The Transcendental Tourist

Shock or Schadenfreude in Shanghai: My Memories of 9/11

Shanghai, China

September 11 – 12, 2001

NYC skyline in 1980 (WTC on the far left) taken by Mom from the Staten Island Ferry.

The party ended a few minutes before 9 PM, 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 9 AM, 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.

My WTC Ticket from 1980

Part of my childhood lay in the rubble of Ground Zero. Almost twenty years to the day before 9/11, one summer morning in 1980, 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 dream he could do anything, even reach the top of the world.

But that pristine morning in 1980 had turned into profound mourning in 2001.

Mom and Me @ NYC, 1980

30 thoughts on “Shock or Schadenfreude in Shanghai: My Memories of 9/11

  1. Nice post. I think most of us who have visited the towers think back to what is was like to actually be there once. I remember when I went up to the observation deck in 1991. When I look at the photos we took from there, it seems like it can’t be possible that it’s gone.

    1. True that. It was such a monolithic structure that I thought it would always be there. The height was unimaginable to a kid from the Third World in the 80s!

      Thanks for dropping by, Cathy!

    1. I got to see reactions from three different nationalities. But of course, the individuals didn’t represent everyone from their countries. You’re right, though. Enjoying, or at least trivializing, scenes of suffering and death can never be justified.

  2. I think 9/11 brings back so many memories for all of us who witnessed it unfold on TV. It will go down as a day we would all like to forget but also as a day we would all like to remember. I am saying that because I saw a country unite in helping rebuilt what was lost and a world unite against terrorism.

    1. “…a day we would all like to forget but also as a day we would all like to remember.” You’ve articulated it so accurately, Nelieta.

    1. Neither could I. That’s why I was shocked (actually, appalled) when I witnessed it up close and personal. The day brought out a myriad of feelings, even those we didn’t expect. Thanks for dropping in, Deborah!

  3. AJ ,I’m glad you wrote this because it’s a side of this that we need to examine sometime that America is hated by many people.

    True remembrance is for the dead and dying on all sides in any conflict.

  4. AJ – Thank you for this post. I remember watching in horror from my office that morning. At first I remembered that another small plane ahd hit the WTC years earlier (pilot error) and thought “What are the odds?” Quickly I realized that it was no accident and when the second plane hit I was in shock. I watched from inside a vacuum.

    A decade later I am fascinated to read the perspective of someone like you who lives abroad, but is vested in world matters. Thank you very much for your perspective and for sharing it.

    The world is very different now than 10 years ago, or perhaps we pay more attention now. I don’t know what the solutions are for this kind of violence and hatred…but I hope we find them in my lifetime.

    Be well,

    1. I agree with your insight, Ron. Perhaps we do pay more attention after 9/11, but such violence and intolerance have always existed in our generation. In finding solutions, I have the same hope as you.

      You’ve found love again; I hope the world does too. 🙂

  5. “But that pristine morning in 1981 has since turned into profound mourning in 2001.”

    That was indeed history right then when it was still happening. Let’s hope for a more peaceful and brighter warless-world in the coming years… :/

  6. It’s an interesting point Jimshu raises above. No one deserves to die in acts of war or terrorism, but sadly, those who do are generally not the decision makers whose policy and practice result in such events. But on the other hand, we get the government we deserve. I wonder how many war memorials commemorate the dead on both sides? I know the one at Gallipoli does – are there others?

    1. So true. And the Powers That Be just call them collateral damage! You got me thinking about war memorials that honor both sides’ casualties. It’s unthinkable, unless it’s a civil war memorial where the dead were from the same country. Perhaps.

  7. Like you, I was also shock when I saw the news. I was horrified. I couldn’t imagine how anybody can do such a horrible thing. I remember I cried for the people who died that day. Even though I don’t know anybody there, I still cried. It is simply cruel and evil.

  8. I remember I was in third year high school at this time and we were having a culminating activity for our sportsfest. Our nun principal relayed us this message which made me wonder how grave of a matter this was (didn’t have tv back at home).

  9. AJ, I’m so glad you got to visit the WTC. I was at work at Pratt & Whitney when it happened. P&W made the plane engines, so our co. was involved in the aftermath. We learned about it just before the second plane crashed. All over the plant, people watched off and on all day on tvs in conference rooms. The tvs didn’t have antennas and weren’t connected to cable, so the pics were very snowy, but watch we did. It was truly horrific and I hope nothing that awful ever happens again. Thanks for writing about your experience.

    1. I can imagine watching it unfold in grainy footage. Must’ve felt apocalyptic. The hashtag should not only be #neverforget or #alwaysremember but also #neveragain !

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