Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where were you?

The lead-up to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks are inescapable. It's everywhere I typically go to for news: on NBC News, PBS, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, etc., etc. International students I know have asked me what I will do to mark the occasion. Even they realize that the September 11 attacks may be the defining moment of Gen-Xers and Gen-Y.

Here in Honolulu, we are about as far away from New York City, the Pentagon, or rural Pennsylvania as you can get and still be in an US state. But the obvious parallel between that infamous date and December 7, 1941, inevitably draws this island into the 9/11 mindset.

I was taking a nap when the first plane hit the towers. At the time I had a job that required me to get up at 4:30 a.m. every Monday through Saturday, and I often found myself taking a late evening siesta in order to make it to 10 or 11, when my friends would want to meet.

My boss called me, which woke me up. "Did you see what happened?" he asked. "Go turn on the news. A plane hit the World Trade Center." Frankly, I don't even know if he said it in English or Korean, but I seem to have remembered the conversation in the latter.

I also don't remember if I was watching CNN or AFN Korea, or both, but I had found one or two stations that were staying on what had happened in New York, and then Washington. I called a close friend in Nebraska who had been to New York just a few months earlier; she was getting ready for class and she hadn't heard about the plane hitting the WTC until I called. We were both watching together when the second plane hit.

There was this sickening feeling deep in my stomach when I saw that. A visceral response as I realized what was happening. There was no escaping the fact that this was not an accident.

I stayed up, eyes glued to the television. Halmŏni came in and asked if I shouldn't be in bed, why was I watching TV, what is that on the TV, did the North Koreans do that? Halmŏni hates North Koreans.

No, I told her. We don't know. It could be anyone. I then went to work on doing a news write-up for a local news program, something that would go on the air. It was heart-wrenching, trying to navigate my own tumultuous emotions while actually doing work related to the incident.

I ended up having thirty minutes of sleep that night. The next day I was constantly reminded of the horrific incident. When my own recollection of the horror wasn't plaguing my thoughts, I had to deal with so many people coming up to me and offering condolences and asking if I'm okay. Any Korean who knew that I'm an American. At my grad school classes that day, at least a dozen conversations between myself and other Americans began with, "Oh, my god!"

When I was finally able to, I called my family to see how they were doing. All were on the West Coast, but they were as rattled as I was. Everyone. I also learned from my sister that my brother-in-law had been on one of the flights to Los Angeles that had been hijacked, but a day earlier. My mom wanted me to come to California, thinking it would be safer. No, I told her, Seoul was probably the better choice, but heading for the US was no option either for the next two weeks.

The evening of September 12, Korean time, I had to deliver a speech of sorts and the events came up. Try as I did to maintain my composure, my voice kept cracking. It was all I could do to keep myself from weeping at the thought of all the death and destruction.

At that point we thought as many as ten thousand might have died. It would be weeks, I think, before we realized it was only three thousand.

And everyone stood in a unified stance, behind the president, waiting to see what he would do. Afghanistan was a no-brainer, if the Taliban was not going to give up Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Iraq was a complete surprise to me; I thought that Cheney and Bush were rattling sabers to scare Saddam Hussein. I never though they'd really attack. At least, I thought, we might be finally rid of that horrible dictator. That was a consolation prize over a war I had hoped would never begin, and one that quickly became mismanaged and caused the other one — the justifiable one — to go off the rails.

I'd been expecting packages from the US Mainland, including my International Driving Permit. The grounding of all flights meant a delay of weeks.

I still feel a sense of anger, loss, and melancholy about a brighter future that slipped from our fingertips. In the end our unity became polarization. Our war(s) to avenge and definitively assure "never again" ended up bringing us to the edge of financial ruin.

So, what about you? Where were you on 9/11?

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