It’s been one year since the 9.2 earthquake rocked Japan, causing a tsunami that killed over 15,000 people, and injuring twice that number. I’m so glad Marvin Kwon wasn’t one of them.
I was in Belfast, Maine that day, sprawled out on my mother’s overstuffed purple couch making extensive lists, preparing to come to Korea. Marvin was in Sendai, on the coast of Japan, hovered under a desk in art class at his school, focused on the seemingly ceaseless jolting and jouncing – and his classmate crying nearby.
He remembers this: Glass breaking. Teachers hustling students onto buses. Cold, snow. He didn’t have his coat. Calmness and apprehension; compliance and fear. Aftershocks that went on for hours. A barely warm school bus. He didn’t know where they would go. Where they could go.
After getting back to his family’s apartment a half a day later, he remembers this: four days of freezing cold temperatures with very little food. No mode of transportation. No clear roadways anyway. No way to contact his mother, who had remained in Korea. No understanding of the extent of the damage; of who, of their friends, were alive or dead. One cold night sleeping in a car. Only canned tuna and apples to eat, and no other fresh produce to be found. A father desperate to reach his wife and keep his children safe.
Marvin was 11 years old.
He downplays his own peril, explaining that at the time, he didn’t understand the extent of the destruction. He doesn’t often share his story, because, after all, he says, he survived (along with his sister and his father.) When so many have died, been hurt or displaced, there is nothing to complain about. No reason to call attention to himself. He insists the lack of looting and chaos, and the absolute patience with which victims waited for food and warm shelter are his strongest memories.
Marvin is in my 7th grade English class. His writing returns again and again to these days: a glimpse here, a shocking revelation there. The memories pop up like a beach ball he’s trying to hold under water. He knows how lucky he’s been. But I don’t think he understands how lucky the rest of us are — that he is here — with this handsome smiling face.