Whenever I see Sendai in the news

March 11, 2012 at 8:32 am (Articles / Interviews) (, , )

Whenever I see Sendai in the news, I’m automatically brought back to seven years ago. I had just graduated from high school, but as a sort of last hurrah I was allowed to join a contingent of exchange students to Japan. Our school had a sister school in Sendai, and we were to be paired up with students from there. We’d have a week to live with them and their families – it’s since turned out to be the longest week of my life, for all the best reasons.

Don't overlook Sendai

Sendai was beautiful. The city melded with the province, so it wasn’t a strict urban sprawl – there were trees, and a sense of space you wouldn’t get walking around, say, Tokyo.

And it was so clean. When you grow up in Quezon City, it’s difficult to imagine an urban area can reach that level of clean. Together with the cleanliness was a feeling of calm and order. I remember seeing pre-school kids walking down the street without a care in the world. In these adorable yellow hats. Like something out of a cartoon.

And then there were the people. I was assigned to a girl named Manami. She had a mother, a father, a younger brother, and a dog. She had an older sister too, but she was off in University, so I got to take her half of the bunk bed.

When you’re in a country you’ve never gone to before, in that heavily awkward situation where you’re the only person in the group who will be unable to properly communicate with everyone else, you’re going to hope you land with a nice family. Manami’s family was way nicer than I would have thought possible.

They were all so intent on making my stay a good one, even if it meant purposely engaging in awkwardness – her father trying to make small talk with me, asking me if the currency of the Philippine was the “Filipino Dollar”, her brother playing me a song on the keyboard (obviously egged on by the mother), Manami rushing to get me a pair of slippers when I unconsciously slipped into my habit of walking around the house without slippers, her mother instructing me on the proper way to eat from a bowl of rice.

None of them could speak much English (they couldn’t even pronounce my name properly), but they’d type up everything they’d have to say to me in the early morning, pass it through Babel Fish, and give me a print-out of the translation. What they’d end up handing over to me was a garbled string of English words, which was sweet and hilarious at the same time, and I’d have to guess that we’d be going on a road trip that day, or I’d be going shopping with the family.

We spent the week in that manner. I got to go to a public bath. My Japanese family took me to a swanky kimono store where I suppose they convinced the manager to let me try on a kimono even if it was pretty obvious they weren’t going to buy anything. They brought me to a neighbour who was a musician, and she played the koto for us. The very least I could do was show as much energy and commitment to this cultural exchange.

What I really wanted to tell them was “thank you for these experiences, I would never have dreamed I’d be able to do all this. This time spent with you exists in a permanent pink cloud inside my heart.” I tried to express it as best as I can, but when the people you’re trying to talk to don’t speak your language, you just revert to ‘thank you’ and ‘thank you very much’, over and over again.

A million other things happened, in that week I spent in Sendai. The student contingent was brought to see the statue of Date Masamune. We witnessed a traditional Japanese wedding in a shrine (completely by accident – the teacher supervising us told us we were very lucky to see it). We were brought to Matsushima, which had the surreal kind of beauty which gives life to stories – stories about the thousands of little islets, the shrine on the rock, the way those crazy sea gulls fly after the boats, if the people onboard happen to have biscuits. Sendai was beautiful.

Matsushima Bay

The last I saw of most of my Japanese family was after the farewell ceremonies, just as the bus that was taking us away was going down the street. I looked out the window and saw they had driven their car right alongside us, and my Japanese family was waving at me from the window. My thoughts were something along the line of ‘what a crazy thing to do’, but it was awesome. I waved back.


Manami, I would see one more time, a few years later, when she and a couple of other girls visited the Philippines. One of the Filipino contingent was taking them out to dinner and my sister (who had also been with the contingent) and I went with them. I remember seeing Manami and thinking she’d grown up a bit – there were freckles all over her face and legs. She had changed her hair. Still couldn’t communicate in English though.

I was so happy to see her, so excited to share everything that happened in my life since (things like getting a boyfriend, and a tattoo, and going to college) I probably fumbled through the entire meeting. But she gave me a hug as she was about to leave, and it was the sort of long, lingering embrace you give to friends you haven’t seen in a while, and don’t expect to see in a while longer. I was struck then by a morbid thought, ‘what if this is the last I ever see her?’

When a thought like that bubbles up, you try to suppress it right away, with things like ‘no, of course I’ll see her again, maybe here, maybe in Japan, maybe somewhere else – you never know what life’s going to bring you.’

Fast forward to 2011. I was working as a journalist for an online publication so I found out just as it happened that some kind of mega-quake had struck Japan. Just as I was writing up the article about it, news of the tsunami came in – that it had struck Sendai. Sendai – and I remembered how clean everything was. Now it was all disappearing under what on CNN looked like a living blanket of mud.

The student contingent who had gone to Sendai were passing news back and forth about our Japanese sisters – who had been heard from, who had not. Some of the contingent had their Japanese sisters on Facebook. I was not one of those.

I had not heard at all from Manami since that dinner a few years back. (And my thought was “oh shit, that really was the last time I’d ever see her.”)I had her address written down, but I’d never sent her a letter. She had given me an e-mail address but the one time I tried sending her a message it didn’t go through, due to some weird technological mismatch.

While watching the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on TV, and reading about it on the Internet, I figured that the real reason I never seriously tried to contact her again was I thought I’d always be able to do it later on. Even if she had gone off and moved to college, I’d still be able to contact her family, wouldn’t I? She’d be far away, but never too far away. So I thought.

During that time, Google put up a website where you could search for people missing in the calamity. I searched for her name among those who had reported they were still alive. A bunch of names came up, but none from her address. I tried searching for her mother and her father and her brother. When I’m trying to be optimistic, I think maybe they just didn’t sound off on the Google website. Or maybe I had just missed their names somehow. Or maybe they were far away when the tsunami struck, maybe they escaped without damage. Other days I mull over the statistics – thousands lost after the calamity – and I think maybe it’s better to assume the worst.
A year has gone by. I know that a lot of our friends in Sendai survived the tsunami, but I still do not know if Manami and her family made it.

Miyagi Prefecture, Sendai, Japan, earthquake and tsunami ruins

I know that Sendai is back on its feet, and it’s recovering from what happened in 2011. I do not doubt the ability of human beings to endure the worst nature has to throw and then pick themselves up again (that lesson learned during Ondoy in 2009, but that’s a different story). But I still don’t know if Manami and her family are among those re-building their lives in the aftermath.

When I find that uncertainty staring at me in the face, I go back to seven years ago, that permanent pink cloud – Manami’s mother making me an obento to bring to school, Manami and I walking in the early morning cold to get to the train station on time, saying good-bye that last day, and telling Manami to smile instead of crying, because what we had experienced together was beautiful and it would always be precious to me.

These memories I preserve as carefully as I can. I find myself holding onto them tight whenever I see Sendai in the news.


Sendai image taken from greychr on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Matsushima image taken from nakae on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Tsunami aftermath image taken Tex Texin from on Flickr. Some rights reserved.


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