"Up Front: After the Earthquake"
Vogue, April 2011
March 11, 2011, fell on a Friday, the day I run errands and go to the market. Until 2:46 p.m., about an hour before my thirteen-year-old son, Sam, would return home from his international school in Chofu, a suburb of Tokyo, it had been a good day. Once in a rare while in the life of a writer struggling on her sophomore novel, it’s possible to achieve a state of semi-contentedness by producing a few decent pages, and that morning was a halcyon interlude in my otherwise grumbling condition. After printing out my day’s work, I tidied the house, raced to the bank, paid my utility bills, then mulled over what to make for dinner for Sam and my husband, Christopher.
This was a regular day in my quiet life in Tokyo where I’ve lived with my family for almost four years. In 2007, we moved to Japan for Christopher’s job, and it was fortuitous that my next novel was about the Zainichi Koreans who have lived in Japan for several generations yet have South Korean or North Korean citizenship and trace their lineage from the Japanese colonial era. As a Korean American, it was fascinating to learn about Korean immigrants elsewhere. Nevertheless, as an unrepentant homebody who’d grown up in New York, it was difficult to live so far away from my family and friends back home, but Christopher enjoyed his job and Sam loved his school, and I found good writing assignments in Asia. I couldn’t complain.
My friend Gwen’s birthday was on Sunday, and I intended to order flowers at the shop beside National Azabu, the international supermarket in the embassy-filled neighborhood of Minami Azabu. National is an expatriate landmark, and its modest whitewashed building, Baskin-Robbins, and Sun Florist are recessed on a tar paved parking lot edged by a fence on a wide corner street.
A nursery tub of pale pink roses hooked me—the sort of folly coveted by a Korean immigrant who’d grown up skipping rope on the pavements of Elmhurst, Queens, rather than by the loam of a well-tended garden. The sober man who works at the flower shop knows I don’t speak Japanese, and though he doesn’t speak much English, we get on. At the open-air counter, the asphalt beneath our feet pushed up then down.
“Earth. Earth. . . quake,” the florist murmured, his th sounding like an s. His mouth pulled up in a nervous smile.
When you live in Japan, an island nation set in the Pacific Ring of Fire, earthquakes happen, in fact, almost 1,500 times per year; I steadied myself, but this felt exceptional.
Behind the florist, a parked minivan danced like a cousin of Herbie, the Disney character. A woman shrieked; a small crowd filled the parking lot. The earth still violent, I walked purposefully to the fence on the parking lot perimeter and tried to phone Christopher. Dozens stood by quietly; clerks wearing green National aprons looked up at the sky, and everyone else punched numbers into their useless cellphone keypads.
I emailed my husband.
“Outside the office building. Standing on the street,” he wrote.
“Am okay,” I replied. The tremors ended. Duration: six minutes.
The florist was already behind the counter when I returned and neither of us mentioned the greatest earthquake in magnitude in the history of Japan. I paid for Gwen’s roses. He and I made eye contact a moment longer than usual; we’d shared a strange moment and survived it.
Another e-mail: The school would keep the children for a while; expect an hour delay.
National was almost empty when I entered. Store employees, crouched down, were cleaning up the broken bottles of oil and jarred pickles, their vinegary scent lingering in the aisles. Pushing the grocery cart made me feel useful, and I loaded it with succulent strawberries from Chiba, Satsuma tangerines, and paperwhite turnips. Near the meat counter, the rattling began—glass clattering on the shaking shelves. Someone shouted in English, “Get out of the building!”My cart was two-thirds full; I couldn’t leave it like that, making cleanup work for the National employees. Even as a Korean American, I was careful to beextra-civic for fear of discrimination against my family, and believe it or not, because the employees at National knew me, I was concerned aboutabandoning a cart thoughtlessly. The building was shaking from side to side,
and in the midst of this ridiculous hesitation, my feet bolted and returned me to the parking lot.
Outside, the cool, springlike day persisted—the pale afternoon sun unblinking without regard for the moving plates beneath the earth’s crust or our fear.
