Sunday, April 08, 2012

Leaving Haiti, Leaving Japan

On my computer I keep a file called "Blog Ideas." For two years now there's been a question in that file. "Was it right to leave Haiti?" Even now, twenty-six months after the earthquake, I still feel deeply conflicted about our family's decision (really, my husband's decision) for the children and me to go to the States on the Saturday after that Tuesday, January 12th, 2010. I agonized about it here on this blog many times, and in private many more times. My friends and family got tired of hearing about it, I'm sure. And everyone has moved on, including, most of the time, me. I don't think as much as I used to about the way I abandoned my post, jumped ship, hopped in a plane and flew to safety.

Nobody ever criticized me for leaving Haiti; most people told me I had been right to do it. The woman who works in my home cried, and later when I spoke to her on the phone from the US, she told me that someone had asked her why I had left, and she had told them that I was afraid. That hurt a lot, but she didn't mean it to; she didn't think it was foolish to be afraid, although she never seemed to be.

My family and I have been in Haiti a long time, and there have been other occasions when many foreigners have been evacuated; each time, we stayed. I didn't realize until after the earthquake how much pride I took in staying. I didn't fault others for leaving; usually it wasn't even their decision, since organizations they worked for made the call. But I felt that I was somehow steadfast, trustworthy. During the political unrest in 2004 when the country erupted in chaos, a friend was robbed at gunpoint and the police didn't even answer the phone, and we spent days listening to the radio as people called in and described the destruction of their homes and property, I wondered whether staying had been the right thing to do. But that week our relationships with those in our neighborhood strengthened, as we stood on the street in little groups discussing what we should do, offering help, exchanging phone numbers.

After the earthquake it was different. But also not so different. Those who stayed gained stronger relationships and many great stories to tell in exchange for the fear, lack of sleep, and shortages. Those of us who left will never fully understand all that the steadfast experienced, no matter how much we try. And in some ways I still regret leaving. I wish I could have been here in solidarity with my Haitian friends and colleagues. In other ways, I know that leaving was the right thing to do. I won't go into all the reasons why, to justify myself, make myself feel better. We did what we thought was right at the time. I gained stronger relationships too, and became a different person in many ways. I came to a greater awareness of God's love for me. All of those things I have written about many times.

Today I read this article by American Anna Kunnecke, who lived in Japan most of her life and who left it after the earthquake of 2011. So many of her words ring true to me.
"There’s a strange thing that happens when you feel connected to a place that doesn’t love you back. It takes on a kind of hold over you, like the haunting presence of an unrequited love. ... Right after the earthquake, people posted on Facebook about ‘standing strong’ with Japan, differentiating themselves from flighty folk like me who jumped ship. I admire their fortitude. They are beautifully living up to the Japanese ideal of ‘gambare,’ which is an untranslatable concept that includes doing your best but also means gritting your teeth quietly no matter what, even if they are operating on you without anesthesia. Nothing the WSJ could call me, and nothing my friends could post on Facebook, was worse than the words in my own mind: Traitor. Coward. Deserter. ... But when I began to mourn, when the silent keening started up inside, another voice hissed in rebuke. How dare I feel bereft? I didn’t lose my house in the tsunami, and my loved ones were all alive and safe. Everything I lost, I walked away from."

I came back to Haiti, after only six months away. Anna Kunnecke has chosen to remain in the United States and seems to have made peace with leaving her home in Japan. But I think both of us will always think about those days, those decisions, and how our lives were changed.


Janet said...

We are such complex creatures. I know that feeling of moving on -- sort of. But we live in more than one time at once.

I hope that someday, the question will be put to rest.

Jessica said...

Ruth I think I understand your feelings, to some degree. I think that you did what you needed at the time, and the important thing is that you went back, when there was still a lot of fear and huge obstacles, and you daily live your commitment to Haiti with your family. Leaving Haiti is still one of my deep regrets- and I had the chance to go back but didn't, so that is another. But I love my kids, and would not have them if I hadn't left, so does God lead us even through our mistakes/regret? I will always wonder. (you don't have to publish this)

Tricia said...

{{{hugs}}} - it will always be a tough memory for you.