by Emma MacHugh '10

I was an English teacher in a rural town called Kami when the first earthquake struck. I wasn’t afraid until the second earthquake began to dance on the heels of the first. By the time the fourth earthquake swallowed the third, the other teachers and I managed to find our legs and stumble downstairs to the sports field. We stood in the falling snow and watched the pool water crash over the sides.

I was 31 miles from Sendai and 93 miles from the Fukushima power plants, and I had no idea what was going on in the rest of Japan. I didn’t know how far the tsunami stretched and I didn’t know about the glowing nuclear reactors. I spent five days patiently waiting for the power to come back on so we could resume regular life again. When the power did come back on, I realized that regular life wouldn’t return to the Tohoku area for decades. Whole towns had been swallowed by the tsunami, and the damage from the salt water on the rice fields would cause problems for years. Elsewhere, buildings, roads, and bridges were falling to pieces. My school was still standing, but because of the lack of power and damaged roads, class was canceled indefinitely.

In a strange twist of fate, I had spoken to my supervisor a week and a half before the earthquake about absolving my contract because of health reasons. I had been back and forth to the hospital for almost four months without a solid diagnosis, and I was considering returning to the United States so that I wouldn’t have to conduct my doctor’s appointments in Japanese any longer. I was hesitant to leave because I loved what I was doing in Japan, but the earthquake made the decision for me. When my peers in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program decided to leave because of the looming potential nuclear disaster, I left as well. I wasn’t sure I would be able to find the help I needed in hospitals filled with homeless refugees. I felt I was being selfish by staying in this suffering foreign country when I had the opportunity to seek answers in my own.

It took a little over three days to make it out of the area. I was traveling with three other American English teachers from my town. I left with only the clothes on my back, a few pairs of socks, and a couple of shirts. We didn’t know how long our journey would take, so we packed whatever food we had: hard-boiled eggs, two bags of apples, a bag of raw carrots, and a few water bottles between us.

We made it into Sendai without any trouble. The city was empty except for lines of people waiting for buses out, or for grocery store rations. The city had a wet quality, which could have been from the persistent snow, or from the creeping rivers of salt water receding from the corners of buildings. Parts of the coastal area of the city had been damaged by the tsunami but most of the city remained intact.

We stood in line for two and a half hours for a three- hour bus trip to Yamagata, west over the mountains. I was on the waiting list for a plane ticket at the local Yamagata Airport and needed to show up in person just in case there was a spot for me. We had small goals. Get on the bus. Get off the bus. Take the next bus. Wait in line. I think we were all subsisting on about an apple a day and maybe three hours of sleep. There was no alternative, really. We just had to keep moving.

When we arrived in Yamagata, the clerk told me there was no space for me on any of the flights for the next week. So I said goodbye to my friends and took one bus north to Tsuruoka, then another one south along the coast to Niigata, which had the only working bullet train stop in all of Northern Japan. It was zero degrees Fahrenheit and there was at least 10 feet of snow when I arrived. Finally I got on a bullet train that took me to Tokyo and my friend Peggy. For those last few days, she shoveled as much Japanese food and culture into me as she possibly could. Then she put me on a plane and sent me home.

My mother was waiting in tears at the airport while my father sat outside in the car. My boyfriend had flown up secretly from Florida to make sure I was all right. He said he was afraid to tell me he was coming in case it broke the preternatural calm I had maintained since I left my apartment in Kami. That calm lasted through the turkey sandwich my sister made for me and a few hours of lying in bed trying to sleep. I don’t remember why the first tear broke through, but once falling they were hard to stop. For the first few weeks I kept thinking the ground was shaking. The girls from my town who returned to the US eventually went back to Japan. It was hard being the only one to remain, but I can only believe I had made the right decision in coming home.

Emma MacHugh '10 lives in Miami Beach, Florida with her boyfriend and two kittens. She is bartending at the Chow Down Grill in South Beach while she studies for her Florida teacher's certification.