When the earth stilled, everyone scattered like rays emitting from a burning source. The silence and loneliness of the departure felt awkward. An American from New York is a social animal and a communicator; we invented the notion of oversharing, and at that moment, I wanted to ask someone if she was OK; I wanted to be asked if I were OK. I felt a sharp longing to be back home; I missed America so much—the warmth of the people, the chattiness and humor. I tried not to think of Sam on the road, but of course, that was not easy.
The Japanese have been readying themselves for “The Big One”—the great earthquake for decades. If I hadn’t lived in Tokyo for almost four years, I wouldn’t have believed the level of cellular organization of this society; surveillance and order is present even in the city of Tokyo with a population of 13 million—5 million more populous than New York City. Neighborhood loudspeakers leftover from the war broadcast announcements, and you’re expected to pay attention. The nation that gave birth to Kumon did their homework on earthquakes and tsunamis, but when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake arrived that afternoon, its epicenter about 187 miles away from Tokyo, the world was forced to watch terrifying conflagrations of chemical factories, then witness the cruel black wall of water wash away cars, ships, farms, houses as well as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children.
When Christopher and I arrived home, we waited for Sam and tried to keep busy. The school sent e-mails faithfully, warning of even longer delays, but as the hours passed, I worried about aftershocks, fires, collapsing highways, and I felt that I would die if I lost my son.
Ten years ago, when Sam was three, it was the two of us waiting for his dad. We lived two blocks south of Canal Street in New York. On September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, we felt within our apartment the ground-trembling thud of the falling towers. That day, Sam and I waited hours for Christopher to walk home from his office in Times Square. By the time he arrived, I’d already packed Sam’s birth certificate, our marriage certificate, insurance documents, checkbooks, and clothes in two suitcases light enough to carry long distances if necessary. In the morning, we were able to get our station wagon from the street lot, and we crossed the George Washington Bridge to stay at my parents’ home in New Jersey.
But today, it was Christopher and I waiting hours for our son. We didn’t have a car to search for him, not that it mattered, because we couldn’t have found him on the jammed highways and local roads. We watched BBC, CNN, and NHK and heard about the evolving crisis at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant. I toggled my attention between the television screen, the open laptop, and clock. Our son had been on the school bus for more than six hours.
For me, the problem with the news was not just about what had happened. The problem was the future; even the most nationalistic Japanese will admit that the government and corporations will not always tell you what you need to know. America is a noisy country rife with dissension and demands for transparency; it is not like that in Japan. Yes, frivolous lawsuits are evil, however, in a non-litigious society, it is possible to lie and temporize without recrimination.
Over the past five years, I’d been researching the history of Koreans in Japan and its laws for my book. I’d interviewed dozens of Koreans in Japan and scholars and knew how badly the government dealt with uncomfortable problems. Mihoko, my brilliant Japanese friend, once explained that some Japanese believe that they do not need leaders because they are self-disciplined; that is, only an unruly society would need a strong government. This theory works optimally when there are no disasters; it even excuses keeping prime ministers in office slightly longer than the expiration terms of milk. On the evening of March 11, as I reviewed the news from Japanese and Western sources, I sensed that the situation at the nuclear reactor plant at Fukushima would get worse—affecting every person in Japan.
After eleven o’clock, we heard the turn of a key.
Sam was home, hungry and wanting dinner. What was it like? On the bus, some of the girls had cried, he said, but they’d also stopped at 7-Eleven for snacks and listened to Rihanna.
At that moment, the death toll was in the two hundreds, and at the nuclear reactor plants, the backup batteries were thought to be working.
My friend Erica in London reached me first; then, as America started its day on the other side of the globe, e-mails of concern queued in our mailboxes; the landlines, finally working, brought overseas calls.
“Are you okay?” my father wanted to know. “You can always come home.”
Christopher always said that if there was a disaster, we should go to my father’s where we went after 9/11. In my parents’ basement in New Jersey, there are four stocked refrigerators and freezers, and in the garage, there are three vehicles that have passed annual inspection with full tanks—all for two retired people. If you needed duct tape, pencils, condensed milk, or charcoal, Dad would have it at the ready like a procurement officer of a war that has never ended for him.
