“I shouldn’t be here,” were the words that Yuko Shitara-Matsuo used to introduce herself to the group of teachers attending the TESOL Preconvention Institute workshop on pronunciation. She and her husband experienced the earthquake in Niiza, Japan, not at its epicenter. Yuko says she was eating a bowl of hot noodle soup, and it went all over the place. Luckily, she was wearing a raincoat. She and her husband were not harmed during the incident.
As a native of Japan, she states that she has experienced numerous earthquakes but nothing like this one. Yuko was glued to the television watching the subsequent tsunami hit the coast. Mrs. Shitara-Matsuo is a first-time attendee from Jumonji University. She feels partly guilty for coming to the convention during this national crisis and partly determined to learn and then apply her new skills and understanding with her Japanese ESL students.
Yuko fears for her husband’s family that lives near the nuclear power plant, as well as for everyone affected by this trio of disasters. She feels guilty now for being in a safe place, like she is a refugee of Japan. In preparation for her travel to the United States, Yuko stayed near the airport overnight because traffic was heavy in both directions by car—to the airport and to the disaster area—and trains were not running. She hurriedly stuffed her suitcase while simultaneously watching the news and upon her arrival to the United States found that she had packed unnecessary items.
The Japanese television was airing uninterrupted news; it seemed odd for her not see any commercials. It reminded me of the normalcy that ended abruptly on 9-11 in the United States; the daily activity of planes flying over the schoolyard in Los Angeles where I taught suddenly went quiet. Yuko wasn’t sure if coming to the TESOL conference was a good idea since she isn’t in a good state to appreciate everything. I interviewed her on Tuesday and have been deeply touched by her determination. She has become my teaching hero.
Additionally, I’ve been worrying about Yuko, as news from Japan sounds increasingly apocalyptic. I’d given her my information but had no way of contacting her. On Thursday evening, as I was running from the convention center to the Hilton, I ran into Yuko at 7:45 p.m. She was looking for another presentation on pronunciation. I hugged her and almost cried right in front of her; I told her it was synchronicity and she said it was only coincidence. Outwardly, she appears to be like any other conference first-timer, determined to attend as many sessions as possible. Inside, who knows what emotional dilemmas she is facing.