When I opened my Facebook on August 23rd, my newsfeed was blowing up with hubbub about an earthquake, which had hit the East Coast. That can’t be right, I thought, as I logged on to WBUR.org to dispel my suspicions. At the time, I was in Tokyo renewing my American working visa, and the Tohoku earthquake of March 11 was fresh on my mind. Japan sits on a fault line, but the East Coast?
Questioning the quake
I’d never experienced so much as a minor tremor in my four years at college living in Boston. But when the homepage loaded on my screen, headlines described the “highly unusual quake” that had hit Virginia at a magnitude of 5.9.
My habit of crosschecking with multiple sources kicked in (a thing I acquired in J-school), but all news sites and wires confirmed the reality of the hit. Most stories stressed the unusual nature of such a large quake hitting the east coast, but WBUR’s coverage included the reactions of Bostonians who experienced the quake.
“I felt as if I had vertigo,” a United Way spokesman said, while others felt like they were “going crazy”. I went back to my Facebook feed to scout out how my friends reacted, and the diversity of reactions intrigued me. My friends in Boston and New York expressed sheer confusion and an aftermath of disbelief. My boyfriend told me that some buildings near his work in downtown Boston evacuated their employees, and that one person took refuge between two tall buildings. It looked like the employee believed the walls might protect him from earthquake debris (this is, of course, one of the worst things you can do; the buildings could easily cave in on you). As a whole, the East Coast reactions indicated a sense of utter ill-preparedness and shock at something so unprecedented.
And then I thought, well, that’s exactly what it was: unprecedented.
A Tokyoite’s perspective
As a Tokyoite living in Japan, an epicenter for seismic activity, earthquake preparedness, like fire drills, is an integral part of our academic curriculum. Before I was taught how to stop-drop-and-roll, I learned to crawl under a sturdy table or stand beneath a doorframe until tremors ceased. It seemed incredulous to me that anyone would mistake an earthquake for vertigo. But considering that New Englanders live on ancient fault lines that have been largely inactive for hundreds of millions of years, their reactions were entirely understandable.
This epiphany made me realize that taking cultural customs for granted might trigger insensitivity. I’m certainly to blame for ridiculing the vertigo spokesman, and my friends on the West Coast, along with friends from Japan who now live in the East Coast (earthquake veterans), fired some playfully derisive comments about the East Coast post-earthquake stupor. Maybe we should have been sharing earthquake-disaster-preparation tips instead of heckling our earthquake novice friends.
As if the seismic gods had eavesdropped on my Facebook epiphany, a small earthquake hit Tokyo a week or so afterward. I hadn’t experienced one in awhile, and I panicked. But no one was sneering then. Instead, friends in the U.S. posted to inquire whether I was OK and whether it was anything close to the March 11 quakes. After assuring them that it was nothing momentous, I kicked myself and swore that I wouldn’t be so quick to judge next time. We experience the world in different ways and as international students, we should know that best.