In December 1950, my sixteen-year-old father left Wonsan, a harbor town in the northern part of Korea as a war refugee to flee the communists overtaking the region. He was sent away because the communists were forcibly drafting boys. This trip was meant to be a short stay in Busan, on the southern tip of Korea, but after the nation divided in two, he never returned home. He never saw his mother, sisters, and brothers again. He put himself through college by working on the docks, selling fabric on the black market, and making pastries on the griddle of a food cart, and, eventually, somehow transformed himself into a necktie-wearing marketing executive in Seoul where he met and married my mother. Restless in Seoul, he took our family to New York in 1976, because he believed that war could happen again.
Now an elder at his church who observes routines fastidiously, my father loathes travel and disruption. Nevertheless, there is flight in our blood—a preparedness for the surprises of history and nature. I’d grown up listening to Dad’s difficult stories, and his ever-present loss brought home a truth that too many people in this broken world know too well: A child can lose his mother and his country through no fault of his own. His loss also taught me a kind of fear and lucidity about what is essential.
The news worsened each hour with bickering among the foreign and domestic news agencies with charges of disaster porn in one corner and Sphinx-worthy riddles posing as information from the other, but the net effect was clear: Japan was being gutted by nature and man. Everyone learned a new word: sievert, a dosage unit of radiation, as in how much radiation a person can safely be exposed to.
On Sunday evening, Christopher and I made a decision: We couldn’t risk Sam getting hurt; he asked me to take Sam to New York. We’d leave for two weeks. Once again I found myself packing two suitcases with our essentials, one of them filled with important documents and my manuscripts. Gaijin who left were derisively called flyjin. The Japanese who fled were not called names, but if a foreigner chose to leave a confirmed nuclear disaster at the advice of his home country, he was a coward. Sticks and stones, I want to say, but it hurt to hear this.
For the first week, Sam and I stayed at my parents’ house. Anxiety and jet lag ensured that I would not sleep, and I read The New York Times, Japan Times, Daily Yomiuri, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Kyodo News, Reuters, BBC News, and Jiji Press News at all hours. Each day, more radioactive substances—some harmful, some not at all—entered portions of the atmosphere, sea, ocean, soil, produce, milk, meat, ground water, and for one day, even tap water in Tokyo. Each day, on the phone, Christopher and I debated what we should do. We had intended to return to America in 2012, but now Sam and I would stay put in New York. Christopher took vacation time for a week and joined us briefly but returned to his office in Tokyo even though I was against it. He promised to find a way to get back and stay; I had to trust him.
He knew I hadn’t wanted to go to Tokyo to live. Japan was enthralling and cool, but America was my home. Born in Kobe to a Japanese mother and a white American father, Christopher speaks fluent Japanese. He was comfortable living and working there; the Tokyo job was a promotion for him. Five years at the most, he’d said to me in 2007. Initially, I’d gone to Tokyo to be a good wife and mother. Now, letting him live in Tokyo alone for however short or long he’d take to sort things out with work made me feel like I was being one of those, but not the other. We began as two in love, but now we were three people: As Sam’s parents, we had to make the call, and remaining apart year and a half longer was not a wager I could make.
Building a life again without notice felt like an aftershock of its own. I had one pair of shoes and half a suitcase of clothing. How could I work on my manuscript when my computer and files were still in Japan? How were we going to swing two rents? How do you get your stuff out of Japan when some shipping companies were refusing to enter Tokyo ports for fear of radiation contamination? Nevertheless, we were fortunate in countless ways—friends and family carried us uphill, offering clothes, furniture, meals and critical advice. Sam’s old school graciously found a place for him to finish seventh grade.
The present reality is far, far worse for Japan. By the fifth week of the disaster, 28,000 are dead or missing; four nuclear reactors are still out of control; the Fukushima nuclear disaster has been deemed a 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, the same crisis level as Chernobyl; and almost 140,000 people are homeless. Headlines shift to newer calamities, no different than they had for Katrina, Haiti, the BP Spill or New Zealand—but the events feel no less urgent for its survivors.
Christopher, Sam, and I are drafting new plans, yet remain open to revisions. For now, I am setting up camp here in America while Christopher is breaking down the old one to join us soon. The earth has moved its coordinates. We are the lucky ones because we can always come home.