Letter From America : Feeling The Distance

The Christchurch earthquake, via Blackberry …

by James Robinson (first of an occasional series.)

Back in New Zealand, I always owned a cell phone a few generations behind the current peak of technology. Now, as a resident of the United States of America, a culture that somehow seems geared to throw you headfirst into the dizzying world of personal gadgetry, I have a Blackberry. It can seem a ridiculous tool, of which I will only ever master a few of its functions. I don’t feel like Blackberry Guy.

My email comes straight to my pocket. Going about my day as a new resident of Boston, Massachusetts I am constantly cut in on by emails and wry Facebook bon mots from family, friends and as is the times, casual acquaintances from home that I might never have seen that much of in the first place.

The world is a much smaller place, we know this well by now. What my new Blackberry has taught me is how disorientating this can be. Two geographically divergent realms have the ability to cut across your attention so passively. There’s something about fielding an email from a good friend at the Ministry of Justice on Lambton Quay, Wellington while casually killing time in line for a burrito on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston that makes me homesick. It bridges and amplifies distance almost simultaneously.

This new feeling reached a stomach-turning altitude when at 1.05pm, Friday, September 3rd my pocket vibrated. It was a CNN news alert, a service I had subscribed to many years ago and subsequently forgotten how to disembark from:

“7.2 magnitude earthquake strikes near Christchurch, New Zealand, USGS says.”

Boston and Christchurch could never again seem so far away from each other. There was no news on the Internet. It was five past five on a Saturday morning in New Zealand, so the lack of response was understandable, but terrifying. The United States Geological Survey website had magnitude, centre and depth information posted. A rough Wikipedia comparison put the earthquake in a similar ballpark to Haiti. This was an indisputably major event, and there was nothing to be gathered beyond a series of “more to follow” headlines.

New Zealand is invisible in American media. But people were on this, and the urgency and scope of coverage States-side was troubling: as if media were gearing themselves up for the next major global act-of-god story, as if they knew something that we didn’t. My American-born girlfriend started to receive texts from American friends of hers hoping that things were okay. Was New Zealand to be the next global cause of humanitarian sympathy? At this stage all we had were numbers to go off. And the numbers seemed terrifying.

Messages started to fly between fellow ex-pats. The story was filled in on New Zealand news sites in two sentence increments. Each small update: a demolished row of shops, leaking drains, lack of electricity, patchy telecommunications – added another frown line. Radio New Zealand was accessed online, and we listened to shell-shocked Cantabrians tell their story. Dramatic Twitter postings hinted at looting. With the lack of a complete picture, citizen journalism took over.

Hours passed, and the tales of destruction mounted. “It’ll be miraculous if there’s no deaths,” I remarked to my girlfriend. As it turns out, it was. We forced ourselves to leave the house late in the day, but everywhere I went I had my Blackberry in hand checking for updates.

I was in Boston, but my mind was on the other side of the world. I’ve always felt like more of a New Zealander when I leave the country. This manifested itself in a sad protectiveness.

The news slowly started to improve. It was reported that only two men in their fifties were seriously injured, and the chances were small that they’d be one of the handful of men in their fifties from Christchurch that I knew. In a selfish way, this all started to make me even more homesick. I started to unwind a little bit – I pictured everyone rising, making sense of what had happened, swapping gossip and funny stories about their jolts from slumber (“I thought someone was breaking into my house…” a friend remarked to me via email). People band together in times of shared experience. There is an electricity that hangs in the air.

Nothing like a natural disaster to really drive home how out of the loop you are.

That evening, overlooking Boston’s elegant Charles River, from the top floor of the Hyatt, in the midst of the sort of social engagement that reminds you how new in town you are (American social mixers tend to place a premium on extremely loud music, driving down the ease in which one can in fact be social) – the day took its last heartbreaking twist.

In queue at the bar, the familiar vibration of my Blackberry signalled that I had mail. It was my sister, letting me know that I did know one of the two people seriously injured. My uncle had had the ignominy and foul-fortune of having his chimney collapse on him. My stomach turned repeatedly as I read down the list of injuries that he’d sustained.

The next day Christchurch’s earthquake was page three in the New York Times and Boston Globe. I shopped for a get-well card, and wrote aborted sympathy emails. It all seemed trifling and insincere in the face of such life-altering adversity.

Modern technology may keep us more informed, may bring us closer together – but in situations that call for real mending and depth, it doesn’t come close as a substitute.