today we have an important anniversary. As some of you know, I have tried to avoid talking about this for six years now. Since some time, however, I have come to realise that this date is an unerasable part of my story and who I am today, and I’ve decided to finally share it.
When I decided to go abroad for a year, I was way too young, but as it often comes with being young, I firmly believed I could achieve anything. So in September 2010, at the naive age of only fifteen, I hugged my parents goodbye at Hamburg Airport and got on my plane to Tokyo, Japan.
“A year abroad will change you.” As soon as I had applied for the exchange, this chorus was repeated to me from all directions. When I looked out of the plane’s window, the earth several ten thousand feed beneath me, I presumtously thought I’d understood.
There were many things I had underestimated. The euphoria I felt in the first month soon became a bit tainted. Life in a host family was not always easy and communication really became a problem sooner than I’d expected. To get more precise, I was expected to change families, but nobody told me. I severely struggled with the language and soon had to find out that not being able to talk meant not being able to make friends.
But some people were admirably persistent. I did make friends, I did find my place both in my new host family and among the students of my class. I finally made progress with the language and was actually able to have clumsy conversations without switching to English out of insecurities. After a very hard six months in Japan, things were actually starting to look up.
On the day of the Tohoku Earthquake, exams were to be written in St. Ursula High School of Hachinohe.
As the two exchange students with the least communication abilities, my friend Sara and I had been relieved from taking any them and waited for our host sisters in an empty class room. We had been running off from the school grounds earlier to buy some off the Japanese sweets we were addicted to and just chatted away like we used to do.
We didn’t think much of it, when the earthquake started. It really wasn’t unusual and just a few days ago, there was another one. We did however decide on casually walking away from the heater we had been leaning against. As soon as we had walked our steps, the trembling seemed to increase. I got immensely scared. We hid under the next desks, as everybody always tells you to do, and I remember doubting they would actually be able to save me, should the ceiling come down. I got lucky Sara was with me.
We got evacuated to the gym. I don’t actually remember much of that, which is really frustrating. I was there, I talked to people, I heard the teachers advising us, I even send my family E-Mails that I was okay but scared – but I do not remember any of that actively.
The most confusing part is that, somehow, I don’t know how much later, I was at the town’s train station, slowly realising everything. By that time there were policemen and firemen, calmly but firmly evacuating everyone, because of the tsunami coming our way. Hachinohe is a town directly at the sea, with an important harbour, and although the tsunami arrived considerably late and slow, it was destructable.
As one of the fire fighters continuosly tried to talk to me with the help of a station employee, who happened to speak English, my host mum found me. It must have been pure intuition and a lot of luck, because the entire mobile network had already shut down. As she hugged me and – probably – scolded me for disappearing from the gym, I just cried and thought that as soon as we would arrive at their house, everything would go back to normal.
For the entire 24 hours following, nothing was normal. We lacked electricity and water. Everyone of the family got their blankets and slept in the living room to share heat. I don’t even remember what we were eating, but my host family was well prepared for an emergency. They had food stored, flashlights and a portable radio. We kept listening to the it for hours that night, but I didn’t understand a word.
I was given the responsibility over the family dog. Strong aftershocks happened every other hour and we would all have to leave the house until it was over. By the end of the day we would know one was coming, because the dog ran into my arms.
Sunday morning started bustling, when suddenly the lights turned on and all phones reconnected to the service at 6 am. I got up immediately and turned on my laptop. It was late night in Germany, but so many people were still up. My grandparents were the first to contact me and slowly I began realising, that the earthquake didn’t just affect our town, not even just our area. And I saw the destruction the tsunami had caused – at the coasts and at the nuclear power plant of Fukushima.
It soon became clear, that I couldn’t stay. But it took me almost one more week until I arrived back in Germany.
Leaving was the right thing to do, but in the following weeks I did nothing but trouble myself with penetrating what-ifs. Everybody wanted to hear the story I could tell, but I just wished everything had turned out different. It took me months to stop feeling the ground shake at random and then again some more time to stop being scared of meeting new people, because they could ask me about my time in Japan.
Nuclear energy is generally an eagerly discussed topic in Germany and in 2011, because of the accident following the tsunami, the discussions became even more heated than before. Naturally I got confronted with it every other day, personally and in classes, but reduced my opinion to general statements, rather than talking from personal experience, simply because I couldn’t without being overwhelmed with anxiety.
I know how presumtous I must sound: At least I got to leave all of that disaster behind, while my friends and my host families had to live with it. I was too young to help and too young to understand. It took me a while to mature enough to understand at least that.
Going back to Japan last year settled many things for me again. Call it compensation, but I feel more stable this year than I felt the other years around the anniversary. And even though I still don’t remember many things that happened in that week, I got the feeling, it would be important to share those memories that did make me me after all.