Everyone who was alive on Sept. 11, 2001, can tell you where they were when it went down. But for me, my location at the moment of the attack colored my experience to such an extent that I feel different than other Americans, even 20 years later.
For most Americans, the 9/11 attacks happened in the morning. For my husband, a few friends and me, because we were in Beijing at the time, they happened in the evening. Most Americans spent the days and weeks after huddling together, checking news updates and worrying. We, too, huddled, with the few Americans we had around us, but because we were thousands of miles away from family and work, surrounded by people who had a different perspective on the event, it felt quite different from what others have described.
First, a little context. Erik and I had lived in Beijing in 1997 and 1998. We had a wonderful time and made many close friends there. In september 2001, we returned to Beijing on vacation along with several friends from our new home, the San Francisco Bay Area.
On the morning of Sept. 11, the attacks still about 15 hours in the future, we woke up in sleeping bags on the Great Wall of China, on a guard tower, where we had camped out. We had arrived by flashlight the night before, so for our friend who had never seen the Wall before, it was a spectacular dawn reveal.
For all of us, it was a happy morning, and carefree. I remember losing my inexpensive sleeping mat off the side of the wall, watching it tumble end over end toward the ground, and laughing. We were starving by the time we hiked down to our starting point, the entrance where they sold tickets to this section of the wall. We ate breakfast at a big round table, inviting our driver, who had spent the night in his van. He had made friends with the woman running the little restaurant, and we teased him — the best we could in our crappy Mandarin — about what he might have been up to all night.
After returning to Beijing, our day escalated from fun to joyous. We gathered at a Peking Duck restaurant with every local friend from our days living there. A long table populated at every seat by a good friend we hadn’t seen in several years. So many hugs, so much laughter, shouting to be heard, gorging ourselves on duck in lacy pancakes, with plum sauce and spring onions and washing it all down with Chinese beer.
Thinking of the horror and the grief so many of my fellow Americans experienced on Sept. 11, it feels strange to admit that this was one of the happiest days of my life.
As the banquet wound down, we made a plan to leave and reconvene in Sanlitun, the bar area then patronized by the English speaking “laowai” (foreigner) population. Our Texan friend, who had lived in Beijing when we arrived in 1997 and was still living there in 2001, told us about a tiny bar that sold Jack and Cokes for just 10 RMB. That was $1.25. Soon I was standing at the counter of that bar, the size of a tiny convenience store counter, having my friends step in one at a time to collect their cocktails and then step back onto the warm street. We toasted one another.
Someone’s cell phone rang.
The person who got the phone call turned to me to report that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. Beijing time is exactly 12 hours later than New York City time. Since the first plane hit the tower at 8:46 a.m. in NYC, this call must have come in shortly before 9 p.m.
I was not impressed by that information.
“That’s happened before,” I told my friends, and went on sipping my drink. I was thinking it was some single crazy person in a prop plane. Didn’t that happen once before? We stood speculating on what might have happened, accident or crazy person or what, and how many people might have been in the part of the building affected at that hour.
But a few minutes after 9, when someone got a call and cupped the phone receiver to tell us, “Another plane hit the World Trade Center,” the casual chatter faded quickly. Despite the fact that this was frightening news that gave me a lot to think about, I had something else immediate on my mind: I owed a phone call to a source I was meant to meet up with the next day. I quickly borrowed a cell phone and stepped away from the group to call him.
I had previously planned to spend the following day reporting an article for my employer, The San Francisco Chronicle, about American-born Chinese people becoming entrepreneurs in China. The source was one of these entrepreneurs. He, too, had heard about these bizarre events in New York City. He wanted to know if I still wanted to meet tomorrow. I did! I had only one day on this trip free for reporting, and I was determined to make it happen despite any circumstances going on in the outside world.
When I finished my phone call, the others were a little shocked to hear that my phone call was not related to the situation at hand. While I was away, my American friends had made a plan to get us in front of a TV, stat. We jumped into our Texan friend’s Jeep and drove to his apartment, which, being in a diplomatic compound, had an international CNN feed.
