09/11, 20 years later

It’s hard to comprehend time sometimes. It goes by so constantly and perpetually that we hardly ever notice change, until it’s too late. Whether it be the length of our hair, or the growth of our children, or even the way our society looks and feels. We simply don’t notice the moments of change until the transformation has already happened.

I suppose it’s thus important to take a moment out of our busy lives to remember certain dates that are defining in our histories as human beings. Of course, we would be taking this moment every single day if we took the entirety of humanity and its history, but let us limit it more simply to our own existences. I recently watched a Netflix series consisting of a six-episode series focusing on the events of September 11, 2001: Turning Point: 9/11 And The War On Terror. A bit hesitantly, I clicked on it not knowing what it would evoke in me, and not being sure if I’d learn anything about it that I didn’t live already, but watching it made me take a moment to reflect.

What are the defining moments in history in our lives?

Being born in the 1980s leaves me a bit limited in the history of the world, but I’m drawn to at least three defining moments that I lived and witnessed first hand:

  • The dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.)
  • The fall of the Berlin wall and reunification of Germany
  • The second referendum on Quebec sovereignty
  • The rise of widespread terrorism, ultimately symbolised by the 09/11 attacks
  • The creation and widespread adoption of Pokémon games and culture
  • The emergence of social media and interconnectedness of the internet

While some of these might not be consequential to many, they stick out in my mind as being largely transformative. I remember waking up in the mornings, ready to see the results of something, or my eyes being opened by disbelief as something unfolds before me.

While many of these moments can be considered political, largely related to identity of groups or interconnectedness of history, or pop-culture references, there is only one that truly changed the way the world works; that is the events of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Washington D.C., and in the fields of Pennsylvania.

I remember the day, I remember the weather, and I remember where I was sitting the moment history was being announced to me. I was ironically sitting in a history class, summarising and outlining the causes of Nazism that were going to appear on an upcoming text. The classroom was fairly silent, with a few conversations happening around, but mostly pens on paper and the scribbling of study notes or graphical organisers. It was this moment that the teacher announced in the most calm and somber voice, that we would all head down to the auditorium because we were going to witness history in the making.

We didn’t know what to think; we had no context in order to make sense of this. How could something be so consequential that would take us away from our studies? We were ushered across the school campus to the auditorium where obviously other classes were gathered. For the purposes of context, it was the early 2000s, wide speed DSL wasn’t available (especially where in the world I was), and so information wasn’t shared on the go like it is today.

Photo courtesy of BBC

There was a television placed on the stage to the left side, and it was being projected onto the big screen an image I couldn’t quite understand. A building was on fire, and the voices of my classmates were muffled. We didn’t have mobile phones to check what was going on, we just sat and watched the smoke billow from the World Trade Center North Tower. The news reporter was just repeating the same thing over and over, and there was so much confusion as to what was going on. Was there an explosion? How did the building get on fire? Why was this history in the making? I was asking myself these questions.

And then it was a few moments after I sat down, the voice of the newscaster stopped. There was a long pause, and we saw nearly live what appeared to be a plane fly into and explode into the South Tower. The images were striking, and while there was only speculation beforehand what was going on, the gravity of the situation hit me. How does an airplane smash into a skyscraper in New York City? How can this happen? I’d been on hundreds of planes before and I never felt like pilots were out of control, but then again I suppose I was ignorant of what was going on in the cockpit and the pilot. I remember gasping and saying “Oh my God” because it was something so unexpected and yet so real.

The cameras were pointed right at the burning tower. It was only natural that we witnessed something we never expected. In retrospect it was hours before we saw video being sent in from the first plane, from every different angle, but since the first disaster happened, everything was being reported. We sat there, in disbelief thinking how could this happen, why could this happen, who would drive a plane into a building? And then I heard the word for the first time: terrorist.

I didn’t quite have a solid concept of it, I mean it’s not the first time the concept was used. There has been terrorism in the world before, but I suppose it was how it was being used that really was new for me. Seeing it was different about reading it, certainly. And we just sat there, teachers in the front looking shocked, but not saying anything. There was a sense of panic in the air, a confusion barely vocalised but obvious in the tension that we felt in the room. We sat there for an hour, and during that time more people came to the auditorium and more teachers gathered us into this room.

It became apparent to us that our next class was going to happen, and I think it was maths but we just sat there and nobody told us to do anything. No bells rang, no other sounds we heard except the voice of the the news reporter on the screen and the images being broadcasted. More information came in, more eye-witness reports, more devastation, and eventually it was clear that there wasn’t two crashed planes but actually four, another hitting the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the other crashing into a field. We had been sitting there uncomfortably for about an hour when we saw the South Tower collapse. It was like witnessing a train-wreck; you see it, and want to look away, but you can’t. Your eyes are glued to it and the image was engrained in your mind forever.

Eventually we were ushered back to our classes, but I think most of us were so confused, we didn’t even remember what we did for the rest of the day. Even though I was nowhere close to this, I remember being nervous going home on the bus. Sure no plane was going to drive into the bus, but it was clear that hijackers took control of the planes, and couldn’t they do that anywhere?

And so in the coming months the words became apart of our general vernacular: terrorist, hijacker, suicide bomber. I’ll never forget where it started, but twenty years later I can still see and feel the shift of the world. The paranoia, the fear, the impending unknown or uncertainty became somewhat permanent. To be completely honest, thinking about those feelings, it’s the Covid-19 feelings applied retroactively. All of that uncertainty and fear, it was happening again.

