International Studies & Programs

To students of a suspended JCMU 2020 program:

A message from JCMU alumni that went through their own early program suspension

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Published: Thursday, 12 Mar 2020 Author:

You’re probably feeling a lot of things given all that is happening with the COVID-19 pandemic: anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion.

If you or someone you care about has been affected by the suspension of current and upcoming JCMU summer programs, these feelings are likely sudden and intense.

While no one else can understand exactly how this experience has affected you, we reached out to some of our alumni from spring 2011. JCMU programs were suspended that semester due to the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disasters. They hope that their words below might provide some level of solace despite the current challenges.

  1. Addie Geissel

  2. Sara Caudill

  3. Amy Braun

 

Addie Geissel

I was wondering if JCMU may face suspending the spring semester due to COVID-19, so I wasn’t surprised to hear about it. What I did find odd is that this is happening almost exactly 9 years after our semester got suspended. I was looking at the calendar yesterday and wondered why March 11th had such a familiar and strange weight to the date. It struck me that it was the anniversary of when the earthquake struck.  

I have a few words for the students in such a similar situation there now. 

It sucks. It honestly sucks to have a semester cut short by something so entirely outside of your control, especially a semester abroad that you made so many plans for and hopefully have been enjoying. I remember the confusion, the fear, the worry, and the anger at the decision to suspend the semester and have to return home. I also know the school is doing their best to keep you as safe as possible, and sometimes that means having to make this hard decision. 

There will likely be things you will regret not being able to do and things and people that you will miss. I still see the pictures of other semester’s graduation ceremonies and feel a twinge of sadness that we could not do that. 

My sister was starting to think about packing at this time 9 years ago as we had plans to explore Japan together during the break between semesters. I was so looking forward to sharing one of my favorite places with a family member and was upset that I would not get that chance.

Luckily I was able to go back to JCMU the summer of 2012 for the internship program. But by that time, my language teacher had unexpectedly passed away so I was unable to see her again. So the confusion and mixed feelings weren’t fully resolved.

I will say that the semester being suspended did not erase the experiences and relationships built up to that point. I still have wonderful memories of that semester: building a Totoro snowman with classmates, eating curry and naan at Sapna’s, visiting Vidal’s, living with my host family, and crazy biking adventures in the snow and sleet. I still remember getting soaked on the way to school and shivering in class until my jeans dried - learned my lesson to bring extra clothes! I stayed in contact with some of my classmates from that semester and am honestly glad I met them.

The semester at JCMU, even if it was cut short, changed me greatly. I went from a completely shy and reserved person to feeling more confident with myself. It took many years of building on that to not feel quite so shy, but even so it was worthwhile. Without the experiences at JCMU, I likely wouldn’t have changed much. For that I am grateful for the opportunity to study abroad there. 

So right now, I feel your pain, confusion, anger, and sadness. Those emotions will likely stick around for a while. What would be good to do now is to take every day as it comes. Figure out what the next step is for returning home. Make the most of the remaining time you have there. Protect the relationships you have built as they will help get you through this. Once the dust settles, then think on the good memories, the fun ones, and even the difficult memories. Process them in your own way. 

And yes, it sucks and is so devastating right now to have your time there torn out from under you. Just try to remember that JCMU is responsible for making sure you are as safe as possible, and they hate to have to make these difficult decisions. I know I would have hated to be in their shoes back in 2011, and I would hate to have to make another tough decision like this. That said, they are trying their best to keep you safe.

I still remember enjoying karaoke (Ring Ding Dong by SHINee) with my friends when the earthquake hit. We all looked at each other and wondered what was going on. I didn’t find out fully what happened until I got back to my host family’s house and saw the news. Those memories are still vivid for me, and similar ones may be vivid for you as you think back on this time. 

I’ve had 9 years to process what happened when our semester was suspended due to the 2011 earthquake. For you, this is happening right now. Because of that, what I have to say may not sink in fully as you might be overwhelmed just dealing with everything. Just know that I’ve had time to process. You haven’t. The “wound” has healed over for me. For you, it’s fresh. It does take time. Be kind to yourself and others. 

This ended up being much longer than I thought it would be, but I hope it helped a little bit for even one of you. I don’t know you, but I’m thinking of you at this time and am wishing you safe travels home. I hope that you are able to process what has happened in your own ways.

Amy Braun

I remember the day they told us that we had to go home like it was yesterday.

We gathered around in one of the classrooms before Friday's special activities. I could never forget the faces of my peers when they told us that we had to go home for safety reasons. Shocked faces. Angry faces. Confused faces. And faces with tears of heartbreak running down.

I was one of the people with so many tears running down my face. I cried so much that day, heartbroken and terribly sad. I didn't want my experience in Japan to end just yet. I wanted to stay here a little bit more as I wasn’t ready to part from a country that I loved since I was little. At that time, I thought this would be the final time that I was able to experience Japan.

But here I am, living in Nagoya nine years after the March 11th earthquakes. Although I had to leave JCMU (and Japan) on March 26, 2011, it didn't mean I wouldn't be able to come back. Exactly a year after I left Japan, I moved back to Japan permanently. I've been living here in Japan for about eight years now.

My message to you that this is not the end. Hopefully, the coronavirus is just temporary. But, Japan isn't: it is here to stay forever. You will always find a way to come back.