I remember my friend getting updates on his cell phone while he drove. Maybe someone was telling him about the plane hitting the Pentagon at 9:37 Eastern Standard Time? It’s all fuzzy 20 years later.
What I do remember clearly is that when we arrived at his apartment, we watched footage of the second plane hitting the South Tower, repeatedly. I remember the plane moving in a straight line, in what seemed like an orderly flight path, against the pale blue sky, sort of disappearing behind the North Tower, and nothing but a red explosion exiting the other side.
I remember one young Chinese woman, a friend of our host I guess, asking, “What happened to the plane?” Because the plane just seemed to disappear, like a magic trick.
At first new events piled on top of the shock from the previous events. The collapse of the South Tower. News that Flight 93 had likely also been hijacked, that the Air Force was scrambling fighter jets that might shoot it down, and then its crash in Pennsylvania. President Bush’s hurried, frightened looking talk before he’s whisked off to Airforce One.
As we sat on the floor and on his furniture staring at CNN for the hours to come, waiting to see if anything else was going to happen, more and more people quietly arrived at the apartment to watch. I borrowed the phone — maybe the land line? — and called my parents, just to let them know I was OK. They said I was probably safer in China than if I had been home in San Francisco, because who knew if other cities were yet to be attacked. My mom told me she had been watching some coverage that seemed hysterical, but she had switched to Peter Jennings and that helped her feel calmer.
One of my friends just kept repeating, “Why would someone do this?” He wasn’t naive to the reasons why people might want to attack America. He was a reporter. He was just reacting to the brutality of murdering so many people. We still had no idea how many victims there were.
On top of the general horror and fear that other Americans felt watching these events, Erik and I worried about what the next couple of weeks would hold for us. Would we need to cut our trip short and head home? But how could we, with all US air traffic grounded? Would we be able to get home safely any time soon, even at the scheduled end of our trip? Were we in any danger as Americans abroad right now?
Eventually, we went to where we were staying — the apartment of a friend who worked at China Daily. Maybe that night, or maybe it was the next, we went into the newsroom of China Daily and saw late-night editors working away on the next day’s headlines. In the morning, we woke and turned on the TV to see news coverage of the many first responders who had perished running into the towers.
I went ahead with my day of reporting, although it wasn’t what it would have been. My source still had some of his appointments, but no one wanted to talk about anything other than the attacks. At one point, the person the source was meeting with was on the phone with a Chinese reporter, who wanted to speak to me when she found out there was an American in the room. She asked me to describe what the Twin Towers were.
“It’s just an office building, I guess,” I said. I had only been to New York once before, and they didn’t mean much of anything to me.
The next few days were a blur of nocturnal TV watching and bleary days. The days would be empty of news, as America slept, and then just as we wanted to start winding down toward sleep, the TV would start blurting out new information about who might have done it, how many people died, how it all happened, and we’d end up staying up much of the night.
Erik and I were scheduled to be in Asia for two weeks, including a trip to Tibet and a weekend in Malaysia on the way home. One of our friends was scheduled to fly home sooner. But all flights to the US were grounded. He ended up taking long taxi rides to the airport daily, just to find out if flights had resumed.
We tried not to spend all our time sitting in front of the TV. We went out. Having lived in Beijing, we were already used to our white skin attracting attention. In public, Chinese people would often call out to us, “Lao wai!” or “Hello!” or ask us to pose for photos with them. Now, several people called out to us and pantomimed the explosions, the falling towers. They wanted to know if we’d heard. As if we could have failed to hear about it.
