Yesterday was my youngest son’s first undoukai/sports festival. As usual, I waited until the morning of the event to get ready. I was unable to give it my full attention though because at the same time I was following reports about Hurricane Matthew on social media. I’m from Amelia Island, Florida. My family now mostly lives in St. Augustine. Both were hard hit by the storm. The coastline has been changed. Power is still out as I type this. Boil advisories in effect. Trees down everywhere. Coastal roads destroyed. It’s bad. It’s distracting. But it was time for undoukai and the bentos were packed and the sewing complete.
This year it was held in the elementary school’s gym due to rain. As a teacher, I had to help out and watch my kid, something I am rather used to at this point. From my viewpoint, I could see not only the students but the audience as well, parents and grandparents for the most part. And standing there, having fun on the other side of the planet, I felt a pang of homesickness. It was strong enough to cause tears to well in my eyes for a fleeting second. At that moment the storm was raging during the night of my hometown. Most people had evacuated so I felt pretty certain that everyone would be okay. But everything would be different after the storm passed.
For Floridians, hurricanes are something we accept, along with the alligators and shitty politicians. For those of us in the diaspora, it is not only heartbreaking to be away during a time of collective crisis, it is also hard because we cannot update our memory maps. To hear that landmarks are gone and not be able to see that with our own eyes means that there is a flaw in our map now that we cannot repair until we go back. The first thing we will want to see when we visit again are the changes. (When the Waffle House in my hometown closed, those living far away demanded photographic evidence.) Hurricane Matthew tore up our maps this week. It is psychologically shocking for us to be both useless in terms of helping recovery efforts and to have an outdated version of home in our minds.
I love living in Japan (for the most part) but if you want to get into a heated and lengthy discussion with me, just mention Florida. My home state is notorious throughout the nation for being riddled with problems and no one knows more about those problems than a Floridian. For the multigenerational Floridians, most of these problems stem from invasive species (flora and fauna with a particular emphasis on homo sapiens). Like with this hurricane. We know that hurricanes come and that Florida can take it, that we will survive. We also know that barrier islands are called barrier islands because they provide a, well, barrier between the sea and mainland Florida. They are meant to shift and be battered. And thus if people build on houses on barrier islands, their houses will shift and be battered. Florida also has a sophisticated drainage system in the form of wetlands, wetlands that developers are keen to fill in so that they can build more houses on. More houses for people who are unfamiliar with the uniqueness of the Florida ecosystem to move into and complain about the uniqueness of said ecosystem. Complaints that are heard by politicians who respond to moneyed voters rather than the long-term residents who have been struggling in a stagnant economy to continue to call themselves Floridians.
It is hard to feel so passionately about a place and to be away from it. And as a bit of a contradiction, I do not want to live in Florida. Most Floridians I know don’t want to live there. We love it and despise it. The weather is terrible, for a start. The mosquito is the state bird. There are pythons (invasive species in south Florida that is spreading north) and rattlesnakes and water moccasins and coral snakes and all those harmless snakes that look like venomous snakes. There is no public transportation so you are always driving and because it is hot, people are always a little angry and slow which, I believe, creates car accidents. It is flat and there are only two seasons summer and mild summer (which occurs around Christmas and when Floridians break out their hoodies). And of course, the number one enemy of Florida: Voldemort. But at the same time, most of us in the diaspora also say we would love to move back (if only we could afford it). We are contradictory folks, Floridians.
As far as this hurricane went, we were lucky. Only a few lives lost compared to the hundreds in Haiti (another place that is equally beautiful and terrible). I still don’t know how the house I grew up in fared but considering the shape we saw it in last, I have my doubts. In these coming days I will be half there and here as I follow the images coming in from friends and family, in my own feeble attempt to update my map.