Posted by Kachun Anders Chan Sept. 11th, 2011
We went to a gym during the last day of my volunteer trip. Our job was to clean up personal belongings found from the debris.
All the personal items were nicely placed in the gym, and they were well categorized – clothes, calligraphy screens, backpacks, hand bags, receipts, certificates, sports equipment, trophies. They were all sitting there waiting for victims to pick up.
Especially pictures, they were enough to cover half the gym.
Pictures of family gatherings, weddings, graduations. Probably because pictures of recent days were all digital, the hairstyles and fashions in almost all the pictures were from the 70s and 80s.
My job that day was to clean up backpacks and hand bags. Volunteers used brushes and toothbrushes to remove mud and sand from the items.
Almost all the bags were emptied. Only on a few occasions, did money or IDs come out from the bags. If that did happen, the team leader would copy the names on the IDs onto a piece of paper. He would then wrap it around the straps.
There was another group of people cleaning pictures in a pool of water, rubbing dirt off with their fingers.
We did our cleaning work outside the gym, only going inside when we finished cleaning one bag and went to grab another one.
Just by chance, one time when I was inside the gym, I saw an old lady going through piles of pictures, looking through one picture after another one with a magnifying glass.
Then I heard her saying, “Oh…! This…! This is mine!” She then held the pictures against her chest with both hands. Her eyes went half open half closed. She continued in a lower voice with a smile on her face, ”Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
She kept smiling while rubbing tears off from one corner of her eye.
There were tears for having lost something important that could never be replaced.
There were tears for having found the important things that she had thought were lost forever.
At that moment, I thought I began to understand what all the work was for.
Before we took off from Tokyo, in a conversation I had with another leader, I heard, “In Japan, the way to clean up a disaster area is to use our hands, to dig into the debris and find things that may be important to victims. If we use only machines to quickly move everything away, everything would then be destroyed. Victims would then have absolutely nothing left.”
Victims’ memories were buried under the debris. Their treasures were there under the debris.
I was lucky enough to be able to see the lady’s smile. I was there for only 3 days but understand the meaning of this trip.
Whenever a natural disaster happened before, the earthquakes in Sichuan and Haiti, the flooding in Katrina, I had just made some donations and continue my own life.
But the day when this earthquake happened, it was strong and long enough that I was on my knees at my place, holding onto the door arches. My mind went blank. Then there was the continuous sadness from watching what happened in Tohoku and the fear from Fukushima nuclear
power plant crisis. I saw many tears of others and my own. Watching all these, I felt as if I was being forced to read a book with missing pages. I couldn’t understand what it all meant. There were times I wanted to put down this book. But I thought to myself: this was an essential lesson for me. I chose to keep reading and started looking for the missing pages.
It was a conscious effort to control my emotions and worries over the past months since the quake happened. I kept doing different things, hoping I could find the answer. I patiently waited for the chance to come to Tohoku.
On my way from Tokyo to Miyagi, road signs of Fukushima, Souma, Miyagi, (names of places that I didn’t know of until after this triple disaster) showed up one after another on the window of my bus. Whenour bus finally arrived in Ishinomaki, it was as if I finally reached
the black hole deep inside my heart.
I still couldn’t fully understand what I have learned from this volunteer trip. But I could see the missing pages slowly surfacing.
I came to Tohoku for myself.
And after the trip, I found myself looking at this disaster memory more directly than before.
“Thanks,”Something I wanted to say to the old lady I saw in the gym.
Her smile brought me courage.
I could never imagine what she had gone through since the tsunami.