Sunday, April 17, 2011

School Situations

Some things are settled, and some things are getting there. Since our family is nothing but teachers and students, and we all go to a slew of schools, we’ve been in a kind of limbo ever since the earthquake on March 11. Before I talk about my own family’s situation, let me explain some things in case you’re not familiar with some of Japan’s educational practices.

The Japanese school year begins in April and ends in March. Yes, school goes on (pretty much) the entire year. There are breaks, of course, but for most students even during the breaks there’s a reason to go to school once in a while, and there are usually homework assignments or tests to prepare for because your “job” at this stage in life to be studious and learn as much as you can (while it’s “easy”). So, when the earthquake hit, students were at the end of the school year. Things were coming to a close, students were looking forward to graduation ceremonies and having their spring vacation (the only 2 weeks out of the year that you could really feel FREE from teachers and homework).

Another function of school grounds in many areas is to serve the local community as an evacuation center in case of some emergency. Thus, since most of the evacuation centers were schools, the schools could not continue classes to the end of the school year. Actually, no one was psychologically able to teach or attend classes the first few weeks anyway. While there has already been a start in building temporary housing units for evacuees, there are still a lot of new homeless in school gymnasiums. There have been attempts to put up partitions, so that families can have some sort of privacy from all the others living practically on top of one another. (One TV program showed us how one evacuation center organized themselves into the same neighborhood divisions that existed in their normal neighborhood, so that people could be in proximity to the same people they always live near. It gave them comfort to be near the people they knew and could talk with freely.)

Ceremonies are a common and frequent part of Japanese culture.  Unfortunately, many schools decided to cancel graduation ceremonies. A lot of schools did not cancel, and there were programs on TV showing us the scenes of the graduation ceremony going on with all the evacuees sitting on the gym floor in the background partaking in the milestones of students whose living situations and future plans were now altered drastically. Especially poignant scenes were of parents receiving the graduation certificates of their deceased children. Every graduation ceremony has speeches. There’s the principal’s talk, the student selected to represent the graduating class reading his or her message to the principal, and a parent of one of the graduating students giving thanks to the teachers. Almost all of them tried hard not to break down for this year’s message was atypical: how do you give an inspirational message of a wonderful future in the middle of death and destruction? You cannot say the things you usually say. The things that are usually said would be rather trite this year.

No sooner did the scenes of graduation finish, then we saw scenes of parents with children starting school for the first time. So many of them had already prepared, and now their preparations were for naught. People from all around the country began sending in their children’s old school bags, uniforms, gym clothes, and other supplies, so that not only brand new students, but any student who was in need, would have everything necessary to resume as normal a student life as possible in the upcoming school year. I was amazed at their efficiency in gathering and distributing it all.

So, where are we now? Maybe it would be easier if I went person by person.

Ai goes to a public high school in a town next to Sendai. Last week she went to school almost everyday, but she attended her club activity for the most part. She has two more days of club only then the official school year will begin on the 21st of April. That’s about 2 weeks later than usual.

Makoto goes to a public high school in Sendai. He will start classes on the 22nd. That’s also about 2 weeks later than usual.

Yuko goes to a public university in a town next to Sendai. I’m still not sure of the exact starting date, but I think it will be around the end of the first week of May. That’s about one month later than usual. (Note: Most educational institutions beyond high school have no classes for two months in the summer and two months in the spring.)

My husband teaches at three different universities. Two are in Sendai, and I believe they are both beginning at the same time as Yuko’s university. One is in Ishinomaki, and that school will begin the last week of May.

I teach at five different schools. My high school class begins this week, and my junior high school class begins next week. One university will begin the at the end of the first week in May, another (the same one my husband’s at in Ishinomaki) will begin the last week of May, and the Ishinomaki Red Cross Nursing School will begin some time in June. On March 29th, I learned that all of the staff and students at the Ishinomaki Red Cross Nursing School are alive and well. When I spoke with one of the teachers there by phone, I was on the verge of bursting out in tears of relief. I didn't realize I was so scared until I heard from her. The building is still standing, but the first floor was completely destroyed by the tsunami. They have to find some new facility (perhaps at the Red Cross Hospital itself, or at the other university in town where I also teach once a week.
Things are moving along, and it won’t be much longer before we have our school routines in place. Once again, because all of this earthquake-tsunami-nuclear stuff happened when it did, our household of teachers and students truly were not nearly as bothered or stressed as the majority of people who could not take time off from their vocations even when everything was a living hell. Our hearts still feel so much pain because there was not much we could do at that time to lessen their burdens.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lunch with My LLL Sendai Friends!

