BELLINGHAM — For as long as she can remember, Christi-June Marino had dreamed of living in Japan. She never dreamed that while living there, she’d experience first-hand the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in history.
Last year, Marino, 28, a Bellingham native and 2001 graduate of Bellingham High School, found out she’d be moving to Japan with her fiancé, Shangjung Chiu, who also graduated from Bellingham High School in 2003. Chiu is a maintenance analyst with the U.S. Air Force and received orders to be stationed at the Misawa Air Base in Aomori, Japan. On June 6, 2010, the couple made the long journey overseas and began their adventure of living in a new country.
“We were both very excited because it has been a dream of ours to live in Japan since we were kids,” says Marino.
It had also been a dream of hers to teach English there. After graduating from Bridgewater State College in 2005 with a major in cultural anthropology and a minor in Asian studies, she earned her certification to teach English as a foreign language from the Boston Language Institute.
Once in Japan, that dream was also fulfilled when she was hired as a teacher at the Tohoku Academy of Foreign Language and the Misawa International Center.
On Friday, March 11, at 2:48 p.m., Marino was in her seventh-floor apartment grading exams when she felt the earth begin to move.
“At first I didn’t think much of it,” she says. “We had an earthquake earlier in the week. It started off really small, so I updated my Facebook status mentioning another earthquake. But as the shaking got worse, I did worry. I stood under a doorway in case anything happened. I wondered if that would be enough to protect me. I kept seeing images in my head of buildings crumbling from earthquakes. I just kept telling myself the building we live in was built to withstand an earthquake. I just kept hoping it would stop soon. I think it went on for about two minutes, but it felt like a long time.”
Fortunately, she and others living in Misawa, located about four hours away from the hardest hit coastal communities, didn’t suffer too much damage. A few things were knocked over in her apartment, drawers were flung open and they lost power for almost two days — nothing in comparison to what others experienced.
“There are individuals out here really hurting, physically and emotionally,” she says. “So many people lost so much — their homes, their loved ones.”
Without power, it was difficult for Marino and Chiu to contact friends and family to let them know they were OK. Her last post on Facebook that day was “OMG, another earthquake!” leaving many to wonder how badly they were affected and frantically trying to get in touch with them.
The first person outside of Japan they had contact with was Chiu’s aunt who lives in Taiwan and was able to get through to them by phone. She quickly passed the good news on to everyone else so that by the time Marino was able to call her father in Florida, he already knew that they were fine and was happy to hear from her.
Not having electricity also made it impossible for Marino to know, like the rest of us did at the time, just how bad the earthquake and tsunami were and how devastating the damage was. When she was finally able to see the news on TV two days later, she was shocked. “It was unreal,” she says.
Seeing those images and knowing how much other parts of the country were hurting moved her to get involved in the cleanup effort immediately. Last Friday, she and a group of American Red Cross volunteers from the Misawa Air Base traveled to a port in the city of Hachinohe, about 45 minutes away, where the tsunami left a trail of mud, dirt and destruction in its wake.
“It felt good to be actively taking part in the relief effort,” she says. “I felt so helpless before. I also have friends who live in Hachinohe. I met them through the Japanese American Friendship Club in Misawa. I have a lot of good friends there.”
All day, Marino and other volunteers shoveled mud and dirt into large piles and put them into sandbags to be carried away. They also cleaned out a building that had a lot of damage done to it. The people who lived in the city were extremely grateful to them for all of their hard work.
“Many Japanese people would come by and ask us if we were from Misawa, and thank us for our work,” Marino says. “We were also told that one of the shops will be opening in two days due to our efforts. It’s a ramen shop, and they will be the first on the port to open up.”
The base that Marino lives on has been serving as a sanctuary for grief-stricken people from Sendai who lost everything. The gym and other housing are being used as shelters, and the American Red Cross is collecting donations of non-perishable food, clothes, blankets, flashlights, batteries and tarps. So far, over 1,000 pounds of supplies have been donated by the families on the base.
When asked how people who don’t live in Japan can help out, Marino said by making a monetary donation to the American Red Cross and specify that it go toward the Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami relief efforts.
While some U.S. citizens may be eager to leave Japan, Marino says that for now she and her fiancé are taking things one day at time. She wants to continue helping out with the cleanup effort as much as possible, and isn’t worried about a nuclear meltdown since they live about 233 miles away from the nearest power plant and would be evacuated in the event of such an emergency.
“With every shovelful of sand, I was thinking of all the great friends I’ve made here in such little time. I know, for sure, if the tables were turned that they would do the same for us. This is my home too, now, and I have to take care of it.”
For more information on how to donate to the relief fund for Japan, visit www.americanredcross.org . To read more about Marino’s adventures living Japan, visit her blog at www.aomoristory.blogspot.com .