Friday, November 18, 2011

Land of 1000 Aftershocks* - April 2011

The new school year has begun, meaning that many of our old students have graduated, and many new ones have arrived.  It has also meant the loss of many of our teachers.  In Japan (or at least in Sendai) teachers, especially newer ones, only stay at a school for a year or two before being rotated to somewhere different.  We’ve gotten around eight new teachers at my school, including one new English teacher.  He’s replacing the younger two English teachers, who have both left us.

Although I’m sorry to lose the older students, I’m also excited about the new ones.  Many of them come from the elementary schools I visit, so I already know them by sight.  From the classes I had with them last year, I have reason to believe that they have a better English base and much more enthusiasm than last year’s first years did.  I’m hoping that will stand them in good stead as they begin their formal English education, although a part of me is also afraid that as soon their classes start, they will suck all the energy out of them and turn them into mindless, parroting robots.  I’m going to have to work hard to keep that from happening.  I hope the first-year English teacher takes me to his classes a lot.

One Saturday the school had a demonstration day, where parents got to come in and observe their children in class.  It was my first time teaching in a month and a half, and it felt really good to be back.  I’m also starting to make elementary school visits again.  I’ve taken down my colour board, but I haven’t felt motivated enough to replace it with anything.  I’ve also started up my dance club again, although attendance is still really poor.  Towards the end of the month the teachers finally started bringing me to class again.  It’s nice to be back, although I’d forgotten how much I hate dictating.  Clearly none of my teachers had any pedagogical epiphanies over he holiday.

Near the end of the month I went to my first ALT meeting since January.  With only a couple of exceptions it was my first time to see any of the other ALTs since the earthquake.  It was really nice to be able to see people again and reconnect.  Almost all the Sendai ALTs were there; many had stayed in the city, and of those who had left, all but two had returned.  We commiserated with each other a lot, made jokes, and gave feedback about earthquake preparedness.  After the meeting I went out to dinner with the ALT from Singapore and one from Australia.  We spent hours exchanging stories, hashing and re-hashing the earthquake and its aftermath.  It was like group therapy; it gave me a chance to vent a lot of the emotions that had been bottled up inside for weeks.  And I think it was also a bit of a bonding experience.

Now that things are finally a bit more normal, I’ve been looking into opportunities for volunteering in the areas that were hit by the tsunami.  A lot of the ALTs who stayed went to help out in the weeks after the earthquake.  As I was isolated from the rest of the city, I didn’t join in these excursions, but now that it’s easier to get around, I’m thinking I should go and help out some.  After all, when natural disasters strike it usually happens in foreign countries, and the most one can do to help out is to donate money.  It’s not every day one finds oneself right there in the disaster area, able to provide hands-on assistance.

So one morning I dragged myself out to the government office of one of the neighbouring wards.  I missed the morning volunteer call, but in the late morning I was able to join a group that was going to help at a retirement home.  It was my first time venturing into the tsunami hit area.  It was strange: at first glance it didn’t look that bad.  It was only gazing at the landscape for an extended period that I started to notice things: piles of trash lying by the side of the road; a boat sitting forlornly in a field; rusty cars piled awkwardly on top of one another.

Our job at the retirement home was to clear away the rubbish that had washed up against the side of the building.  Most of it seemed to have come from the home itself.  It included clothing, furniture, electronic devices, food, photo albums, and everything else you would expect to find.  Everything got indiscriminatingly thrown into garbage bags and hauled out to the kerb, where it got piled up like an improvised barricade.  Occasionally we did find things that looked like they might have been salvageable: an unopened package of diapers, somebody’s glasses still in their case.  But as far as I could tell none of it got saved; the focus was on getting rid of as much stuff as possible quickly.

I only worked for a couple of hours.  I didn’t arrive until around noon, and the volunteer services have fairly strict rules about volunteers finishing up by about 3:00.  There were a lot of us, though, so we did actually manage to get most of the rubbish cleared away.  Now that I know how to get to the volunteer centre, I guess I should go back there more.

The weather has turned a bit more spring-like, which has done a lot to make me feel more cheerful.  Things still look pretty grey over-all, but the flowers are starting to bloom, and the colour is beginning to come back to the hills around my apartment.  The cherry blossoms around here haven’t been as ubiquitous or impressive as they were in Vancouver, but I did try to get out and enjoy them a little, including going to a park for a “hanami” (flower-viewing) picnic.

I didn’t get a holiday for Easter, but I did have a pretty good Easter Sunday nonetheless.  The nice weather helped.  Even better, it was one of the first days in a long time that I managed to get through without feeling a single aftershock, a sign that the seismic situation is finally improving!  After church I went out to tea with the Australian ALT and then we took a walk down by the river and looked at the cherry blossoms.

My Easter was also brightened by the receiving of several care packages.  In the weeks immediately after the earthquake my mom bought a lot of food and mailed it to me, in case the food situation here failed to improve.  Of course, logically, if Sendai was functional enough to receive post it should have been functional enough to keep its grocery stores stocked, but I appreciated the sentiment, anyway.  Some of the things I was genuinely glad of, like the powdered milk.  I already had some, and the grocery stores are stocking milk again anyway, but radiation tainted milk is one of the bigger health concerns right now, and as long as I have powdered stuff it seems safer to drink that.  She also sent thyroid pills to protect against radioactive iodine.  Again, I’m not overly worried about radiation poisoning, but as long as I have the pills I’ll stay on the safe side and take them.

The best thing about the packages was the chocolate!  I got some from my mom, of course, but in a much nicer surprise I also got two boxes of chocolates from my aunt in England!  I shared one with my church and kept the other to eat myself.  It’s nice to know so many people care.

In the news this month, Prince William of England has gotten married.  Perhaps it’s because of recent events here, but I find it hard to get excited.  I mean, I guess he and his wife will be king and queen in about forty years or so, but in the mean time I can’t say I care much.

Books I’ve read this month:

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham – A young lawyer leaves a promising career at a big firm to begin working with street people.  I liked the parts of the book that dealt with the character’s new job.  I would have preferred it if there had been more of that and less of the main plot.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I thought it would be good to read this book again, since I hadn’t actually done so since high school.  It was nice to refresh my memory of it and recall the (very few) ways in which it differs from other incarnations of the story.

* “Land of 1000 Aftershocks”: That’s not an exaggeration, by the way.  According to the Japan Quake Map, Japan actually experienced a thousand aftershocks between March 11 and mid-April, 2011.  That’s roughly thirty a day, or one every forty-eight minutes.  In fairness, most of those aftershocks were pretty small.  As a general rule, an earthquake has to be at least 5.0 or centred really close to you to be noticeable.

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