Monday, April 09, 2007

In the Dark

Back when I lived in Pennsylvania, we frequently experienced power outages and fluctuations during storms or heavy snowfall. Local accidents would also sometimes take down a power line and cause an extended outage. When I was young, it was sometimes spooky and sometimes rather exciting when this happened. Without the constant chatter of the television and with no external illumination, it was very, very dark and extremely quiet during such outages.

In Tokyo, loss of power is very rare. I think it has happened 3 times in 18 years. The experience is quite different compared to what happens in a rural home. The outages have always been very brief in Tokyo usually lasting only a few minutes at a time. In Pennsylvania, outages could last for up to an hour (or more). Things also are never quiet in Tokyo where your neighbors are about a room away in distance and there's always a road with a fair amount of traffic in earshot. On the rare instances when the power has gone out, my neighbors have come out of their homes to chatter about what has happened amongst themselves.

Power outages are on my mind because there were two brief ones on Saturday. At the time, I was in the middle of a lesson with a student so it was a strange experience. The apartment we live in isn't very well-situated for light so it's quite dark even in the early day with all the curtains open so my student and I were sitting in a very dim room in the late afternoon while it was happening.

It's a somewhat awkward situation to find yourself in because you're often working from a textbook which you can no longer read and the student can't see to write her notes very well.

We soldiered on with the conversation but it made me wonder what I'd do if something like that happened and stuck for a long period of time. I imagine that I'd have to dig out some candles and carry on with the lesson if this were to occur for the duration but it'd seem rather strange, particularly since my candles are stored under my sofa and the student is sitting on it while the lesson is going on. Getting them out would reveal the plethora of items stored under there to the student. There's nothing embarrassing there but things are probably more chaotic-looking than I'd prefer a student witness.

The student that this occurred with didn't seem very put out and I took the opportunity to teach her the vocabulary for "black-out" and "brown-out" and we carried on with the conversation we had been having but I pondered later why the experience is more disconcerting than it ought to feel. I concluded that part of the reason is probably that the experience with students, even when they are being taught in your home, is a relatively formal one. You rarely share any "real life" experiences aside from a cup of tea and a snack on rare occasions when the students bring something and you enjoy it together.

The student and the experience of being in your home when the power goes out aren't paired together and the student's presence complicates your ability to react to a problem. I think the strangeness I feel is the result of the limitations I feel when the student is there in a small "crisis" situation.


Luis said...

Such an experience is even more rare where I live: all the power cables run underground. It'd take a major earthquake or a regional power failure to turn lights out around here.

Still, you're right, it does happen a lot less in Japan in general. I covered this almost exactly two years ago myself, and the best theory I heard to explain it was that there are fewer big/tall trees around to fall on power lines, taking them out.

Shari said...

Actually, I was talking more about the situation with the student and how it feels when these things happen rather than the rarity or source of the power outages.

I think it probably happens in Tokyo when something needs to be reset for some reason (or it wouldn't be so short an outage). The only other time it may happen is during relatively strong earthquakes.