Moved by the Earth

My apartment shakes every day. Sometimes it's caused by a truck passing by, or a strong wind, or the washing machine banging around on my balcony. It can be just a slight bouncing of the floor if it's a large truck, or maybe the windows rattling against each other from a typhoon's aftermath. It's usually nothing to worry about. Other times, though, it's louder. Angrier. The sliding doors in my living room start to bang together with the windows, the floor feels like it's sliding around, and I stop in my tracks. Earthquake. There are warnings for everything else that shakes me; the roaring of passing engines, alerts on the news about strong winds, knowing that I'm doing a load of laundry. Earthquakes have no tell-tale signs. Just once there was a loud beeping on my phone with a warning written in serious Japanese about “a big shake”, only seconds before the cups in my cabinet began their violent chiming. They don't come too often, and it's never been serious for me yet, but that doesn't stop my heart from leaping into my throat when I can feel a building rumble. ---------------- When I first came to Japan as an exchange student in 2017, we had an earthquake safety lesson as part of our orientation. The local fire department brought a truck that housed a fake kitchen with a table. We took turns in groups of four, sitting at the table and waiting for the simulated quake to start. We all had to get underneath the table, hold on to the legs, and remember that this is what to do in a high-magnitude earthquake. For the first few rounds, almost everybody was laughing. It was funny to see our new classmates clumped so close together under a folding table, being tossed around like it was a carnival ride. Eventually the volunteer from the fire department asked our program coordinator to translate something to us. He was confused by our laughter. This truck was used to prepare people for what could be one of the worst disasters they will face in their lives. Within the next 30 years, there will be a massive earthquake in the Tokyo area. It's expected to be so strong that older apartment buildings will be completely demolished, and even new buildings with strong reinforcements will face severe damage. We were supposed to be learning how to survive. We were using a tool designed to help save lives. Despite all that, I still wasn't afraid of my first earthquake. I was still a student. In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of coins bouncing up and down on the glass desk next to my bed. The bedframe was squeaking and I could hear everything around me bend. When it ended, there was complete silence. I fell back asleep almost right away. It was slightly thrilling to feel the earth moves in ways I didn't expect. ---------------- I'm back living in Japan and have been here for about a year. The earthquakes are now a normal part of my life here but they are no longer fun. They're a constant looming thundercloud, always visible and about to burst. Every time I'm in a new place I look for a new table to hide under if I think about what I would hide under if another “big shake” hit. I worry about how old my apartment building is. I keep an emergency supplies backpack in the same room as my bed, just in case one hits while I'm asleep. For a long time, I couldn't place why my feelings changed so suddenly. Was I just younger and more fearless? Have I gotten more cautious in my old(er) age? Maybe, but now I think it's that I feel more connected to my life here. When I was studying abroad, I always knew there was a four-month timer to everything happening. All my yen would become meaningless back in the United States, my transportation passes wouldn't get me anywhere, and all my new clothes would come back with me to the great state of Ohio. Sure, I'll probably end up moving back to the United States eventually, but I've built up a living here. I've been decorating my apartment. The waiters at the ramen shop around the corner know what my order will be before I even sit down. I have so much more to lose. And deeper than that, I understand the people around me so much more. I've made lasting friendships with my coworkers and had long conversations about what it means to grow up in Japan. One day I asked somebody why it's so hard to find any candles; they asked me why a country with constant earthquakes would sell something with an open flame. Through our conversations I've come to learn how seriously earthquakes and typhoons are taken, and through my experiences seen just how devastating they can be. By talking to people and being open to what they have to say, I came to understand just how vital going through the earthquake simulation I had once mocked really was. ---------------- My apartment shakes every day, and it always scares me. But it also reminds me of how much I've learned, how many wonderful people I've talked to, and how much I love the place that I am now.


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Michael Kelso

Author of Crime/Mystery novels, and short hor...

Schellsburg, United States