A Bittersweet Homecoming

Every single night after the (upgraded to) 9.0 magnitude earthquake happened, an aftershock or two would shake the apartment slowly but violently – waking me from another nightmare of burning up in nuclear radiation rays. When that occurred, I would go through a few long moments of sheer terror – trying not to think of how the apartment was located on the twelfth floor and that the elevators would cease to work during an earthquake, putting me in immense danger. But after those first seconds of paralyzing fear ticked by, a tranquility would come over me like fog. I would close my eyes then, to lose myself in the rocking motion until I hit a meditative state, in which nothing was passing frantically through my mind. I did not do this purposefully and am not quite sure, still, how I was able to find calm naturally in situations such as this.  Perhaps it was because I was able to trust myself. Yes, I had no control of the happening of natural disasters or the future, but I knew that I could handle whatever came my way – and if, in the worst case scenario, I ended up hurt or dying, because I knew that I had lived a life filled with happiness, I could die satisfied. In other words, when I think of it now, I was not fearful of dying on my own, away from my family and friends…

But then the earthquake in Shizuoka happened. Like always, I woke up sweating, my heart beating a hundred times a minute, and like always, I laid still in my bed to wait it out. Yet this earthquake – because it occurred closer to Tokyo than the other aftershocks – was not calm and short like the others. Instead, the sound of wood slamming against wood somewhere in the apartment filled my ears as my stomach tried fiercely to get used to the irregular rocking. I tried to close my eyes to find my inner peace, but there had been too many quakes, too much fear of the radiation from the nuclear plant, that I finally hit a breaking point. My parents, friends and family back home were worried sick about me and it occurred to me that if I passed away here, away from them, even if I was fine with that, they would not be. I realized that if I had a child in the same situation as me, I would want her to come home or get out of danger’s way immediately. As these realizations overpowered my mind, I just could not handle it all on my own anymore…and I found myself jumping out of bed to go to the living room, to see if the others were not worried about the earthquake as well.

There, Hyuma-san and Yuko-san’s mother were watching the news on television intently. “There has been a magnitude six earthquake in Shizuoka, ” Hyuma-san informed me as I walked in, to turn quickly back to the TV. “There is no fear of a tsunami because it occurred on land.” Those words filled me with relief at first, but listening to the news made it clear that this earthquake had happened on a different tectonic plate than the 9.0 magnitude quake in northern Japan. In other words, this was not an aftershock like all of the rest. This fact brought back the rapid beats of my heart because now, we had to worry about earthquakes happening on two plates…and even though I was supposed to go down to my grandmother’s house down in Nagoya the next day, there was a possibility that the Shikansen would stop – especially if another quake happened there – causing me to be stuck in Tokyo.

It was then that I made up my mind that I wanted to go home to America. Up until then, I had brushed that option away from my mind, since there was still so much I wanted to do in Tokyo during my last three months there. I had wanted to see the famous cherry blossom trees that draped branches made heavy with pink, sweet-smelling flowers over the Sumida River, was looking forward to going back to school to take challenging, interesting classes once more, had wanted to interview more Tokyo citizens and desperately craved to go down to Nagoya to sleep next to my hilarious Obaachan (grandma) and listen with all my might to her stories and wise lessons. But more than anything, I had wanted to say goodbye properly, with letters, presents, words and tears – to my precious school friends, teachers, host families, and to Tokyo. Yet those thoughts were pushed far from the center of my mind after this new development and I found myself chatting on Facebook with my parents to see if I could get on a plane home.

Thanks to the wonderful and somewhat mysterious power of Joel – even though it was said that the last ticket out of Tokyo was already sold – by the time I went to sleep that night (near one in the morning), I had a ticket out of Narita to Chicago, in a business class seat at that!

After head-pounding hours of lying in my bed, desperately trying to sleep and failing to, I finally got up at five AM to talk to my parents again to figure out the game plan and to try to put something into my churning stomach. I knew I could only handle vegetables, so I ate a whole carrot – and when I tried to finish a hamburger I had left the night before, I threw it up…

I did not actually believe that I would be really be able to come home to Chicago – I feared that something would go wrong and I would be stuck in Tokyo with no way home – while I gathered all of my belongings in two huge, heavy suitcases and one small one, bid a tearful goodbye to Akiko-san and Saki-chan and put use to my arm muscles to carry the suitcases up train stairs with the help of my program director, only to find out that the trains to Narita were closed down. So we took the second option, which was to take a bus.

