Before the first plane hit the towers on Sept. 11, it was a beautiful early morning in New York. At that same moment thousands of miles away, I was a high schooler getting ready for bed in Shanghai, China.
My father, an American diplomat with the consulate, was sitting in our TV room watching CNN when he called me downstairs. I remember the sepia tones of the television screen as smoke clouded the area around the World Trade Center. I was shocked, but somehow unconcerned. We constantly heard about bombings and shootings around the world. It wasn’t until the next day that it hit me.
That morning at my school, the Shanghai American School, the hallways were more chaotic and crowded than usual. With the wide range of international backgrounds, some were just finding out about the events from the evening before, while others asked out loud, “Why are we in school today? Shouldn’t we be at home mourning?” Other students shrugged off the news – this happens all the time in my country, they seemed to think, welcome to the club.
The American students – or ones with ties to the attacks – could leave their classes to use the computers in the administrative offices to send emails. I was excused from my social studies class with another American friend, but I was comforting others more than mourning. I felt terrible about the attacks, but felt disconnected by what happened in New York City. I am an American, but it didn’t feel like it was an attack on me.
In talking with fellow 20-something American Third Culture Kids, I saw that this was a recurring theme. As diplomat kids, missionary kids, corporate kids or whatever else living abroad, we were expected to represent the United States on our teenage shoulders with everything that we did. To others, we were America. To us, we were American by passport, having grown up abroad.
After 9/11, the Third Culture Kids I spoke with had vivid memories of the responses from their surrounding community. In the conversations, I noticed one common emotion: we were shocked and terrified by what happened, but felt a sense of confusion as to why we didn’t feel as connected to the tragedy as people around us expected us to be.
For Bekah Teusink, 24, 9/11 “was just another tragedy.” She was living in Ethiopia with her missionary parents at the time, getting ready for the first day of school the next morning. After dinner, a friend called them to come over to watch the news on their TV, since their family didn’t have one. Something was happening in the U.S. and they needed to see it.
With dozens of other missionaries, Teusink squeezed into the crowded room and watched the television with shock. However, there was a nagging thought in her mind.
“I’m kind of ashamed of my first thought,” she said. “From an international perspective, I thought, ‘Well now you know how the rest of us feel.’”
Teusink spent half her life in Africa by the time she went to the U.S. for college, which included living in Rwanda shortly before the now infamous genocide that killed 800,000. She remembers feeling that no one cared about the murders taking place in her back yard.
In Ethiopia, which has a large Muslim population, Teusink’s Muslim-American friends felt that they had been attacked as well. Many of them were proud Americans who had lived in the U.S. for much of their lives. The day after the attacks, students in school prayed for the victims. Teusink’s parents prepared bags with the proper paperwork in case anything happened in the country and they needed to leave.
In Shanghai, my life changed when America waged war in the Middle East. Even though we were thousands of miles away from the attacks in New York City, we seemed to be in more danger. The morning of Oct. 7, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan. The Shanghai American School phone tree went into effect and my parents learned that school was canceled for the day: China has a border with Afghanistan, and my school was technically American soil. Anyone wanting to make a statement could have done it with a swift attack on the 1,000 students going to classes and running in the soccer fields.
Talking to my father today, he told me there were people following our school buses and threats on the school. This makes sense, since I was told to watch my cell phone in case we got a call to leave the country. I remember him working late nights for months after the attacks. Although we were never evacuated, the rest of the school year changed dramatically. All school trips were cancelled; it was just too risky to put us on planes.
Chelsea Hentschel, 24, was an American teenager living in Islamabad, Pakistan after the attacks. Her parents were American diplomats, and after 9/11, their lives changed dramatically. Her neighborhood posted an extra guard, her family was given a driver, and her school bus came directly to their gate to pick students up. Whenever she asked to go out, her parents had a new answer: absolutely not. Eight days after the attacks, the embassy told the family to pack up.
“At first we didn’t think we were going to get evacuated. And then the day before we got evacuated they said, ‘O.K. you guys have to go, so pack everything up you need,’” Hentschel remembers. “We could only take what we could.”
Her father stayed to finish out the two-year tour. For the next four months, Hentschel made friends at her new high school in Chantilly, Virginia. However, the family was moved back to Pakistan in January 2002 — which didn’t last long. On March 17, 2002, a militant group bombed the International Protestant Church near the American Embassy in Pakistan during services, killing a family friend. The Hentschels were evacuated again.
“At that point they said, ‘You need to get out, things are getting bad,’” she said.
When thinking about 9/11, Hentschel relates it to watching international news about the recent gunman who went on a killing spree in Oslo, Norway: it was terrible, but she felt like it was happening to somebody else.
Although Jonathan Charnas, 25, had never lived in the U.S. at the time of the attacks, he was targeted by some of his classmates as an American living abroad. Living in France because of his father’s job, he attended a high school with a large Muslim population, and those with anti-American sentiments cheered on the attacks. Some classmates passing him in the hall made rude comments or brought signs to school with an X through the American flag.
When the war in the Middle East started, things got worse. There was uproar by students who were already angry with the U.S. Also, France was notoriously vocal against the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Propelled by the nationwide French protests, some students took to the school courtyard for one of their own demonstrations.
“During recesses and lunch breaks, I had to hide in hallways and empty classrooms. It’s not that they had anything against me, but they had something against America, and I was the closest link to it they had available,” he wrote in an email interview.
His friends stuck by his side and accompanied him whenever rowdier students wanted to pick a fight. As time passed, the animosity simmered down and Charnas moved to the U.S. for the first time to go to college.
After the towers fell in 2001, my international classmates created a memorial for people we never met. A bush outside of the attendance office bloomed with flowers, letters, photographs, candles and posters. I remember writing a letter to everybody and nobody and placed it in the memorial. I don’t remember what I wrote or what happened to all the items we put there.
I still feel like I was not close enough to 9/11 to mourn the same way my friends do here in the United States. When they recount where they were the morning of the attacks, and the moments shared with fellow Americans, I recognize how unique my experience was. As young Americans growing up abroad, we were fearing for our lives with bomb threats and evacuations, all the while representing the United States — a country we did not grow up in.
But whether it’s the Bali bombings, the massacre in Norway, the attacks in the Middle East or planes crashing into the World Trade Center, they are tragedies. People going about their business died without the chance to say good bye to their loved ones; people who were hurt by other people.
Ten years later, I see Sept. 11 not as an American tragedy, but a human tragedy. It may not have happened next door, but real people were dying on that television screen in front of us — and that, we should never forget.
How did Sept. 11 change your life? Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?
Illustration for Denizen by Elaina Natario