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Foreign teachers have lucky escape

Japan-based workers escape Asian tsunami but shocked by the experience

by Vanessa Mitchell

When news of the tsunami disaster in south Asia began to filter through on Dec. 26, there was good reason for friends and employers of the many English-language teachers in Japan to fear the worst.

Each winter, hundreds of foreigners in Japan choose the convenience of south Asia over the long-haul hassle of trips back to Europe, North America and beyond for their Christmas break.

This winter was no exception.

Amazingly, however, not one fatality was reported among the scores of teachers known to have been traveling in the affected areas at the time.

Pete, an Australian who teaches in Tokyo, believes good timing and an element of hedonism may have saved many foreigners.

Pete, who asked his real name not be used, was staying on Phi Phi Island, which suffered massive damage, until just before the tsunami hit.

He and his friends left Phi Phi on Dec. 25 to travel to Koh Phangan, where one of the island’s infamous Full Moon parties was due to take place on the 26th.

“Me and a group of friends from Tokyo and Chiba were on Phi Phi for a few days before the tsunami for snorkeling and diving.

“We were actually planing to be out diving on the morning of the 26th but decided to head up to Koh Phangan early to meet friends and make sure we had enough drink and drugs for the night.”

And Pete doesn’t believe his narrow escape was unusual.

“We met loads of people who’d done pretty much the same thing as us and left the west coast to meet friends over the other side.”

Josh Kalish, a teacher with English Studio, was in Krabi, near Phi Phi, on Dec. 26 and saw the effects of the tsunami firsthand.

His first realization that something was wrong came between the first and second waves hitting.

“Everything was flooded and it took a while for people to realize what had happened. Some people were still sitting around drinking beer, while other people were running toward the water, probably to see what the damage was,” he said.

But the true extent of what had happened didn’t hit home until he drove through the Khao Lak area shortly afterward.

The scene, he says, was “disturbing.” There he saw a beach bungalow sitting next to the road four km from the beach and dead bodies in trees.

And he was surprised at some reactions to the experience.

“It was amazing to see the two types of people — the ones on a high and then the ones who didn’t want to talk about it. A lot of the 16- and 17-year-olds seemed to be bright eyed from the experience,” he says.

He was especially impressed, though, by the resilience of the Thai people, who just 24 hours after the disaster had made notable repairs to restaurants.

“They needed the tourist money,” he believes.

What left Josh most disturbed, however, wasn’t the death and devastation caused but the sensationalism of the media afterward.

“The people who were there mostly behaved admirably but the press and people abroad were thriving on the drama,” he said.

“People were totally buying into the sensationalism,” he said.

Chad Smith, a tour guide for Freenezthailand, was taking a group of JETs around Thailand at the time of the tsunami.

Although, like Pete and his friends, Chad’s group were all on the opposite side of the coast and safe on Koh Phangan by Dec. 26, he admits to feeling a mix of emotions.

For one he was sick with worry about his friends who were in tsunami-ravaged areas and at the same time he was conducting a business in which he had to try to ease the fears of all the parents and co-workers who were contacting him to find out if the people on his trip were OK.

According to Chad the mood of Thailand didn’t change so much.

“The night of the tsunami was the full moon party. At first I thought, how can these people go on with this? But I respect people’s need to celebrate that fact that they were all together, alive and in a beautiful place.”

Even though they didn’t experience the tsunami directly, Chad Smith says even his group was affected by what had happened.

“Traveling in Thailand it’s easy to avoid media, so for most of the trip my group were wrapped up in their experience. But when we did encounter CNN, all conversations stopped and people would cry or get depressed.”

Back in Japan, officials from Nova and the JET program had to endure a nervous wait to hear from staff.

Peter Logan, manager of foreign personnel in Tokyo for Nova, said that there was a massive sense of relief and surprise when the company eventually confirmed that none of its employees had been injured or killed in the tsunami.

“As with any company with a large number of employees, it was very fortunate and we were very happy to verify that all of our employees were OK.

“None of our staff have indicated that they were injured,” he said.

Some 50 of the company’s foreign teachers were known to have been in the region at the time and 40 were still reported as “missing” up to Jan. 8.

Like Nova workers, teachers on the JET Program are also known to travel in large numbers around South East Asia during the winter vacation period.

Although a representative from CLAIR, (Council of Local Authorities for International Relations) the organization that runs the JET program, wasn’t able to put a number on how many of their teachers were within the area at the time, he believes that there were large numbers of JETs throughout Thailand, Indonesia, India and Myanmar at the time.

From Dec. 27 both Nova and CLAIR formed Crisis Management Teams, consisting of four employees working everyday trying to locate unaccounted-for employees.

Their first step was to compile a list of instructors who could have been in danger, which were forwarded to embassies.

They then began direct dialing and e-mailing friends and family of these instructors. CLAIR soon noted a direct telephone number and e-mail address for anyone who had information to contact them, on their Web site and Nova constructed a new emergency Web site which they updated continuously throughout the search.

This site not only included a direct number with collect calls permissible but also information for teachers on how to return to Japan if their passports or visas were lost.

They then began search Red Cross lists for names of their staff.

Like Nova, all JET teachers have now been accounted for. Unlike Nova, though, two of their teachers were injured. One had to be hospitalized in Bangkok and another has now returned to home.

GEOS and ECC have also reported that none of their staff are unaccounted for.

Though the teachers have returned safely, both organizations are aware that some may need help to come to terms with such a traumatic event.

Tatsuhiko Akaishi, manager of the Guidance and Counseling Division of the JET Program for CLAIR said: “We don’t know if JET teachers may require counseling or leave but this may come up in the coming weeks. If necessary we will offer them counseling.”

Nova will also provide counseling to those who seek it. “We provide a company counseling service. One of our staff is specialized in this area and counseling is available,” says Peter Logan.