Tuesday, March 22, 2011


By Susan Spilecki

Seeing the devastation in Northern Japan since the tsunami and the earthquakes, I don't know what to say. I am at a loss for words. But I do know that my former neighbors need our help, both spiritually and financially.

I lived in southern Japan from 1990 to 1992, teaching conversational English and studying kendo, Japanese swordsmanship. Every day on my way to and from the English school I saw those many of those distinctive tile roofs with the turned-up eaves that are so very Japanese. And now I am watching videos on Youtube that show roofs like these washing out to sea or washing inland onto acres and acres of farms.

My conversational Japanese back then was good enough. I could say of my struggles with grammar, “Muzukashi desu neh!” It is difficult, isn’t it! I could sympathize with my fellow teacher who had biked to school in a sudden downpour, “Taihen desu...” “That’s too bad…” But I never learned any words that would begin to express what those people in Hokkaido and northern Honshu are facing now.

During my time in Japan, the people were uniformly kind and helpful. Once, traveling in Kyoto, I got lost looking for a bus station. The official tourist map did not represent a one-to-one correspondence with the streets and blocks. I stood staring at the map and the street. A man approached, saying, “Do you speak English? Do you need help?” And then, because he had exhausted his English vocabulary, he guided me the nine city blocks to where the bus station actually was.

My students were excited to learn. I remember “Fred,” from my class of five-year-olds. They were taking a listening test, responding to a taped voice saying things like “Color Cookie Monster’s nose pink.” He jumped up in the middle of the test, shouting, “Eigo ga wakatta!” I understand English! He’s probably in college now. Could he possibly now be living near the quake zone?

When I heard of the tsunami, I went online and donated money to groups working to rescue humans and animals—because animals suffer too during natural disasters—and I looked for my former employer on LinkedIn, a professional networking site. She replied, “In Matsuyama all are okay so far. Haven't had any tremors yet, except those of the heart... It is really devastating and unbelievable.”

On behalf of the people who were so hospitable to me when I was a stranger in their midst, I ask you to do what you can to aid them. Donate to the relief efforts. Equally importantly, hold them in your prayers. God can do what we can’t.

Susan Spilecki is a student at Episcopal Divinity School. She teaches writing at Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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