During the bumpy, hour-long ride to Narita, I text messaged all of my precious classmates to inform them of my decision to head home. “I am so very sorry to leave without saying a proper goodbye,” I wrote, while tears welled up, not quite spilling over just yet, “but I will be back to see you guys. Please come to my house in America!!” Then I stared back at the disappearing skyscrapers and looked forward to the flat towns and rice fields ahead…and I remembered arriving here a lifetime ago, scared out of my mind, blown away by the sight of so many people, of the crowded trains and towering buildings. I saw myself at my all-girls’ high school, in full uniform, laughing and talking to my sweet classmates, writing heartfelt letters to my favorite teachers, challenging myself with the coursework…and with that, memories – colorful and realistic – in the form of moving pictures, flooded forth. I saw the moonlit walk home across Tokyo after the earthquake with Aya, listening to Lady Gaga, saw little Yushin-kun point out places on a map of America and feeling the warmth of that laughter fill me with happiness, felt the beauty of Tamasaburo’s dainty, white fingers as he danced in the kabuki play, felt my first tears and heart-wrenching fear at the realization that my cell phone would be taken away at school, saw the gleeful, energetic smile of the old woman in that deep black kimono as she danced at the Bon Odori festival and finally, I felt the little feet of the swallow grabbing at the skin of my hand as it spread its wings to fly away.

And I realized that as I hoped so long ago that that fragile, tiny swallow would make its way safely to the Philippians, to return again someday, all I could do in this disastrous, dangerous,  terrifying situation was to hope. I could only hope with all my might that the nuclear power plant would find a solution and stop letting out radiation, could only hope that my friends and family would not be in harm’s way in the coming months and that there would be no more huge, devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, or across the world…

When we arrived at the airport, I was blown away by the sheer number of people who filled the airport – mass chaos seemed to be ensuing. There were long lines, with worried-faced men, women and children holding tight to their luggage, waiting patiently to check in. I was now on my own and I had no clue what to do… so again, terror and worry filled me, but luckily, this time, after a few moments of freaking out, I was able to persuade myself that I could do this and my usual calm returned. So I set out to find the American airlines check-in, dragging  my two heavy suitcases through tiny openings of people and suitcases, apologizing constantly. After asking a couple of people of the location, one woman in uniform finally pointed me in the right direction.

After handing over my two heavy suitcases, I tried to remember what I would have to do next and decided to sit down in the seats in the middle of the airport for a second. Glancing down at my phone, I saw that Sae-san, a very, very kind woman who was a relative of my father’s host family in Nagoya, had called me multiple times, so I called her back to tell her I was safely in the airport. As her relieved cries filled my ear, the airport began to shake – another earthquake. Fear rippled through the lines and lines of people and the others sitting in the seats in front, back and to the side of me. The man who had been staring into his phone, sitting in the seat right in front of me jumped up in shock. Yet I did not budge – I was too used to earthquakes by then…

Because of the wonderful calls from Sae-san, who helped me calmly and easily through the airplane process, I was able to make it to my gate with two hours to spare. I was unable to call my parents to tell them of this news, so I found a pay-to-use internet service nearby, to email them instead. I kept on texting my friends and called Aya just ten minutes before boarding, to tell her goodbye. Many times, I found myself dangerously close to tears, but not wanting to bawl in front of those waiting in the seats at the gate with me, I held them fiercely back.

On the eleven hour plane ride home, I had nightmares every time the plane rocked that I was in a gigantic earthquake again and when I would wake up, I would be terrified that the airplane was going down and that I would not be able to make it home to Daddy and Mommy and all of my loving family and friends…

Luckily, the plane arrived safely into O’Hare International Airport and I went through Customs, gathered my luggage to put on a cart and showed my passport a couple of times, all in a sleepy daze, feeling a bit sick to my stomach from the bumpy ride.

Suddenly, I heard my name. “Sotchan!!” “Sora-chan!!” I looked up to see Daddy and Mommy jumping up and down outside the clear sliding door, waving away. That woke me up – and I began to run, rolling the heavy cart all the way out the door and into their arms.

Home sweet home. 🙂


  1. barbara says:

    this is sooo sooo beautiful, so like a scope into your heart. i am sitting here in tears, pouring down. i held my breath along with you, i felt queazy at the story of your waking up and only being able to stomach a carrot. i saw the kaleidoscope of images as you rode the bus to narita. i felt the crush of the crowds, and the worry right along side you that somehow you wouldn’t get onto that plane, that plane wouldn’t get off the ground….and then, as you finally landed and saw and heard your parents, i cried in great joy and relief that you are safe. that you, the poet of congerville, are back to the soils that sustain you. you will get back to japan i know it. i ache that you didn’t get to see the cherry blossoms, heavy on the bough. and most of all i ache that you didn’t get to soak up the stories and the wisdom of your dear dear grandma. thank you for writing this, and telling us yet another one of your unforgettable stories…..
    xoxox b

  2. Yvette says:

    This is so beautifully written, so heartfelt, so moving… I felt your range of emotions, choking back my tears as I read, then moved to tears, sadness, joy….Thank you Zoe for sharing your experiences with us…and so grateful that you are safely home in Illinois

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