 April 4th (Monday)

This morning I got a phone call from a friend (MK) I haven’t seen for about 3 years. And she said that another friend (KI), who I haven’t seen but once or twice since she moved about 15 years ago, was in town, let’s do lunch. I was sure it was a joke, and yet I knew it wasn’t…. since people wouldn't normally make such jokes when you're dealing with the aftermath of the fourth worst earthquake in recent history.  So we figured out where to meet, and about an hour before our meeting time, she called again and said she found another friend (YS) to join us.

Talk about excited! Twenty years ago, I was the one to start a La Leche League group here in Sendai. In those days, there were only a handful of LLL groups in all Japan, and in Sendai there were almost no breastfeeding support groups at all. KI was one of the first women that met me through a lecture I gave at a community center, and through her I learned about an alternative kindergarten her sons went to. Megumi joined Kangaroo Kindergarten, and KI joined LLL Sendai. We got to know each other really well. Through word of mouth LLL Sendai began to grow and MK joined. KI and MK became LLL Leaders at the same time, and soon after that YS joined LLL. In addition to our monthly meetings, we held weekly play group times so we could have a chance to just hang out with the kids at various mother/baby-friendly spots around town.

Though we all lived in the same city, we all live quite different lives and are scattered about so that our paths would hardly ever cross. And, of course, you know how it is, you take care of your own family, associate with the people involved in whatever schools or activities your kids are in while they're growing up.  And, in Japan, even your kids may not all go to the same schools! Then, too, all of us left LLL behind us since we all were employed outside the home as well.

What a sharing time it was. I mean, first you want to just look at everybody and be happy that you can see one another again! And then you all are surprised that everyone “hasn’t changed a bit!” (Except for the reading glasses that the two younger ones pulled out of their bags to read the menu!) Then everyone takes turns talking about … the earthquake, the tsunami, the aftermath, comparing experiences … and try to catch up on how old the kids are, what they’re doing, etc. It was such a strange, yet natural time.

And, for those in the States that might still need some reassurance when I tell them my family is fine, here are a few the things my friends (and their families) have gone through.

MK: She lives about a 15-minute drive from me. She lives in what the Japanese call a danchi, a suburban residential area on the outskirts of a bigger city. She has her own home, and her first two college-age children are living in Tokyo. She works as a Care Manager in a nursing home on the edge of the center of Sendai city. During the actual 3/11 earthquake, she was at work. During the earthquake there was one resident who was completely oblivious to this huge shaking going on, insisting that she had to go to the toilet right NOW. (I won’t go into all the rest of that, but you can guess…) So, for MK the past 3 weeks have been spent working at the nursing home, with the child-like elderly not understanding why there are only 2 meals a day, and why this and why that. Even the staff has been getting more irritable, since they, too, don’t have much to eat, plus have to deal with getting to and from work, standing in lines to buy 5 items of food (for whatever number of people are at home waiting for them to bring home something to eat), having to stand in lines of 2 liters of water per person per household, and not having electricity (for 2 weeks), running water (for 2.5 weeks), city gas (for 3 weeks). She couldn’t believe that our electricity came back on (and has stayed on all the time) within 48 hours. Her kids in Tokyo couldn’t find any food in the stores in Tokyo, so they contacted her (not sure how) and asked her to send them something to eat. She didn’t have anything to send them, but told them that at least in Tokyo they could find restaurants. They were told to go get at least one real meal at a family restaurant each day. Last week, MK went by bus to Tokyo to see them for a few days. And to finally take a bath.

