Friday, January 6, 2012

Semblance of Normality - May 2011

Life in Sendai is now more or less back to normal – or at least, a reasonable semblance thereof.  In the coastal areas and around the power plant there are still lots of destruction and displaced people.  But in my part of the city things look much as they did before the earthquake, and it’s easy to forget that just a few short miles away whole neighbourhoods have been wiped out and lives upended.

May began with “Golden Week”, a week featuring three holidays in a row that is consequently a popular time for taking vacations.  I had originally thought of going somewhere for the holiday, but after the earthquake changed my spring break plans, I decided to stay home.  The only real activity I got up to was singing.  The ALTs who had done carolling back in December were invited to sing at a refuge area as part of their Children’s Day celebrations.  We sang a couple of pieces from our Christmas repertoire, as well as some other numbers that were easy to learn and that we hoped would appeal to our audience.  Given my lack of actual vocal talent, I was most fond of singing “Stand By Me”, where a group of us formed a bassline and spent the entire song singing the same four bars over and over again.  The most moving song, for me at least, was “Lean on Me”.  It’s one of those songs I’d heard many times before, but never really thought about the lyrics to.  Although I’d always liked it, the words took on new meaning for me in light of the situation, because so many people had lost everything and so many others had stepped up to donate their time and money to help.  I actually found myself getting choked up while singing it.

Speaking of donating time, I went volunteering again, and this time got sent to clean the yard of a house.  The tsunami had rolled over the whole area, leaving a water-line four feet high.  The house itself needed a lot of work too, but our job was to go through the yard collecting all the little bits of garbage that had washed up.  I worked for hours with a rake and by the time we were done had sifted through an area maybe four metres square.  I kept coming across patches of heavy black earth, which I thought at first must be ash from something burnt, but eventually discovered was petroleum.

It wasn’t until we were done working that I really took a look around me to see what other kinds of damage had been done in the area.  Right next to where I was working was a rice field that looked like a burgeoning landfill.  It would need some serious work before it was anywhere near ready for growing rice again.  The house across from us was also a mess.  Clearly no one had done anything in there either, because furniture and debris were still plied up every which way inside and the walls had holes in them.  It’s sights like those that make one appreciate the scale of work to be done.

I’ve started making elementary school visits again.  This year it looks like I’ll be spending most of my time with the grade five and six classes, which I’m happy about, since those tend to be my favourites.  I’m going to my tea lady’s house for dinner again.  Her family all survived the earthquake and seem to be fine.  At church, the English teacher from the U.S. has finally returned and is re-starting the English programme there.  It’s good to see him again, and to hear his stories about the awareness work he was doing while back home.

I was falling behind in my Japanese study even before the earthquake, and once it came it drove all thoughts of homework out of my head.  As a result, even though the JET Programme extended the deadline for submitting out tests, I regret to say that I failed to complete my correspondence Japanese course.  I wasn’t finding it very easy to stay motivated anyway, and hopefully I’ll be able to find other ways to study.  I’ve decided to sign up for another round of night classes.  I completed the beginner programme in the fall, so now I’m in the high beginner class.  I was worried my Japanese might not be good enough for it, and I’m certainly the weakest student in the class.  But clearly I have actually learned a few things over the last nine months: I find the class challenging, but I’m able to keep up with most of the material.

I got the rest of the packages my mom sent me from home.  The first ones contained a lot of snack food: granola bars, raw almonds, dried fruit, etc.  Not that free food isn’t nice, but given how easy food is to obtain here, they seemed a bit extravagant.  Still, snacks were made to be eaten, and some of them are things I haven’t been able to find here, so I’ll enjoy them.  The later packages contained oatmeal, more milk, pasta, canned fish, and beans, lots of beans.  In other word, really practical food food, the kind of food you’d be really grateful to have in a famine situation.  And again, stuff I was in no need of.  As I counted the items off I almost wanted to cry, thinking of how useful the food could have been to some people back in March.  I felt deeply unworthy of it, and wished there was some more worthy cause I could give it to.  I thought about donating it somewhere, and even asked around about it, but I don’t think there’s a big demand any more for individual food donations, and I’m not sure Japanese people would be interested in a lot of those things anyway.  So some of it’s going to get squirreled away as emergency supplies, and the rest I’ll eat up myself.

