It is two weeks since the calamitous events in Japan wiped Libya off the front page of the New York Times. If I had been in the midst of a work of fiction, I probably would have needed to take a long, solitary walk into the mountains to reassure myself that the ground beneath my feet—the title of a novel by Salman Rushdie—was still steady, or steady enough to return to my desk and work. But I am in the midst of the teaching term, researching my next project, so I stayed in New York and connected with former students and friends who have friends and relatives in Japan.
I developed an interest and abiding connection with Japan some years ago when I took a part-time job in a Japanese language school that caters to Japanese businessmen and their families. I needed extra money to support “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” because the publisher could only afford a small advance and I knew it would take me at least a year to gather the stories and then several more months to get them into shape for publication. I mentored the contributors long distance or in person at various locations—some out of the country—which meant I also needed money to travel. It was one of those projects that, once started, I could not in good conscience abandon. I did not write anything else for two years and when I was done I had trouble writing insipid articles for the women’s magazines. Botox didn’t seem to matter anymore. That said, I have learned a lot from aid workers about relaxation. They work hard and play hard, too. Many are avid readers and writers. They keep journals. Which is why so many wanted to tell their stories when I sent out my first query email. I was inundated.
Thankfully, the book has had legs and is still doing well at an on-demand reprint house in Oregon. And it’s still in print with the original publisher in the UK/EU. I continue to get queries from aid workers and I am in touch with most of the contributors some of whom have become friends.
But I have already digressed from the calamity in Japan, which is not difficult to do. How can we linger on the unimaginable and be of use? And what, in particular, can a writer do? I suppose the answer is obvious: we can write about it and into it. By this I mean that we can put ourselves—literally or imaginatively—into the minds and hearts of those who are suffering. This is what I tried to do when I wrote to Mayumi, one of my former students. We had been in email correspondence over the years and sent each other holiday greetings. She is a film buff and much of our correspondence has been about American and Japanese film but I also know a lot about her life because, when she landed in America, she was recovering from chemotherapy. She was very young to be diagnosed with breast cancer and the diagnosis hit her and her family hard. It happened at the moment her husband was about to begin his posting in New York and the company he worked for would not allow him to delay his departure and keep his job. So he left for New York while Mayumi stayed on in Japan until she was strong enough to travel. When she arrived, she still had a scarf on her head and had to have regular follow-up appointments at Memorial Sloan Kettering. But she was happy to be in New York and eager to improve her English which was already quite viable.
At the school, teachers and students rotated depending on schedule and the notes, intended to provide continuity, were often playful. Mayumi’s were odd. The teachers seemed frustrated by her reticence which seemed more intense than most of the other students. It had been bandied about that Japanese men and women don’t really want to learn English. The long American occupation—1945-1952—had created resentment and defiance. Not learning English was an act of defiance, some said. But no one went so far as to suggest this with Mayumi. They said she was shy, could hardly read and write English, and that she came into class with a strange scarf on her head. Someone had drawn an insulting picture of her with a scarf and the caption, “So what’s with the scarf?” I couldn’t think of anything more awful. It angered me to read these notes and I am sure they would have shamed Mayumi if she had seen them. Obviously, none of the other teachers had gotten to know her or asked her any questions about her life. True, the director of the school didn’t encourage any personal connection which was considered to be unprofessional and intrusive. The younger teachers towed the line because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. I didn’t care as much—my stay was only temporary—and even if I did, I wouldn’t have been able to abide the director’s insistence on monitoring what went on in my classroom.
So I asked Mayumi some gentle questions about her scarf. It wasn’t difficult to see that she had no hair underneath. Rather than being offended, she was relieved, and began to cry. After that, she always asked to see me. When this didn’t work out, she asked if we could work privately.
Her English improved exponentially and, when she left for Japan after her husband’s tour was over two years later, we promised to stay in touch. Naturally, I thought of her immediately when the quake hit and popped off a quick email: “Are you okay?” I knew that she lived south of Tokyo but I had a recollection of some family living north of Tokyo and a grandfather in Hokkaido. She was always traveling to see him. I hoped she hadn’t been on one of the pulverized trains.
An email came back almost immediately, not from her regular address, but from a special address attached to her mobile phone. It was short but well written. All is well with us and we remain hopeful, she said. Not much electricity which is why she was writing to me on her phone instead of her PC. “We cannot stop thinking about the nuclear terror,” she said. I replied immediately asking what, if anything, I could send her on email that might be consoling or helpful. “It’s enough to hear from you. I am so grateful that you are thinking of me,” she wrote.
So that’s what I’m doing: I’m writing to Mayumi, she is writing back to me, and I am honoring her courage, and that of the Japanese people during this disaster, by writing this blog.