Thursday, November 4, 2010

Darren Orf: A Small Room and a Tsunami

I was tired, hungry and wanted to sleep for days. 16 hours spent in airports and on planes was enough to send me into a travel coma. I rushed through customs and prayed to the air travel gods that my baggage arrived safely. I wasn’t aware of my surroundings until I exited baggage claim and stared into hundreds of unfamiliar faces, that I realized I wasn’t at home anymore. If fact, I was 9,000 miles from it in Nagoya, Japan.
Luckily my host mother, who had seen my picture from my application, was able to recognize me and help me navigate the incredibly complicated train system. The worst time to realize that you barely understand Japanese is when you are in Japan. I was at a crisis. Everything was completely foreign: the signs, the language and even using public transportation was new. The windows were pitch black outside the train and offered no shelter from the awkward, broken conversation I was having with my host mother.

After an hour, we arrived in Kasugai, Japan, a small town outside of Nagoya. I ascended seven flights of stairs and walked into my home for the next four months. It was small three-person apartment. Several rooms branched from the hallway. At the end of the hallway was a family/dinning room, which had a knee-high table and a tube television. My room was the first on the right. I slipped out of my shoes at the entryway and opened the door. It wasn’t much. Just a small, 8-by-10 foot room with a desk, closet and a floor mattress, known as an ofuton (more commonly known as a futon). There was a sliding window where I often heard children playing in the dirt field across the street. There were also remnants of past tenants and students that had lived there including books, magazines and a wireless router. I unpacked my things; I lay down and tried to absorb everything that had happened and what was going to happen next.

Over the next couple of weeks, that small 80-square-foot room evolved from a space to a place. I had moved in, grown comfortable. It didn’t look much different from when I moved in besides a pile of clothes and a few pictures of friends and relatives. This detail is particularly interesting in comparison with Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. He states that these poetic spaces “must go beyond that problem of description” (4). The fact that the room’s appearance remained the same, but its function from a space to a place indicates that physical description cannot accurately describe the place in which a person creates an attachment. It is a description that surpasses the physical and enters the intangible realm or feeling, memory and emotion.

However, this place invoked an interesting reaction from me. In my room, I wanted to read and write more. It was a shelter from a world in which I was considered the Other. I was at ease in this small space. It was a place that I could gather my thoughts and work through culture limitations that I was experiencing. It was a small place in a country that I considered a large space. Bachelard states that “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace” (6) In reflection, an interesting dynamic appears between my room and the view from my room’s window. From the window I could see foreign architecture, strange signs and a different landscape.

However, I observed this place from my seventh-floor room. The view was a constant reminder that I was the Other in this country and that the room that I inhabited was the only place I could call my own.

To expand on this thought, I think it can be said that every person has this type of place. Not to say in such broad terms that they own a house but that every person has a place to go to do serious thinking or a place that invokes such thinking or as Bachelard would term “daydreaming.” I find it interesting how important this place was for me. I entered a space where everything was foreign and I searched for a space that I could claim as a place, like it was an intrinsic need.

In early November, a Tsunami struck the Japanese main island. It was the worse storm I have ever experienced. Trains were derailed, cars flipped over and the city was shutdown for most of the following day. I remember lying on my futon as the wind howled down the corridor outside my window. It was so loud as so vivid that it kept me restless throughout the night. Late into the night, I finally managed to fall asleep. I feel that this is analogous to my experience of space and place in a foreign country. The storm didn’t represent bad, violent or painful experience of my time in Japan, but rather just experiences themselves. Everyday, my senses were assaulted by a new culture. New experiences were redefining who I was, what I thought about the world and what I thought about others. It was chaotic, uninhibited. It was a storm. My room, as Bachelard explained, “protected” me from this storm. It gave me a type of anchor and helped me gain a perspective on my experiences and myself.

Bachelard argues that these “poetic spaces” go beyond description and into emotion and memory. That is definitely at work in this small place. It wasn’t different than any other room in the apartment. Just four white walls, a wood floor and a window but I don’t describe it as such. It’s more of place in which I struggled with Japanese homework or played guitar for my host mother. In Japan, I traveled everywhere I could afford. I saw sumo wrestling in Tokyo. Rode bullet trains past Mt. Fuji. Went to Peace Park in Hiroshima. I saw Meoto Iwa in Mie. Despite all these experiences and trips, it was that 8-by-10 space that I remember the most.

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