The winter freeze
I’d traveled a long way, and Northern Japan was frigidly cold. I found myself inside a small gray room with thin walls, bundled up in my coat with the little ones I’d come to be with, trying to get them to do their homework and practice their English please.
Instead they were running and yelling, laughing sharply, and I knew enough Japanese to hear that they were making fun of my clumsy pronunciation, my height and my face.
After half an hour, they were running out the door and it was cold but I followed them. They kept running away, yelling insults over their petite shoulders until I stopped and watched them climb onto rickety old bikes and toddle off into the rows of emergency housing units they called home, laughing at me.
I bit back frustrated tears.
It wasn’t just me. With everyone the children were insulting, moody, and apt to run off in the middle of a program. On particularly bad days they’d start hitting and kicking too.
We all knew the behavior was coming from the trauma they’d experienced -losing homes and loved ones in the earthquake and tsunami a couple years before, and their tedious living conditions since then. But knowing why didn’t make it any easier.
It had been so easy to love them from an ocean away, watching a tsunami on the news crashing over their homes. It was easy to love them on the plane over, imagining what it would be like to sweep in and “help”.
It was so much harder on the ground, when all the broken humanness of them and the raw edges of their grief rubbed up against my own insecurities and pride.
I wanted to run away too. The same way I’d pull my hand back from a hot stove, I wanted to pull myself away from those little girls. I wanted to get away from the discomfort their pain caused me.
The spring thaw
The first little girl to change her mind about me was Kana. I carved a face in a rotting tomato with a pen and when I showed it to her she laughed.
A week later another girl said something mean and I heard Kana defend me in her gruff little voice. She caught my hands and pressed our palms together. She told me my fingers were long and it was “weird,” but she smiled when I nodded and said, “you’re right, they’re very weird,” and pulled a silly face
Slowly, they all stopped running away.
One day in early Spring, a little girl named Yuki sat down next to me and wrote her name on my palm in pen. Kana did the same, and before I knew it my palms were covered in clumsy signatures and lopsided hearts. Kana finished off their masterpiece, writing my own name on my fingertips. I looked down at my hands, turning them over to read our names scribbled together across them in dark, smearing ink.
There was a lump in my throat and I wished I could never wash my hands again.
There is a story in the Bible about Jesus touching a leper to heal him. I think what I felt then might’ve been a taste of what the leper experienced; that surprising moment of unwarranted acceptance instead of rejection.
Jesus seemed to be always doing things like that. He saw and drew close to the most broken people, the ones who made everyone else uncomfortable.
And so in that moment when those little girls and I cautiously found each other across the uncomfortable chasm of their grief, my insecurities and the inevitable clash of our cultures, I glimpsed his face in the messy awkwardness of it all.
Because it is in my most broken and ugly moments, those times that I pray no one will be around to see my own rough edges exposed and bleeding, that I need love the most.
And I remember in those moments how their names on my hands felt infinitely precious. And I think how much more dearly my name must be held on his hands, that no amount of time, brokenness or hand washing could ever wear it away.
Christina Jones is recuperating from graduate school by watching far too much TV and ignoring the many very good books waiting to be read and re-read on her shelf. She recently moved to Spokane, Washington where she works for a non-profit that prepares for and responds to natural disasters. She is usually running late and has a background in international relief work, and has become very good at sprinting through airports. When not watching TV, working or running through airports, Christina enjoys Latin dancing, solitary evening jogs, old buildings, too much ice cream and long conversations with good friends.
Christina Jones’ previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/christina-jones.html