I am a New Yorker, and a life-long student of Chinese. I now teach at a University near Washington D.C. The newspapers remind me that today is the 6-month anniversary of the bombing of New York by al-Qaeda operatives. I was greatly affected by the bombing, but I realize that I have little innate sense of anniversaries. And I have no television, so perhaps I have healed from the event with less interference from mass culture than most others.
The World Trade Center was destroyed while I was teaching my first class of the day. I did not let myself hear the news after the first class - I couldn't let my concentration be diverted before my second class. My will-power sustained a calm 75 minute lecture, and suppressed the soft buzzing that must have been conversations about the attack.
After class, the urge to return to my hometown and make myself somehow useful was overpowering. As soon as the Amtrak trains started running again, I made my way to Washington's Union Station and got on a train to New York. We pulled in at 10:20 pm. The city seemed deserted at that point. In the morning I began looking for places to volunteer, but again and again I was turned away. There was no lack of helping hands. I had decided that my most useful skill was my knowledge of Mandarin. Eventually I was told that I might be used for translation at New York Downtown Hospital, on Beekman St. near City Hall, if I simply presented myself there. I set off at once, intending to get as far as I could by subway and then walking. Downtown Hospital is close to Ground Zero, a few blocks' walk.
I assembled a set of unofficial "credentials" as a translator of Chinese for the Red Cross: university ID, namecard with Chinese printed on the back, NY State non-driver ID, and the list of hospital addresses. Getting past the innumerable police and National Guard checkpoints was a long, long business. But eventually I made my way to Downtown Hospital. My shoes were covered with the frightul white mud of incinerated office buildings and their contents. I was assigned to a "staging area" to wait until I was needed.
From this moment on there was nothing to do, for me or for virtually any other volunteers at the hospital. We were not needed at all. The hospital staff said that the destruction had been so complete that there were almost no wounded. There were the dead and there were the escaped, and that was about all.
Attempts to volunteer in succeeding days led to the same result. Everyone I knew who worked in and around the Trade Center had escaped death, although nearly all of them witnessed the collapse of the towers. I spent a lot of time talking to survivors I knew, but eventually I came back to my university and resumed teaching.
It was very frustrating not being able to help in some way. And since my return I have felt alienated - I felt at once that the mood in Washington and at school, in spite of the nearness of the Pentagon attack, was foreign to me as a New Yorker. I felt that although the main attack was aimed at the United States, it was New York and not the U.S. that was actually hit. There is a long-standing breech of empathy between New York and the U.S., and I feel that the pain of this event belongs to us but was being abstracted by the Americans. Since September I have longed intensely to be living back in the city, and have traveled there frequently.
For months I slept badly. I had nightmares. I frequently awoke at odd hours of darkness, in a state of physical tension that could only be relaxed by rushing to the computer to read the latest news. I spent many hours each day reading the news - there are all sorts of interesting news sites around the world, but how many people do you know who actually read them regularly? I did. I got no research work done, and did little more than cover my teaching responsibilities.
But gradually the intensity of my feelings has eased, and I now find myself able to work. I feel I have recovered. I think that discovering Everything2 in early December greatly helped me to get over my trauma. Although I have not written about these events on E2, what helped me was the sense of being able to contribute something of my own expertise to a community of people. It is untoward that the particular teaching environment at my school now gives me less of that satisfaction than this mutant web site does.
Everything2 is strange. There is an enormous amount of junk on it, with a surprising number of gems buried here and there. It has taken me quite a while to get a good sense of what sort of write-ups are genuinely appropriate - neither the Random Node link nor the New Writeups nodelet is a reliable tool for figuring this out. I do not have the habit of BBS- or IRC-play and seldom use the chatterbox, and consequently I interact relatively little with other noders. But there is still something rather satisfying about the whole thing. I find myself treating E2 as a sort of interactive textual video game, but it is actually something more than that, too.
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