KI: She’s the friend that sent me a care package because she imagined we were having as hard a time as her son was. Her first son works in Sendai, and actually he was working in one of his company’s office near the coast. (I think she said Onnagawa, but there was so much talking back and forth that I’m not sure now exactly which town it was.) There was one quick earthquake two days before the 9.0 hit, and since everyone in this part of Japan has been expecting the Big one any year now, his office established on that day precisely where to go to higher ground if/when the Big one comes. Little did they know that 2 days later, their escape plan would be implemented and be successful. KI’s son’s apartment is in the northern part of Sendai, which was not so badly damaged, and he still had his car. So, he and two of his colleagues drove bit by bit over the roads that were still just barely serviceable. What usually would be a 2-hour drive, took 2 days. There were too many people trying to creep away from the coast. Cars would run out of gas, and the people would have to ditch their car and continue on foot. When he got back to his apartment, he learned that it was all blocked off. He wasn’t allowed in it for a few weeks because it needed to pass safety inspections. Rather than go to an evacuation center, he and his friends decided to just live in the car until things got better. So, they would hear that at this place in town you could still buy some take-out food, in that part of town you could find some gas, in another part of town you could go take a bath, and so on. So drive somewhere and park and live and wait it out.
   Once KI knew that her first son was alive and safe, her worries turned to her second son. He was in Indonesia trekking around for a few months before starting his new job. How long and how bad could the tsunami be if/when it reached Indonesia? And, where exactly was he anyway? Since she was in Tokyo, she started her search on the internet. (And she found my son Makoto’s name. How odd.) Anyway, her worries were unnecessary we now know, but at the time….. freak out! But you can’t really freak out, because you have to keep calm.
   KI works at a daycare center and she’s in charge of the O-year-olds (babies you are under the age of one, I mean). Yes, the little babies, too, were very afraid and stressed out. (And I KNOW that they got lots of loving holding from this retired LLL Leader!) I don’t know how many she tends to at a time or how many others are on staff, but it brought to mind how important each person’s vocation is, no matter what. When your world turns topsy-turvy and you don’t know why, all you can do is look to the one in a better position and long for their help. Poor little babies, but she was there for them.

YS: Although I had once approached her about becoming a LLL Leader, she was preparing to begin her career as a hula dance teacher. For about 15 years now, she’s built her dance studio and has become known around town as THE hula teacher in Sendai. And, you can imagine how she knows this person who knows so-and-so who’s related to somebody’s best friend from another part of the country. (And I thought Lutheran circles and LLL circles knew you and everybody else!) So, she was able to fill us in on all the details of anything you wanted to know. Even if you didn’t know you wanted or should want to know it! Her family of 3 lives close to one of the subway stations in Sendai. It’s in a hilly area, and got pretty cracked up, I guess. So, although I couldn’t figure out if or how long she was in an evacuation center, I do know that she had lots of evacuation center stories which the other three of us didn’t have.  (I’ll write about evacuation centers in another post later.) I’ll share one story she told.
   There is another hula teacher she knows well who lives in a small rural town on the way from Sendai to Ishinomaki. She and another person in her car (I’m not sure who it was), were driving away from the tsunami, but the tsunami crashed over her car. The car was in the water, but the car was still on the ground. She didn’t even think, but suddenly forced her car door open, grabbed the person in the passenger seat by the arm and pulled her out of the car. They were able to run away, but she lost her home and her car. I don’t know if she went to an evacuation center or not, I suppose she did at first. But, now she’s in a city about an hour north with her husband’s relatives (I think). Even though she lost her house, her dance studio was still standing. (I’m not sure if the studio was near her house or in another location.) It was all muddy inside, but the mirror wall was in perfect condition. And there was a painting on an easel (I don’t know anything about Hawaiian culture, but apparently this picture is akin to a Hawaiian saint or goddess or something.) And the painting also was not damaged, so, of course, she protected the studio. (What can I say: I have friends who don’t think the same way I do.) ;-)
   Now, on to the reason I chose this story to share. This dance teacher, who now has no domicile, wants to begin collecting whatever she can so that people in that area can get back on their feet. THIS is what I have been waiting to hear ever since March 11th. Sitting in my house while being nearly unscathed and witnessing the travesty all around has been just about one of the worst things. I mean, you know how it is, you see some God-awful scene somewhere in the world, and you don’t want to be helpless. You wish you could DO something to help. To make it better. To fix it. To make it GO AWAY! But, most of the time, it’s somewhere else. It’s bad, it’s hell, and it’s not supposed to be that way. You want to stop it and put things right again. But what can you do? Nothing. But look at the TV and be numb with your jaw hanging open and fighting the tears. Or just letting the tears flow freely and not care about wiping them away or that anyone notices you’re crying. So, now YS has my number, and she knows I drive out to Ishinomaki twice a week, and I know that I can start collecting things that people are willing to give away. (I mean, even the evacuation centers will not take used clothing. Everything you donate to the evacuation centers has to be brand new and the packages can never have been opened. I understand their reasoning behind it, but most people have a lot of good things that could be donated to these people who are going to be struggling and suffering for some years to come.)

And that pretty much sums up my lunch outing today. How blessed I am to have such friends. ;-)
                                                            MK, Me, KI & YS