Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Where Were You When the Earthquake Hit?

I find it very appropriate that on March 11, 2011 at 2:46 pm, I was sitting in my classroom, awaiting children and reading The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. I only had fifty pages left and I wanted to finish it so I could head to the library on my way home the next day. 

On any other Friday, I would have already been at home by this time or at least, almost there. I usually got off work at 1:30 on Fridays, on account of only having two classes that day and had taken to going on a long walk on my way home. I was working overtime that day, though, due to the fact that one of my coworkers had been hit by a car a few days previous. Looking back, I'm not entirely sure if it's a good thing I was there or not. On the one hand, I wouldn't have had to walk so terribly far but on the other, I had company and could offer a place to go for my friend E, who couldn't get home. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I was the first one to feel the beginning of the earthquake, mainly because I was sitting down. I looked up and glanced at my coworkers, trying to figure out if I was really feeling an earthquake. Earthquakes are not a rare thing in Tokyo and most of us just kind of let them do their thing and move on with life. It wasn't until coworker Y in the other room shouted "Earthquake!" that we all got up and started heading towards reception. We could already tell this earthquake was strange; it had been going on for far too long. We all stood in reception, looking at each other blankly when a construction worker who'd been up on the seventh floor burst into the door and shouted at us in Japanese, "You need to get out of here!"

That's when the dam broke. We all rushed to the doorway, shoving our shoes on unceremoniously as we suddenly realized just how much the building was swaying. I have a distinct memory of trying to decide if I should bring the book that was still in my hands down with me and instead, setting it on top of the shelf. We all ran down the emergency stairs, shrieking as they swayed beneath our feet. Jumping out into the street, the whole picture finally became clear. Each building in our surrounding area had evacuated and we all stood in the street, watching the world around us tilt. Skyscrapers swayed from side to side. Streetlamps made strange noises. The ground, the pavement, felt like a very solid waterbed. 

I'm not sure exactly how long it lasted. It felt like ten minutes but it surely couldn't have been that long. Even when it was over and we all stood, catching our breath, we didn't know quite what to do. Go back inside? Stay outside in case of aftershocks? It turned out the decision was made for us. There were only two ways of getting back into our building: elevator or emergency stairs. The elevator's power had gone out in the quake and the door to the inside from the stairs had slammed shut behind us in the shaking. We were, effectively, trapped outside. 

I was the unluckiest, as I was dressed only in a tee shirt and jeans. I got various clothing donations from people around me, including a scarf from a man that was randomly passing on his bicycle. We all made jokes, strange gallows humor, mainly because no one was quite sure what to do. My friend and coworker E showed up, having come from our other building a ten minute's walk away. That's when we had our first big aftershock. We had been outside for an hour at this point.

Finally, we realized that while we couldn't get to the third floor, we did have a room on the fourth floor with a computer we could maybe reach. Safely in our room from the fourth floor, my coworker H bravely tried to kick down the emergency ladder that would take her to the third floor balcony. We advised her against it but like Spiderwoman herself, she made it in and opened the door to all the things we had left behind in the rush: coats, house keys, cell phones. 

Still not really understanding the severity of everything that had happened, I went on Facebook to inform others that I was indeed still breathing and okay. The only immediate problem was getting home. It was already five o'clock by this point and none of the train lines were running. I lived an hour away from work by train and set out google mapping how to get home on foot. The other two native teachers who were there, D and E, set out with me.

I don't know quite how to describe that walk. Since the train lines were down, every person who had been away from home when the quake hit was in the same boat as us. It felt like an exodus. An endless trudge with every other poor person just wishing they were home. The women in their heels. The old people waiting in miles long lines for the buses. It was bizarre.

D walked half of the way with us while E was coming home with me, her apartment being in the other direction and closer to the ocean. It took us four and a half hours and fifteen miles to get to my apartment. It wasn't until we got back and I talked to my mother on Skype when I realized the extent of what we had just lived through. We hadn't seen any of the destruction on our long walk, only talking and scowling and soreness. When we turned on the television and saw what was going on up in Miyagi, that's when it hit us. 

The next few days are a bit of a haze to me, to be honest. I remember some details perfectly but most of it just sits in my mind as a general feeling of dread, a fear hanging over everything I did. 

I went to work the next day, against my wishes. Although the train lines didn't open up until halfway through the school day, our boss opened school, the only English school open in Tokyo the day after. We got in a fight. I came home and my mother called me on Skype, telling me she and my father wanted me to come home. I wanted to come home. I went to work the next day only to quit. My boss wasn't happy about it. He spent an hour lecturing me, making me cry and making up bullshit reasons why I was making the worst mistake of my life. I only remember sobbing and the sympathetic face of my coworker N who was waiting for me outside. At least I got a few pictures with my Sunday kids before I left teaching in Japan for good.

It takes a lot of effort to leave a country and I had to do everything in three days. I cancelled utilities, moved out of my apartment, donated half of my wardrobe to Salvation Army, and just tried to feed myself in a place where every store had been picked over by panic buying shoppers. I fought an old lady for a box of bento and lost one afternoon. I had to eat ice cream for lunch as it was the only thing left. 

My friends in Japan were supportive. I had two last minute going away parties. I tried to give them things from my apartment that I wouldn't need anymore. I still worry about them, although most did leave Japan for a period right after the worst of it hit. All are back now and I do miss them terribly.

I don't miss the general haze of fear that settled over me those last few days, though. Waking up to the earthquake alarms that go off automatically on all cell phones. Sitting there, shaking and just hoping it would stop soon. Having a giant aftershock while I sat at the airport, an hour before I needed to head to my gate and hoping nothing would happen to the runway so I could just go home already. I know this is rather dramatic but I honestly felt like I could die at any moment. There was an 'end of days' feeling that surrounded everything I did and my heading to the airport on Wednesday was a deadline, a beat the clock idea that stuck in my mind. No one knew what was going to come next. Every day was rumored to be the next big aftershock.

I made it out, obviously and now sit here on my parent's couch, comfortably back in Oregon. I've kept up my good reading habits from Japan and still head to my local library every two weeks or so. I will admit, though, that it's not quite the same. I love the Beaverton City Library but there are just so many options. I miss the surprise of not knowing what I would read next. I miss the random footnotes in half of the editions. Hell, I just miss the Ogikubo Public Library. I hope the next new gaijin in Suginami City discovers the treasure trove that I will always miss.


  1. Breathless. I'm breathless. This post is just so devastatingly beautiful. I was following your status updates (because apparently I'm a stalker) but also because I was thinking about you during that time.

    Amazing post. Just brillant.

  2. Molly,reading this I felt like I could feel the buildings swaying. What an eye witness account. I am so happy things worked out for your return. Looking forward to seeing you soon. Love Grandma