September 11 – 12, 2001
The party ended a few minutes before 9pm, Shanghai time. I was celebrating a Filipino friend’s birthday at her condo. Dessert had just been served when the phone rang. After the quick call, our host stopped the music and turned the TV on to CNN. It was just before 9am, New York time; the WTC (World Trade Center) North Tower was already going up in smoke. It was a scene too surreal to be real. My first thought was that it was a terribly dramatic plane crash. Minutes later, we saw – live – the second plane slamming into the South Tower. It dawned on us that the event was far more sinister than a malfunctioning airliner. The room fell silent. Party over.
Among the many ambush interviews of witnesses, I still remember Debbie, a distraught African-American woman who was at the building when the attacks occurred. Still breathless, she described how she raced down the dark and smoke-filled stairwell, not knowing what had caused the explosion at the upper floors. Being born in a generation that has not experienced any world war, we both could not fathom carnage and violence of this scale.
It was past midnight when I staggered to my apartment and found my American boss still watching CNN in the living room. He was sitting, seemingly frozen and unblinking, while horrific images unfolded repeatedly on screen. I managed to mumble an incoherent greeting. He didn’t even look up.
It was business-as-usual in Shanghai the next day. At lunch hour, the huge office cafeteria was crowded with Chinese yuppies. The noise drowned out the audio of several TV sets placed strategically on the walls. Of course, they showed clips of the previous day’s terror attacks. Disturbingly, the chaotic chatter would blend into collective hooting every time the news footage showed the planes ploughing into the Twin Towers. I remembered Debbie and those who were less fortunate than she was (much later I learned almost 3,000 people from around the world perished in the attacks).
It felt like I was at a bar watching the FIFA World Cup. The shout was more incomprehensible to me than if they had whispered in Chinese. It confused me. I couldn’t tell if it was simply culture shock on my part or a mob display of schadenfreude. Was it some kind of group coping mechanism in the face of a traumatic event? Was it a vocal opposition to bin Laden’s cause that precipitated this act of terror? Was it anti-Americanism surfacing exuberantly at the perceived fall of Almighty America? Was it desensitization to violence and death caused by graphic movies and video games or even by the repetitive reporting of news networks?
Still, it didn’t diminish my regard for the Chinese people I had personally met. During my two-year stint in Shanghai, I had not met a local who did not show kindness wholeheartedly, may it be in translating the menu or in apartment-hunting. But ten years on, the hooting still reverberates through my mind when I see images of 9/11.
Part of my childhood lay in the rubble of Ground Zero. Almost twenty years to the day before 9/11, one summer morning in 1981, I was a wide-eyed 11-year-old visiting the WTC with my mother. It was when an ear-popping elevator ride to the observation deck on the 110th floor and an eye-popping view from coin-operated binoculars could make a kid feel at the top of the world.
But that pristine morning in 1981 had turned into profound mourning in 2001.