Upon Returning Home

NOTE: The following is the fourth post on the earthquake and its aftermath by Pamela Runestad, a graduate student in medical anthropology who spoke in the Triangle Japan Forum on October 1, 2010. It is posted here with her permission.

As I was waiting to board my plane at Narita, we had another largish quake. Move, I thought. I was the only person in the gate area to get up and walk away from the windows that overlooked the tarmac. Rows of mostly military mothers sitting with their children watched as I chose an empty patch of carpet next to a large pillar, sat down, and resumed writing in my notebook. I had met a few of their quizzical looks. They might’ve thought I was paranoid, but if one of these aftershocks turned into another big one, I would not be next to several thousand pounds of glass. I found myself writing in my journal, Please. Just stop. Just stop shaking. It’s enough, and really looking forward to take-off. It occurred to me that as soon as the wheels left the ground, I wouldn’t feel the tremblors anymore. Sigh. But just because I didn’t feel them didn’t mean they didn’t happen. I realized that although finding safe spots had become a reflex, the aftershocks were eroding my resolve… This must be a fraction of the unease, trauma, and fear those in Tōhoku may be feeling.


Coming back to the U.S., I felt like I had entered a completely different world – one with an entirely different concept of time and different priorities.

You know how time seems to pass at a different speed when someone passes away? Like life is happening around you, but you’re not really in it? After experiencing the loss of a loved one, little stuff – things like buying clothes, deciding what food to serve at a family gathering, and he- said-she-said squabbles seem so trivial and pointless. They are dwarfed by feelings of loss – but remain important, even central, to people who didn’t know the deceased or was not close to them. Time, life marches on without you. This is sort of how I’ve felt since coming home. I have tried to enjoy being around family and friends, going to familiar places, and partaking of foods I just can’t get in Japan. But I noticed that again, my experience was different than that of those around me. I haven’t been entirely comfortable being home. I feel really out of synch with what is happening around me.

It seems like the further I get from Tōhoku, the more normal it becomes to shop, eat out, conduct business as usual. Of course, talk about March 11 continues. The level of concern and good will towards Japan is amazing, and I find myself really proud of the efforts I see to ease the suffering there. I have come across benefits, fundraisers, and lectures of all kinds: a pianist friend in Hawaii did a concert, another in Alaska sponsored a wine tasting, and a yoga studio I used to go to did a special class and reception benefit. But there seems to be a different feel to the events in different places in the U.S. Is it because the disasters happened so far away? In a foreign country? To a population with which many people in the U.S. have not had personal connections? Or is it because of the difference in media coverage and the lack of first-hand bodily experience with tremblors, tsunamis, the stress from blackouts and radiation scares? Or – most likely – a mix of all these things? It’s not surprising that the difference exists. What is surprising to me is that I can feel it. I can feel that the way people here are experiencing the aftermath of March 11 is different than the way people in different places in Japan are experiencing it. Just as I noticed differences in cities across Japan, there is significant, palpable, regional variation in the U.S, too. Communities with large Japanese and/or Japanese American populations and those on the west coast who are afraid of fall-out are the first to come to mind.

Walking around feels sort of isolating here in North Carolina — until I talk to others with Japan connections, or have people ask me what it’s “really like over there.” Maybe my feelings are also akin to culture shock?

I’m not talking about going to some place new and being surprised that things are different from what you’re used to – like walking into a public bathroom and realizing your only choice is the kind of toilet you have to squat above rather than sit on. I’m talking about the kind of slow- burning reverse culture shock you feel when you return home after having lived as an expat for a number of years. When you talk to friends, you realize you missed some songs, some television programs, some local trials, some high profile accidents or incidents – things everyone but you seems to remember. You don’t get all the inside jokes or references to pop culture. There is simply a chunk of collective memory that you don’t share with people in your home country because you were abroad – and you may be more in touch with the collective memory where you were living. In my experience, this is where people usually realize you missed some things, explain, and then ask about where you were. This kind of thing happens for a while until you gradually work yourself back into the collective consciousness of the people around you. It’s easier and easier the more you do it – at least for me.

This is the first time I’ve been so acutely aware that I’ve left a collective consciousness behind. I’m usually more focused on the re-integration part. But this time, I feel like I’m supposed to be part of what is happening in Japan and suddenly, I’m not. Reading emails and blogs by Japanese friends, and checking the NHK website for Japanese news feels different now that I am not in Japan – much in the way that reading about news in the U.S. feels distant when I’m not here. I feel the physical disconnect. It’s a reminder that being embedded in a media matrix is not the same as being embedded in a social matrix. It’s such a simple idea, I feel silly for spending so much time contemplating it. But maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing.

Perhaps I am feeling this so acutely because of the sense of shared trauma being experienced at the moment. Of course individual experiences are different, but there is a sense that the earthquake and tsunamis happened to us (“we Japanese,” those of us in Japan at the time, and those of us who have strong ties to Japan) or them (those people over there we can sympathize with). Compare this to culture shock and death of a loved one, which are considered (at least in western societies) to be intensely personal traumas that happen to me. Of course you can find commonalities with those who have similar experiences. But there is something different about discussing individual experiences of what people perceive to be a shared event (such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Tōhoku disasters) versus the commonalities in events perceived to be personal (such as culture shock, loss of a family member or friend, or episodes of illness). It’s possible that the balance of emotions such as empathy and sympathy – how these feelings are expected, expressed, and received between individuals and groups of people – is different. In any case, removing oneself from the physical site of a shared trauma can mean removing oneself from a group of people with similar experiences, and can thus result in a sense of isolation. Maybe I feel odd because my experiences suddenly don’t match those of the people around me and I can feel it. Maybe I went from a “it happened to us” place to a “it happened to them” setting? Maybe my feelings would be different if I had returned to Hawai`i or Alaska, places with strong ties to Japan?

At first I was mad at myself for feeling the disconnect so acutely. I also felt (and still feel) guilty about being upset in any way, knowing that my own feelings of shock are small potatoes compared to those who continue to experience quakes and tsunami warnings while also dealing with radiation scares. But being angry at myself or feeling guilty was not going to improve my ability to work – in fact, it was probably hindering my ability to think clearly. Trying to distract myself from the quake aftermath wasn’t going to help either. I decided to let myself keep thinking about the disasters, to channel that energy and try to find ways to help. Brainstorming with a classmate, we came up with an idea for continued support of evacuees – people who are living in emergency shelters in northern Japan. We are working on the logistics now, so stay tuned for more about our project.

Regardless of whether the Tōhoku disasters feel like an “us,” “them,” or “me” problem, whether or not various experiences are akin to grief or culture shock, offering support in whatever way you can alleviates suffering. I hope our project and the countless others underway continue to successfully channel good will and funds, and will see Japan through the re-building process. If only good will could stop earthquakes…

By Pamela Runestad, March 31, 2011

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2 Responses to Upon Returning Home

  1. Pingback: Upon Returning Home, By Pamela Runestad | Triangle Center for … | Midia Social

  2. Pingback: Upon Returning Home « American Anthropological Association

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