Sara Caudill

Hey, folks. I was lost after Japan. I wish I could say I'm all better now, but I want to be honest with you: my trauma lingers. Only in the past year have I begun to seek counseling for this and other upheavals I've experienced in my life. So first of all, I just want to let you know that your feelings are valid because you're feeling them. If you need to talk to a medical professional to express them, please don't wait almost ten years to begin the process.

Secondly, I want to let you know that despite my residual fear of displacement, I've gone on to do some wild things. I pressed pause on returning to Japan for a time. Though my dream since middle school had been to move to Japan after college, I set it aside. The pain was still pretty raw after I graduated in 2012. So instead, I went on to do a Fulbright ETA grant in South Korea. I met best friends there; I met my wife there; I played so much damn ultimate frisbee there. I also traveled—all throughout Southeast Asia any chance I could. I WWOOFed in southern Thailand; I spent a New Year's at a drag show in Cebu; I played even more frisbee in Borneo.

Eventually, I did return to Japan. The first time was, as luck would have it, by necessity. I needed to do a visa run, and the cheapest option was to fly to Kobe. It felt good to be back. I went up to see my host family in Kawase while I was there and it meant the world. I returned to Japan once more, this time on a Spring Break trip with my now-wife. We stayed with my host family. We visited Hikone. We walked along Lake Biwa.

Like I said, I still feel pangs of hurt from time to time. Maybe you'll feel pangs, too. But I hope that you, too, will go on to do some wild things. Good luck, friends. Next time you're in Columbus, Ohio, feel free to reach out. I can't throw a frisbee anymore (turns out too much frisbee will wreck your body), but I'll be around if you want to chat.

I'll leave you with an essay I wrote one year after the 3/11 disasters in Japan:

太陽の西 (Taiyō no Nishi, "West of the Sun")

I got in my car and went west.

I had forgotten the raw chicken breast I intended to grill among the grocery bags the day before, but I had remembered to refrigerate the eggs. The cooler in the passenger seat contained them now, all twelve boiled after I woke up before dawn to get ready. Water bottles also jostled in the ice. I had protested about buying plastic (from Wal-Mart, no less), but Lynnie had insisted that my canteen emblazoned with "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" would not cut it for wherever I was going.

She was not the only one concerned. Hutchy and Eli asked me what I would do when I got migraines. I said I would pull over somewhere and wait it out. Two of my parents insisted that I call whenever I stopped to get gas. I said I would try to remember. My third parent wanted to know if I had a baseball bat to take with me. I said I had bought a 14 inch boar hunting knife off Amazon for nineteen dollars plus tax (I had, but I canceled my order after googling "non-fatal places to stab someone" had yielded off-putting results).

In my car, I also carried:

  • a GPS that refused to acknowledge West Virginia's existence;
  • a poorly chosen novel for a young woman traveling alone (Room, by Emma Donoghue);
  • a stack of CDs I had commissioned friends to make for the drive;
  • and three frisbees.

I went west because I did not know where I was going.

I had spent five months blurred around the edges; a smudge after careless hands had not waited for the ink to dry. Five months doing nothing that warranted a photo to trot out online (and five months refusing to look at photos from the previous three). Five months exhausted in the mornings from the archive of processed, filed, but never stored memories that were pulled from the shelves every night-

Wandering the city with the fourth bottle of convenience store wine passing between us. Breathing in the sweet stench of rotting leaves and staring down at the elevator testing facility in the valley. Failing to push him off of me in the internet café where some of us passed out much sooner than others-

I drove 5,144 miles, you know. The kicker is that the truth I was seeking sprouted in my head within ten minutes of getting on I-64. I could have turned around. I would have saved a lot of gas (I am a guilt-ridden hypocrite) and a lot of Excedrin Migraine (driving exacerbates the thumping in my head).

I also would have saved:

  • the lives of millions [of insects];
  • one bird;
  • and an animal that could have been an opossum.

That possible opossum saved my life. The twenty-two hour stretch from South Dakota to Missouri is a dark one. Google says that a human can drive approximately ten to twelve hours safely in one go. I did not listen. Smashing into an unidentified animal at 4:30am on an unlit swamp road really wakes a person up, though.

Building tiny mountains of sea glass on the shore. Piling all the clothing we had packed on my shaking body that night we were homeless. Logging off after he had looked me in the eyes over the internet and asked, "What happened to the classy girl I used to know?"

Haruki Murakami knows earthquakes.

He wrote a book about them after Kobe (after the quake). Mr. Murakami also gave a speech about earthquakes in Barcelona on June 9, 2011 ("Speaking as an Unrealistic Dreamer"). During it, he mentioned the concept of 無常(mujō, transience). 無常 is something of a Japanese mantra: that all things must pass away. Haruki Murakami assured his audience that the Japanese are not fatalistic sociopaths. He said that the fleeting moments-cherry blossoms tumbling off trees, the moon on a sticky summer night-bring us the peace of knowing that things have changed long before us and will continue to do so long after us.

By the end of my drive, I had lost:

  • seven pounds;
  • my assumption that Nebraska was the dullest state in America;
  • much of my long-standing resentment towards my mother;
  • and my grief at being incomplete.

At 2:45pm on March 11, 2011, I was shopping for a pencil case in Minami-Hikone, Shiga-ken, Japan. To my north, 16,000 people were about to die.

I used to believe I knew that people die,

houses burn,

things are lost.

But every day that goes by without tragedy allows me to forget a little bit more, until I am reminded again.

Standing in front of the television, watching as the waves fanned out across the dry earth.