show the minimal effort.
While I was constantly moving my mouth at the state of complete relaxation, my friend suddenly muttered “I feel something” I, too lazy to even respond, pretended I couldn’t hear her. Then, she tapped my shoulder and said “Don’t you feel it?” I answered “No, do you?” and she said “Yes, it’s getting bigger.” Out of blue, students around me started to mumble and question what was going on. The meager trembling became bigger and bigger that I, the numbest person on earth, could even feel its growing amplitude. Then, it went to the point where the whole earth began to shake fiercely. The euphonious harmony of our choir abruptly transformed to shrieks as the ruthless trembling reached its climax. It was as if the chapel floor was on its anger catharsis. The floor roared like a hungry beast and furiously moved back and forth as if it was searching for its prey. The trembling was so intense that this was the first time I actually thought I might die. The violent trembling made me kneel down to along with the floor’s fury. The hands that supported my entire body from kissing the floor weren’t stable enough to help me stand up. The artworks in our school chapel fell helplessly, and the generous face of Jesus tilted as if He was wondering what was going on. Everyone was frozen in place, paralyzed with fear. As the entire floor continued on with its cruel dance, several people screamed their supposed-to-be last prayers. Some people collapsed and embraced their heads with shaky hands. I, unsure of what to do and how to react to such situation, just stood there, unable to move. My mind was completely blank and colorless. Unable to process my thoughts, I just kept on asking myself “What’s going on?” This earthquake ceased within few minutes, while a normal earthquake only lasts for few seconds, and the screaming became less frequent as time passed.
When the overall atmosphere seemed to be sedated, the principle gave a concise announcement about what to do. First of all, we had to gather our belongings to leave the main building in case of possible earthquakes. Secondly, we all had to swiftly move to the gym to prepare ourselves for the night. All the trains and subways had stopped, and long-awaited buses never arrived at the station. However, the school decided that it didn’t want the students to spend the night in the gym. It almost forcefully ordered the students to find the place to stay. Fortunately, I had a friend who lived about five minutes away from school. She kindly offered me a place to stay. Even though I yearned to stay with my younger siblings, they were taken to their homeroom teachers’ house for better protection. After I made sure that they were receiving decent protection, my friend and I headed to her house.
Five minutes felt like five years while I was walking to her house. Even though it was already March, arrogant coldness engulfed our helpless selves without any mercy. The sharp howling of the wind sung its own melody as if it was scorning our grief. The knives of coldness attacked every single part of our body, and we reacted like helpless infants. The abysmal situation got even worse when my friend groped her pocket for her key and quietly muttered “I think I left it at my home.”
Therefore, we had no other choice than to shiver with cold on the apartment’s hallway. By then, we were joking and talking about how we could be the first victims of apocalypse and become famous. However, my mother who had continuously taken contacts with me through Kakaotalk suddenly called me. I took the call without much thought, but my mother’s voice was trembling so much that I could barely hear her. After several attempts, I could hear her mumbling “KyuYoun…I didn’t tell you about this because you might have been shocked, but now I have to tell you. Your father is at the epicenter of the earthquake, and I can’t contact him.”
My brain, which had previously refused to process the situation, suddenly started to function. The reality struck me like a grandiose tsunami, and my helpless mind was swallowed by its vigor. Tears gushed out of my mind like a fountain all out of blue. The times I spent with my father since childhood that played in front of my eyes like a fast-played videotape. I immediately hung on, and called my father. My attempt was futile; no matter how much I pressed the dial button, only the recorded voice of the phone-company lady answered me. Bunch of thoughts mingled inside my head. ‘What should I do? Why is this disaster happening to me? Will I ever meet my father again?’ My tears didn’t stop, and I wailed louder and louder as time passed. My friend didn’t know what to do, and tears started to fall on her cheek as well.
After an hour since we arrived at the apartment, this tall man who looked as if he was a college student, came out of his house which was right next next doors. The mustache was a bit unshaved, and his hair was so messy it seemed as if he had just woken up. His eyes were matt black as those of other Japanese people were, but I saw it waver a little bit when he saw us. His eyes encompassed the feeling of confusion and pity, and I was actually surprised that such emotion could be shown from the eyes of a Japanese person. However, within few seconds, he ignored us and got on the elevator. His complete disinterest in us made me think what I sensed was a delusion. I thought ‘Right, there’s no way he would ever feel anything for us.’
Time passed by as if every second was a year. I slowly decided to give up on my life. All the dreams I had, all the hopes I held on to, and all the things I had yearned for after graduation. Ordinary life never seemed to come back to me after this disastrous incident. While I was on the verge of complete despondency, a suspicious shadow approached us. Putting on our guards, we looked up to see who the stranger was. When we saw the man’s face, we both sensed the warmth on his face even though he was expressionless like typical Japanese people. Without a word, he handed each of us hot drinks and warm meals. While we were astonished with our mouth agape, he went into to his house.
I regretted that fact that I couldn’t say a word of appreciation. Few months later, I visited my friend’s apartment to look for him, but when we went, he had already moved. I blamed my friend for not paying attention to her neighbors, but she kept on arguing that nobody else noticed that he moved. This unknown man whose face is slowly fading from my memory is nowhere to be found anymore, and I feel a deep grief about this fact.
As a Korean living in Japan, I’ve always considered myself a foreigner. Even though I got along considerably well with my Japanese surroundings, I always unconsciously separated myself from them. The invisible wall I built prevented me from fully considering myself as part of the society. However, the warmth I felt from this man’s hands simply melted down the cold barrier that blocked myself from Japanese people. The bias I had that they are innately ‘hypocrites’ and the belief I had that Japanese people would only care about themselves in case of emergency evaporated all together as well. The disastrous Tohoku earthquake was not merely a physical one; the bigger earthquake took place in my heart, in my mind, as a positive one.