There have been occasions in Kathmandu when I’ve scorned foreign residents for packing up and leaving at the first indications of a crisis, which are not uncommon. Riots, war, political turmoil, shortages – of course all bad, but, I always reasoned, if you can afford to stay out of harm’s way (as most foreigners can) and just use common sense, there’s practically never any real and present danger.
When I moved here in August, one of the Japanese teachers I team-teach with was particularly welcoming. She’s outgoing with a natural flair for comedy that her students love, and two young daughters that have inherited her sharp intellect. She’s a strong supporter of the exchange programme I’m on, and after years of teaching alongside foreigners her excellent English has an American twang and is peppered with random colloquialisms that she uses to great effect. As I struggled to master the basics of Japanese, she asked me to teach her a bit of Nepali as well, and soon had all her eighth graders saying “sanchai hunuhuncha?” instead of the standard “how are you/I’m fine, how are you?” parroted exchange. Frustratingly, she seems to pick up and retain things from when we trade languages far better than I do. One phrase that she particularly enjoyed was “ke garne?”, a question that asks “what to do?” but is also the verbal equivalent of a resigned shrug. When I explained the concept to her, she couldn’t match it with a Japanese equivalent but told me she got exactly what I meant. She busts it out pitch-perfectly every so often, including when a lesson doesn’t go quite as planned or when she’s swamped with work and has to stay even later than usual. When I saw her after schools here re-opened on Wednesday, I told her family and friends were advising I leave Japan for a while and that I was seriously considering it. She was completely understanding, and then added, “We’re very worried too, but for us it’s kind of like ke garne?”
It seems the difference between a Nepali “ke garne” and a Japanese one is that after accepting the situation as it stands, the latter often results in thinking of things that can, in fact, be done (other than break for tea and a lengthy chat). Ookoshi sensei and all my other co-workers are as busy as ever, taking fuel and supply shortages, missed school days and their own immense sadness and worry as things to be worked out and around. World coverage of the past week here notes ad nauseum the determination to maintain as much normalcy as possible (a cynic might speculate they do so out of desperation, deprived of the hysteria and chaos that usually makes disaster coverage compelling…). Witnessing it firsthand is both surreal and humbling.
For me personally, however, joining in with the current dynamic of mourning while staying busy has proven difficult. Partly this is because of the nature of the job – classes are winding down for the end of the school year, and unlike the Japanese teachers I have no mountain of report cards and assessments to complete. On the disaster relief front, our employers can’t allow the foreign assistant teachers go and volunteer during office hours for liability reasons, and there’s been official requests not to bring in physical donations of food and supplies until ways to organise and deliver such donations can be arranged. Even plans to help during the weekend have fallen through since, touchingly, Hachinohe city has been so overwhelmed with volunteers they’re having to turn people away, and I’m not eligible to donate blood.
The general sense of uselessness has been compounded by an unfortunate cycle of insomnia, then reinforced by streaming foreign reportage and spending too much time talking to worried friends and family. Adrenaline and aftershocks made sleeping difficult as it is, but it began in earnest mid-week when there was a siren and a loudspeaker noise late in the evening. The sound was unfamiliar and I couldn’t understand the announcement, so I had to call friends to ask if they could hear it near their house, if they thought it was a warning or anything to be worried about. In that moment I realised (in terms to justify that whole former life as an anthropology student) just how completely I lack the cultural capital to cope with this entire situation. I am eternally grateful for having been so lucky as to get through this all unscathed, and recognize how almost distastefully fortunate I am to have the means and opportunity to even consider going elsewhere during all this. I also sincerely believe that things around this part of the country are currently about as safe as life ever is, and in this area at least leaving Japan is a gross and selfish overreaction. But now not being able to read the signs, in every possible way, is driving me nuts.
After a days of dithering, I had a fortifying drink of nihonshu with a friend, and then flipped a coin. It came up tails, which I’d called as getting on a plane to South Korea as opposed to staying put. So I’m heading to Seoul for a week or so, to catch up on some sleep, reassure my poor mother, calm down and come back for the start of the new school year. And I do appreciate the gaping flaw in the logic of heading somewhere even less familiar to remedy anxiety caused by cultural illiteracy…
Guess I owe some yellow-bellied kuires an apology.