At the beginning of the month, I spent three days volunteering in the Tohoku area — the region of Japan that was devastated by the tsunami. What follows is a brief vignette about the experience. I wrote it for my advanced English students at Fukiai High School. I like it; it’s very “true-to-life,” so I thought I would share. You can donate to CRASH Japan here: http://www.crashjapan.com/
“What’s next?” I asked Jim, as he pulled the car to a stop alongside a dusty country road. We were just outside a village near the Kitakamigawa. The tsunami water here had only reached to about chest height, and though they had taken nearly five days to dry, many of the buildings were still strong. So we’d been shoveling mud all morning, tearing up floors to get to it and knocking out walls to get rid of it, breaking houses to pieces in order to save them.
“Let’s have some lunch,” Jim said. “Here, try one of these. Army food,” he laughed, handing me a small brown bag. “MRE: Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.” I looked down at it. “Meals Ready to Eat,” the label read. “United States Armed Forces. Beef Soup.” Cold soup from a bag? Tempting, but. . . I unzipped my backpack and fished out an onigiri instead.
We opened the doors and ate in silence, attempting to enjoy the warm spring sun. All along the road, piles of tsunami debris dried out in the open air. Detritus covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. Tangles of sticks, strips of torn clothing, bits of plastic and broken buildings. . . I didn’t know how to feel about it all. Should I be overcome with pity and compassion? Should it make me cry? There were toys and artifacts of childhood mixed in here and there – a pink winter coat, a muddy manga, a statue of Anpanman, &c. There were dead things, too – loads of fish, squids and seaweed, even an entire cow lay dead a little ways up the road. If I forced myself to think about it for long enough, the waste along the road might bring me to tears.
Or it could make me angry. The debris was filthy, and it had ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of people up and down the Tohoku coast. Slicks of mud and saltwater spread out across the farmland, turning it all into a lifeless swamp. Broken cars leaked oil into rice fields; boats pressed up against houses and refused to shove off again. It would take years to clear out the poisoned mud and toxic trash that had infected these villages, choking their roads and suffocating their fields. Should I hate the debris left by the tsunami? Would that be the right way to feel about it?
I jumped down out of the car into the dirty, dusty street, and felt nothing. Or rather, my emotions were too confused to sift through and sort out. There was some anger in there – like a bright dye, burning red – and yet there was sadness, too, in tints of bluish gray. There was also a shadow of fear, and the peaceful golden glow of the warm spring sun. All of these emotions mixed together inside me like paints in water, until they formed a colorless mud. I felt too much; I couldn’t feel anything. My heart was turned to mud; it mirrored perfectly the mud that was everywhere outside. I wanted to kick something, but I didn’t want to kick anything I could see, because any small piece of debris might have been precious to someone who had died.
“I’m finished. Are you ready?” Jim called to me from the car.
Looking down at the empty plastic wrapper in my hand, I realized I hadn’t tasted the onigiri at all. I had no memory of eating it. The only flavor in my mouth was little more than wet dust. There was a slight scent of seaweed, too, but that was everywhere here. I wondered how many years it would take to get this place clean, how many years before a person could taste or feel anything besides what was left behind by the tsunami. “Yes,” I said. “Let’s go scoop up some more mud.”