Since the beginning of April we haven’t had any really big aftershocks, and in fact they’ve died down so much that we can go whole days without feeling any.  I’m starting to relax my hyper-prepared mentality, and with the weather getting warmer I’ve decided I should drain my bathtub too.  I’ve still got my backpack packed, though, and I’ll probably keep it that way for the rest of my time here.  If there’s one lasting effect the earthquake seems set to have, it’s to keep me vigilant about natural disasters.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, even when I get back to Ottawa, I remain the person who’s always stocked-up and prepared against the next earthquake, hurricane, or triffid attack.

In the news this month, Osama bin Laden is dead.  I know I shouldn’t feel happy about that.  But I have to admit to a pang of glee when I first heard the news.  I actually wanted to jump up and shout, “Yippee!”  My own enthusiasm surprised me; it’s not like the attacks on the World Trade Center or any of his other crimes affected me personally, and I was never a fan of the so-called “War on Terror”.  But I guess those things have dominated the public consciousness so much over the past decade that I got caught up in them more than I realised.

Fortunately I had a chance to re-evaluate my attitude once the initial shock had worn off, and now my feelings are more circumspect.  Thankfully the international response has also been somewhat equivocal.  I think Stephen Harper summed it up nicely in his “sober satisfaction” speech, and I felt both gratified and humbled to hear a family member of one of the victims say that the death in no way made up for her loss.  Ultimately, this is only a reason to celebrate if it actually makes the world a safer place and prevents further loss of life in the future.  Only time will tell us that.

In other news, Canada had an election.  I didn’t vote, initially because I had too many other things on my mind, and then because by the time I got around to looking at absentee voting procedures it was too late anyway.  I wasn’t too enthusiastic about having another election, and I wasn’t expecting it to change much.  Boy was I wrong!  Not only did the Conservatives go from minority to majority government, but the Liberals got creamed, the map of Québec went from blue to orange, the N.D.P. is our new official opposition, and the Greens have their first elected member of parliament!  It’s probably the most interesting election we’ve had since 1993!  And unless you’re a Liberal or a Bloquiste there’s something to be happy about.  Although there’s arguably a lot to be unhappy about too.  On the plus side it’ll be nice to have a stable government for a change.  But I may not like all the policies it decides to enact.  I guess we’ll wait and see on that one.

In yet more news, Manitoba has been hit by serious flooding.  While this isn’t as bad as some of the natural disasters that have made the news this year, I’m still sorry to think that people in my home country are suffering, and I’m not keen on the way this year is continuing to suck.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Toy Story 2 – Surprisingly for a sequel, I liked this quite a bit better than its predecessor.  The characters have grown out of some of their more obnoxious characteristics.  The story is also better, and surprisingly adult (in a good way).  (Three and a half stars)

Toy Story 3 – Not quite as good as the previous movie, but still a satisfying conclusion to the Toy Story trilogy.  I was once again surprised at the adult nature of the story, which perhaps made it more accessible to me.  My only complaints are that the villain feels weak and unnecessary, and there are too many twists in the last half hour.  (Three stars)

How to Train Your Dragon – A young boy from a tribe of dragon-killers befriends a dragon and learns how to fly it.  Really good idea for a story – which makes the poor execution all the more disappointing.  The animation is okay, and some of the bonding sequences are really fun to watch.  But the last part of the movie doesn’t make much sense.  And somebody needs to tell DreamWorks that obnoxious teenagers are obnoxious; apparently they haven’t heard.  (Two and a half stars)

Whisper of the Heart – A Studio Ghibli film not directed my Miyazaki.  The story is simple and sweet.  I did wish some parts had been fleshed out more, and that they’d shown more of the story the protagonist writes.  The ending is a bit laughable too, but over-all I enjoyed it.  (Three stars)

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