Saturday, March 12, 2011

it's thousands of miles from tokyo to this small town in rural illinois, and they are worlds apart culturally too. we are often reminded how far apart they are, but i was reminded again recently when, on the day of the earthquake near sendai, a guy arrived in town here from tokyo and visited us. i will call him t.s.; he had become a.b.d. many years ago, almost finishing his ph.d. from here; he had gone home, but, his father had a heart attack, and his aunt went into a coma, and he, an only child, was left to care for both. six or seven years later, he's teaching part-time at two different universities; he's also working part-time at a television station going through reuters news and reinterprting it for the station. his work involves constant travel through tokyo which he bears.

visiting here he wants to reinstate himself into the program so he can finish his ph.d., but he also wants to visit personally and make sure he's in good standing with my wife, his professor, and this is where i come in; i drive him home, and then back out to the mall where he will catch his ride to the airport and from there back to tokyo. at our house he gives us fine chocolates (for my wife), and squid for me which still lingers in my mouth...i love ths stuff. i am practically overjoyed to meet him and for some reason it happens on a day that i don't mind leaving my office, and just driving around town with this guy. i can tell, as we drive through the neighborhoods, that even the houses look strange and exotic to him, yet to me they are the same old stuff i drive by every day. he says at one point, that though he listens to english news every day, he never speaks; this is his first chance in several years. actually his pronunciation is very good. and he's very polite. he's gracious and appreciates the rides and the help he is getting to be reinstated as a ph.d. student.

slowly my friends from japan check in from the earthquake; their families are ok; for the most part they live way in the south and the earthquake was way in the north. one was in niigata, home of s.i.u.'s old campus, in the northwest, and we know lots of people there; however, 6.6 is not so bad in the big picture and nothing compared to the 8.9 of the sendai quake in the northeast; everyone in niigata seems to be fine too. and in tokyo itself, home of massive huge skyscrapers, they were prepared, having built buildings earthquake-proof, so that everything swayed, but didn't fall. the earthquake and tsunami dealt a massive blow to a single area, but of dozens and dozens of friends and former students, and even americans working over there, none that i know were in sendai or even near it.

the hard part for the people i know well, and this starts with students and people i'm working with at the moment, is being so far from a tragedy of such massive proportions. they watch on television and can only imagine the horror; many are glued to the set, and this also has been true of people from various countries that went through national traumas such as libya, tunisia, and egypt. they can hardly concentrate on their day or their routine business. even though their family is ok, the enormity of the change to the national landscape is so hard to fathom, they have to concentrate on it.

t.s. is aware of the irony of having worked and saved for many years, to be able to come over here, get reestablished, and finish a long-delayed degree, only to find that japan shudders, shifts, burns and falls into the sea the moment he leaves. it adds to the drama of the trip, to be sure. i tell him the one story from tokyo that i know. i have an old friend; he was a guitar player at the time i was starting on my banjo, a raffish member of a counter-culture like myself who played music around at many opportunities, never likely to make the big-time here in the states (also like me). however, he married a tokyo girl and moved to tokyo, where he found that he could not only assemble a halfway-decent rock band (there were many japanese bass players, apparently, in the tokyo area, who had grown up on old rock classics), and there was a market for american rockers like himself in that situation; and, he made it, in a sense, because he had plenty of work, and a good band, and a good name, for many years. it was a dream come true, and he knew it could never really come true here, but he took it as it was, and rode with it as long as he could. finally he got tired of it though and went into teaching english, which is where and how i met him again; i'm not sure how the two professions compare, never having made it in music, myself, at all.

t.s. hears this story and asks a few questions. they are not the first people to straddle the two worlds, tokyo and small-town midwest u.s.a., getting stuck for a moment straddling the fence. t.s. studied youth, and deviance, and the media portraying young punks, that kind of thing; i'm not sure. i wonder how it would be different, here and in tokyo. i wonder what a small town like this looks like, to the guy who has been riding the bullet train for years. i can only imagine. in the same way, we look at the pictures of cities devastated, japan's north coast flooded and destroyed, and try to imagine. i dropped t.s. at the mall, where he would get gifts to take back with him to tokyo; back on facebook, more friends checked in to say, everything was ok; they'd survived, and their family was fine too. the earth is changing a lot, doing violent things in order to adjust or shake us up or whatever; it's really scary, but it's also a little comforting to know we have friends on almost every corner of the globe, and, in an impulse to reach out to the affected, we actually can; we can find them, and make sure they're ok. i sure hope they are, anyway.

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