"I didn't want to run away": Study abroad student recalls Japan's 3/11 tragedy
Marissa A. Polachek, a broadcasting, telecommunications and mass media major from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., has been in love with Japan since she was a pre-teen. What started out as an interest in Japanese horror movies and pop music blossomed into a desire to travel to Japan and learn more about Japanese culture — something that led her to Temple, an institution she knew had strong connections to Japan. In Spring 2011, her dream came true and she traveled to Tokyo to study abroad at Temple University, Japan Campus (TUJ). She couldn't have known that she was about to live through one of the worst natural disasters in history.
Temple Times: You were in Japan during the earthquake of March 2011 and its deadly aftermath. What were you doing when the quake hit?
Marissa Polachek: I had an internship at the Japan Times, an English-language newspaper in Tokyo. I was at work that day, sitting at my desk on the third floor of a high-rise building. All of a sudden everything started to shake. I never had felt an earthquake before. At first it didn't seem like a big deal. But after a few seconds, it started to intensify. The TVs on the wall were moving — everything was moving. At some point, everyone realized that we had to go, and we ran to the door, down the emergency exit stairwell and outside.
TT: Were you scared?
MP: At first we were all just confused. No one's cell phone worked. My boss told me to go home, but the trains weren't running, and I couldn't take a taxi because the traffic was nuts. I started crying. I hadn't really learned Japanese yet. I decided to walk to TUJ, and on the way I started to run into a bunch of other TUJ students. Then I wasn't scared anymore. When you have people with you, it feels OK.
TT: When did you realize the scale of the disaster?
MP: When I went into the computer lab at TUJ, I went online and saw how the news had spread across the world. Also, Tokyo is one of the most high-tech cities in the world. There are big TV screens everywhere in the city. We saw water everywhere from the tsunami and houses being damaged. It was devastating. I felt connected with the country. It was really sad.
TT: TUJ's facility was inspected by authorities and deemed safe. Even so, classes were cancelled. Eventually the State Department issued a travel warning, after which all study abroad students had to leave the country. But some students left earlier than that. Did you want to go home?
MP: I didn't want to leave. I didn't want to run away. I didn't have to go to my internship, but I still went to work every day. I was so impressed by the way the Japanese people were handling the situation. They came to do their job every day, so I felt I had to keep coming. I wasn't sure how much one American girl could do, but maybe by going to my internship I could pick up the slack for someone. Japanese people had helped me; I wanted to help them back.
TT: What was it like coming back to the United States?
MP: It was one of the hardest times of my life. There were so many people I wanted to say goodbye to.
TT: What about your studies?
MP: I came back to Temple to finish the semester. I didn't want to at first, but it was the best decision. Temple did a really good job of making all the students — not just Temple students, but students who were studying at TUJ from other universities — feel comfortable.
TT: What are your feelings about Japan? Do you want to go back?
MP: I'm definitely still committed to Japan. I'm a study abroad ambassador for Temple's Office of Education Abroad, and I try to encourage other students to study abroad in Japan. Since September, I have been interning at the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, a non-profit organization that tries to expand knowledge of Japan. I really want to go back to Japan. I'm taking courses to get certification to teach English in Japan. I just like the whole culture there, and I want to be a positive face for the United States.
TT: Did living through the 3/11 tragedy and its aftermath change you?
MP: It changed my perspective about life. Ever since then I've been living by the motto of anything can happen at any second. Sometimes people are so consumed with tiny things — like getting too stressed about a test. It reminded me that sometimes you need to take a step back and focus on the things that are important.