Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Young and the Old--An Update

I have a son who can barely stand to touch his dirty toe to bathwater, so for a second I was caught by surprise at seeing on Japanese TV a child so happy to wash his face. But, of course. At the elementary school where he’d been evacuated, he finally had running water. Those in evacuation zones are finally starting to get a clean water supply after living elbow to elbow for nearly two weeks with very little water. Pipes are being fixed and the young and old are happily wiping down their bodies with wet towels and washing their hands and faces.

Many of the evacuation centers are in schools and while thousands now eat, sleep, and wash in them, just a year ago, at this very time, the schools would have bustled with graduation events. The school year in Japan runs from April to March, with March heralding the happy conclusion to elementary school, or junior high, or high school years. But here many children were living in a state of emergency when their ceremonies were to be held, so principals and teachers in various evacuation cities have hobbled together graduation ceremonies. At one school a photo of a schoolmate lost in the tsunami is displayed while the graduating class president bravely struggles through his graduation speech with the wrenching emotion of a survivor strong in his face.

Exchange students who had been living in Japan have been recalled to their home countries. One bus of 150 Chinese girls tearfully left for home. My university recalled more than half of its students in Japan home. One American girl was not so lucky. She never made it home, but her mother spoke on American news of how much her daughter had loved Japan.

When I lived in Sendai, I experienced my first quake and when I ran to my host parents’ bedroom the night it happened and waited impatiently for them to respond to my knocks in the middle of the night, they waved me back to bed. That is how common quakes are in Sendai and the rest of Japan. There was faith in the anti-quake measures the country had taken even then. The next day my homeroom classmates, having heard from my host sister about my fright, spent the rest of the day shaking my chair and shrieking "It’s a quake! It’s a quake!" When the lamp on the ceiling of our classroom swayed that day from aftershocks, the girls giggled when I glanced up at it nervously as it swayed back and forth.

In one devastated town, children have created their own volunteer help boards where they answer questions that other evacuees have deposited in their homemade Q and A boxes. They read the questions, research them and then hang detailed responses complete with maps, prices, hours, phone numbers and so on, on a large bulletin board near their volunteer desk. Questions include things like “when will the local bathhouse be open again?” or “where is the nearest temporary housing available?” There is no question too simple or complicated.

Children who experienced the Kobe earthquake were interviewed and most of them remember their post-quake days as almost giddy days of volunteerism. It is perhaps no different for the children in northeastern Japan now. One volunteer group posted a hand-written sign at their volunteer station “You’ll never walk alone.” They deliver food to old folks. They give them shoulder massages. They deliver water to them, make them tea. They give the old folks hot water foot baths. It makes all the difference.

And the old folks, for their part, with thick blankets wrapped around their vulnerable old bodies, watch on with tears in their eyes as the local children walk through their makeshift graduation ceremonies. Many of these kids don't know where they will go to school next year, but for now they celebrate one hurdle.

In the aftermath of the quake, so many of the elderly lost their prescription medicine and have no idea what they were taking. The medical volunteers are not quite sure how to proceed. Bottled water is now being doled out to those in affected areas, but one must present a ration card to get it. And one must have an infant in the family to get it. The water is given to families with infants for drinking and making formula. (The bottled water in Tokyo has been bought up by those who rushed to the stores the quickest. The coastal towns have no stores).

Some old folks surviving on the coast in makeshift shelters comb the seashore for packaged food that has washed up. And they go back to the old tradition of collecting shellfish. One elderly woman seemed embarrassed to admit that they’d have fresh scallops tonight. ‘It seems luxurious but we found them on the shore’.

It seems to me that the small luxury of the sweet soft flesh of a scallop may be just what these old folks deserve.

We're all in this together.