In our post on March 20, When in doubt, have a pint of Guinness, we drew attention to the Britons who resolutely stayed in post-earthquake Japan rather than fleeing with the majority of their expat countrymen back to the UK. Despite the danger of the nuclear situation, one man interviewed by the Telegraph said
“I actually feel a bit of a duty not to leave.”
Friends in need
Although this person’s mother couldn’t see his point, I understand this mentality. The events of September 11, 2001, so close to our home in Virginia, made me defensive of my adopted country, and outraged at such an audacious attack. To leave at this stage was unthinkable. That would mean we were just fair weather friends of the USA.
Instead, we taped a small American flag to our mailbox, as the rest of our neighbors did to theirs. It couldn’t help the 3,000 who died that day, but it showed our sympathy and solidarity, which didn’t go unnoticed: a neighbor made a point of telling me how touched she was that I, a foreigner, had done this.
Yet I suppose expats here did leave to go back home after 9/11, because it’s human nature to think the grass is greener – or safer – on the other side.
More trolls, not greener grass
It’s not greener or safer, of course. I know this from years of frequent news reports of IRA bombings. The Spanish know this from decades of Basque separatist attacks. 2009 saw 10,999 terrorist attacks worldwide, and while 60 percent of these occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, that still leaves over 4,000 to be shared by the rest of the globe.
As chance had it, I arrived at Heathrow the day before the 2005 bombings of London’s transport system, and had planned to take the tube into the city the following morning to do some sightseeing with my children. Had we not been tired from jetlag and therefore overslept on July 7th, we could easily have been on one of the trains that were destroyed.
Was I as upset by 7/7 as I had been by 9/11? Undoubtedly. Yet there was something else, too – a feeling of deja vu, of “here we go again” or – dare I say it? – resignation.
Whether you run or stay, there is a difference between enduring atrocities in your own country and suffering them on another’s turf.
Not all disasters are manmade
It doesn’t have to be a terrorist atrocity, as our friends drinking Guinness in Tokyo can testify. Perhaps you were an expat in Christchurch, New Zealand during the last two earthquakes; perhaps you were posted to New Orleans just before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Only two days ago, Joplin, Missouri was devastated by a deadly tornado.
The world is a dangerous place. There are no certainties, especially when it comes to safety. To quote The Clash again:
“If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double.”
So, tell us: What’s an expat to do when disaster strikes?
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I hadn’t really thought about this before. I was here (USA) for 9/11 and in London on 7/7 (altho’ mercifully not in the centre). Both were horrific just because of the atrocity, no one even compared the scale.
Having lived in London and worked on Oxford Street in the 80’s, I was very security conscious (the unattended plastic bag) but not paranoid. When I moved to the States in 1990 I was more scared about the seeming lack of any security. For years, no one checked my flight tickets against any form of ID, there were very few bag checks and even after the horrific bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma (1995) Americans seemed to remain collectively unworried.
After 20 yearshere, I wouldn’t run back to England unless things got very nasty (like perhaps a Donald Trump presidency).
Yes, a Donald Trump presidency might put a whole new perspective on The Clash’s song!
As you say, working in Oxford Street in the 80s lends a different slant — everyone remembers the Harrods bombing. But do you feel the airport security thing has gone too far now, that it’s teetering on the point of paranoia? Personally, I’m more concerned about exposure to radiation from airport scanners.
@Toni Hargis/Expat Mum
I do think you are right that there is something rather odd about how America handles domestic terrorism, ranging from too lax to too strict (Kate’s point about airport security). Even post-9/11, when I was taking NYC subways, I remember thinking, why do they keep making these useless announcements — “If you see anything strange, be sure to report it …” Strange would be not seeing anything strange on the New York subway…
Meanwhile, to this day no one has done anything about the trash cans sitting on most subway platforms. There are no bins in any tube stations or train stations in the UK due to the threat of being blown up — so it seems like a no brainer.
(Dating from the immediate post-9/11 period, I’ve made a habit of taking buses. Buses, though they take longer, tend to attract a much more civilized clientele than the subway does, at least in NYC. Perhaps not saying a lot, but still…)
Very fitting that you led this Q with your “pint of Guinness” post. When you combine a massive earthquake (not to mention innumerable aftershocks) and tsunami with potential radiation exposure, you get a pretty toxic cocktail. I could definitely see many Japan-based expats — don’t forget, I was one of them once — saying to themselves: You know, I didn’t sign up for this! (Perhaps they didn’t realize they needed a chaser of Guinness?)
As explained in Monday’s post, “In the jaws of political or natural disaster: When reality bites for expats,” more than ten years ago I was getting a little antsy about staying in Japan after the Aum Shinrikyo attacks on the subway. I mean, it took the Japanese police nearly two months to track down the perpetrator (the bearded guru Shoko Asahara).
And only a couple of months before this incident, we had the Kobe earthquake, to which the Japanese authorities responded unconscionably slowly. So much so that they were shown up by the yakuza (Japanese mafia), who earned the people’s respect by opening up soup kitchens in aid of those made homeless by the quake.
Incidentally, Carole Hallet Mobbs had an excellent post on the aftermath to Japan’s March 11 quake in which she explained that a new terminology based on the word gaijin (Caucasian foreigner) had emerged: flyjin (referring to the thousands who fled the country), stayjin (people who stayed) and tryjin (people who stayed and tried to help out). Maybe we should reword our Q: would you be a flyjin, a stayjin or a tryjin?!