When it was time for us to leave Beijing and head for the “once-in-a-lifetime” part of our trip, Tibet, our sense of disassociation from the rest of America increased. Getting away from the constant media presence in Beijing felt like a wonderful release, but did we deserve to get away? We were already so lucky to be alive, to know that our loved ones were, for the moment, safe. And yet, we also knew that it would be a foolish waste to spend the whole trip avoiding the fun and interesting experiences available to us. If anything, knowing that some 3,000 Americans had suddenly perished, knowing that the future was less certain for all of us than we had previously thought, made it clear that we needed to take this opportunity to live and experience everything we could.
But first we had to get to Tibet. Boarding two planes to fly to Chengdu, then Tibet, was scary. We were hearing a lot about faulty airline security on the news, and here in China we didn’t see a lot of pre-boarding security at all. It didn’t help that on the flights, we experienced the worst turbulence of our lives. Roller coaster style turbulence. Passengers — including me — screaming when the plane dipped and wobbled. A kid ran down the aisle toward the bathrooms, fell to the floor when the plane bucked, and ended up vomiting on the floor. The flight attendants patting down the wet carpeting with paper towels. Thank goodness we had a night in Chengdu to rest before taking the Tibet flight, which we knew in advance would likely be turbulent.
Once in Tibet, the mood was very different. No more people getting in our face and asking if we’d heard. No TV in the hostel where we slept, mercifully, although we did catch up on the latest follow-up news at Internet cafes. At the Jokhang Temple, a monk asked me if I was American, then grasped my wrist and looked deep into my eyes while telling me he was sorry about what had happened. In that moment, I felt his acknowledgment of the trauma, all over my body and deep inside. Even 20 years later, this moment of connection is one of my strongest memories of the trip.
We left Lhasa on a prearranged jeep trek to a monastery, where we watched a sky burial, met a party of Buddhist pilgrims, and hiked to a nunnery. It was literally the farthest we could possibly get from the world events that were still terrifying our families and friends back home.
I wish I could find the photos of the group of pilgrims we hung around with, sharing no common language but bonding by passing back and forth our guidebook, with its color photos of famous nunneries and monasteries. My favorite part of that gathering was the moment when one of the women in the group plucked one of the light-colored hairs from Erik’s arm and, grinning sheepishly, tucked the souvenir in the fold of her stocking cap.
Then, back to Beijing, we met with our friend who was still stuck in Beijing, now filing reports back to our newspaper since his vacation was technically over. Erik and I boarded our flight to Malaysia. We felt nervous to be heading to a country with a majority Muslim population, since all we really understood about the hijackers at that point was that they were all Muslim. The friends we’d be staying with lived within sight of the Petronus Towers, another set of twin towers that the media had named as another potential terrorist target. But we didn’t want to give up this part of the trip.
As our flight lifted off the runway in Bejing, a loud bang sounded. I screamed. Erik cringed at my disturbing the other passengers, but I couldn’t help it. When it was safe to do so, a flight attendant opened the closet in the bulkhead and pulled out a shelf that had fallen, showing it to me.
“It had nothing to do with Osama,” he said, his voice dripping with disdain for my skittishness.
I’m glad we didn’t lose our weekend in Malaysia. The beaches there were spectacular, and it was wonderful to see the friends we’d known in Beijing, who now lived in Kuala Lumpur.
A few days later, we were grateful to be able to fly home as scheduled. We walked through San Francisco Airport, and could immediately sense that the America we were returning to was not the same place we’d left. I remember seeing a lot of US flags. I can’t remember if they had been hung up in the airport, or if maybe people were wearing flag pins and patches on their clothes? An announcement overhead reminded passengers about new security protocols.
It’s very strange to leave your own country for just two weeks and come back to a different place.
When I returned to work the next day, I found my coworkers shell shocked by all the extra hours they’d been putting in and the emotional stories they’d been telling, even in San Francisco, across the country from the attacks. We had always been a tight crew, but now they were all closer to one another, and I felt that I was a little bit the Other.
All my work things were taped up in a box on my desk. Our section had been scheduled to move to another part of the building when I was gone, but when the attacks happened, something as insignificant as moving was pushed off the schedule. I unpacked my things onto my old desk and got to work.