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First-Person Account: A Day for Reflection

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Note: Representatives from the International and Multicultural Student Services Office and the English Language Institute at Arkansas Tech University have traveled with Dr. John Watson, vice president for academic affairs, to Ofunato, Japan, to conduct an English language camp for one week. Ofunato was devastated by a tsunami in March 2011. EducationUSA, a program of the U.S. State Department, asked Arkansas Tech to hold an English language camp in Ofunato so that school children can improve their English skills and for to establish ties with the community. Below is part two of a first-person account of the Arkansas Tech delegation’s trip to Japan written and filed from Ofunato by Brent Hogan, instructor in the Arkansas Tech English Language Institute. Sunday was a free day for the Arkansas Tech University International and Multicultural Student Services Office (IMSSO) team, and we were greeted by an earthquake. The local TV reported that it was a 6.0 earthquake off of the coast to our south. It was over a 4.0 in Ofunato, which is not very big, but to those of us who had never been in one, it was odd to be talking and then hear a gradual rumble that evolved into the cabin shaking for over fifteen seconds. Afterwards, a siren sounded and a city official spoke over the loudspeakers. There was no threat of a tsunami. It was just a reminder of where we were and how nervous the people of Japan can be after the 3.11 event. When Yasu Onodera, director of Arkansas Tech IMMSO, was first approached by EducationUSA to hold an English language camp in Ofunato, he showed our team a YouTube video of the tsunami that hit the area (link to video). We sat in shock as the images played on the screen of the water rising, pushing buildings off of their foundations and then the voice of the cameraman crying and praying as his friends and fellow citizens died beneath him. One of our personal goals was to visit the location where this footage was shot. It is located in a residential area of town near the harbor.  The man who shot the video was standing on the side of a road on the edge of a large hillside, barely high enough not to be engulfed by water. In order to be in the exact spot, we watched the YouTube footage on a phone, holding it up to see if we could identify any landmarks from the footage. Within a few minutes, we were able to identify where the man was standing by the few surviving structures seen in the video. Only three buildings remain, one of these has a sign with a seagull on it, and it is now visited by tour groups who can see the damage. On several buildings, such as these, there are blue signs with a white line that indicates the level of the tsunami water. The sign on the central building is near the roof and states that the water was eight meters high. Now, the building is nothing but a warped outer structure, windows empty of glass, and rotted interiors.  Rust has covered a sign pole where the water failed to immediately recede. The area surrounding the three buildings is open gravel lots with spots of tall, uncut grass.  The train tracks are gone. The houses are gone. The people are gone.  There is just a clear view of the harbor where cranes rise into the sky repairing the docks. We stood in that spot for several minutes. The video played as the sadness of the area came over all of us. In my mind, I imagined the water destroying everything in contrast with the emptiness that was below. The video still played on the phone, but at this point, no one was watching. The volume was high though, and we heard the voice of the man wailing, as if he was still beside us, linked through time like a ghost haunting our ears. However, ghosts never really haunt, and true horror will always ring the loudest. After several minutes, I could mourn no more. I turned and walked backed to the van; the others followed, our collective silence still holding. There is only so much quiet observance and remembrance that one can do or the work will never be accomplished and life will not continue. Without walking forward, nothing would have been achieved by the people of Ofunato in the two years since the town was swept away. The pain of the people here will reduce over time, yet, when they least expect it, the memory of the tsunami will reach up from the past and punch them in the heart. This is the nature of all pain. When it happens, they will stop for a moment, reflect, and continue to go forward. They have chosen not to dwell on the past, nor should we. To do otherwise would risk stagnating in sadness and everything would stay dead. This cannot be allowed to happen as there is work to be done. Tomorrow, our camp starts, and we can greet the future of Ofunato. We will have almost 100 smiling, happy faces greeting us at our 9 a.m. orientation. All of us are excited to meet them and extend the hope that their parents and families give to them every day. Read part one of Brent Hogan's first-person account from Ofunato.]]>