And so we wonder. This happened exactly 20 years ago, but what has changed or what has happened? The Netflix docuseries has clearly outlined the failure of the “War on Terrorism” that was waged, and it’s highlighted by the departure of Americans and Allies from Afghanistan departure a few weeks ago and the Taliban taking over the vacuum. When I was hearing it in the news I thought, what progress was made, what purpose was there, how are we back to where we were 20 years ago?

Under that 20 years, Afghans made huge strides to return to modernisation of pre-Soviet invasion and Taliban rule. Women became active parts of society and had access to education, more children went to school, there was relative safety and security that was maintained with the help of the world. They rebuilt and retrained and sought after a better life, and saw hope. It wasn’t perfect and people suffered under the civil war, but it was progress. I had the pleasure of teaching some Afghan men and women, and I listened to their stories and why they moved here, and from what they escaped, and the hope that they felt and pride they felt for their countries traditions, culture, and language. And then in what feels like hours, the world saw all of those freedoms and progress disappeared, as the Talibans took over Kabul and essentially all of Afghanistan overnight.

My heart breaks to think about this, and while I don’t want to spread out sadness into the world, I think it’s important to reflect on those moments that change the face of our world. Changes to national security, to safety and fear, to air-travel and freedoms. The way we see each other, and wonder what we are capable of? Do I know a terrorist, whether foreign or domestic? It’s about the way we see and talk about different cultures and religions, and how we need to build bridges to come together instead of build walls to tear us apart.

That change came twenty years ago, and the hate upon which those events were based still burns in the hearts of millions of people lurking in the shadows. Lest we forget the ones lost, and take stock of how our world is today. Care more, love more, and show empathy to more people in need. Don’t just turn your back. If I’ve learned anything in my life, is that we are more connected now than we have ever been, so do what you can and stand up for what’s right. Someone else will be grateful for it, I promise.

Age realization

Every once and awhile you take a moment while you’re rummaging through old stuff and you find a stash of things that makes you nostalgic. It could be an old picture, an old card, a certificate you earned, or an essay.

This is a memory, and boy does it make me feel old. So I was just on Facebook and I saw a post about a floor buffer. Now, normally it’s not something that’s noteworthy but it reminded me of a time in 2002-2003.

Back then I was in Grade 11 year and part of the things that student council organized was a student led “Big Brothers & Sisters” which would welcome new Grade 9s to the school and be sort of a guiding light to help and to welcome to the school.

When I started in high school I had something similar, and I thought back to it and all I remember was a pimply teenager that was trying too hard to be cool and how much I wished like I was in a different group with less strange people. I totally wasn’t that guy.

I was a chill upperclassman. I was nice to everyone, I was friendly, I did good things, and I helped people out. I can remember the day the Grade 9s came to visit before school and I distinctly remember them looking younger than I remembered. Until I looked back at what I looked like in Grade 9 or when I taught Grade 9 did I remember how tiny little humans we all were at some point. Anyways, I had this eclectic group of music kids and brainy literature kids. It was a strange mix, and this one boy in particular didn’t fit at all.

His name was Jacob and I will never forget him. He made an impression on me, and I don’t even to this day know why. He was the athletic type and was bouncing off the walls. The rest of the kids were like scared chinchillas. I amount this to the fact that his sister was an upperclassman friend of mine, so he knew his way around and such. As we were going on the tour, he kept calling me big brother. I found this strange because I’m an only child and nobody calls me brother, it wasn’t even until I was like 27 that someone “bro’ed” me.

Well this kid was all over the place, and I did my best to calmly keep him in check. But when he saw the floor buffer, he went crazy. He wanted to ride the floor buffer so much. He would just repeat over and over “Can I ride the floor buffer, can I can I?” and I would roll my eyes and say no in the sassy way I always do. He kept asking and was relentless.

Eventually the tour was over and the kiddies went back to their elementary schools. The following year I saw him around and chatted to him a bit (but Grade 12s and Grade 9s are so different you know…) and he would always remind me about him wanting to ride the buffer.

It would always make me laugh and I’m sure to this day he would remember it. In retrospect I think part of what makes him so memorable was his charisma and complete carefree attitude of someone so young. It was shocking and charming as much as it was irritating.

And so why is this experience important? Well I looked him up on Facebook and his public wall was filled with photos of his baby who appears to now be 3 years old. My heart sunk instantly and I was reminded how freakishly old I am in comparison to what I thought previously.

Time flies, it seems, and the more I think about it the more marriage and baby pictures are popping up on Facebook. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable, but then I just laugh, fluff it off and continue on my merry little way.

As good as nostalgia is, sometimes it bites!

Scandalous Chinese Adventures

It’s once in a blue moon that strange and exciting things happen to people like me. Mostly because I keep to myself and I don’t partake in many activities that the majority of people do. Having said that, a few weeks ago I took part in something totally out of character and it was a strange and hilarious experience that I can’t help but share.

Life lessons can be hard to learn, but are a necessary evil!

Life lessons can be hard to learn, but are a necessary evil!

A couple of my colleagues and I went out for a first week celebratory sushi outing. Low-key in comparison to other group events, the intimate evening included laughing, emotional highs, lows, and of course lamenting on the singledom that China bounds people to. In the defence of the Chinese, they are used to Asians and finding suitable choices of people of different ethnicities is probably unideal.

Despite this disadvantage I got sick of hearing girls complain about their misfortunes when in fact it was about their choices and lack of putting themselves out there that largely contribute to their loneliness. I’ve been the only one on staff that’s been able to make friends in China because I’ve been trying and they just complain and do nothing about it. So I got all diva on them and told them to download 陌陌 and see what they could find. If you don’t know what this is, it’s a sort of dating/hookup/social/who knows what in China. Bottom line you meet people, whether nefarious characters or not.

We delved into our phones, and of course I was right. They got messages and we proceeded to have strange broken Chinese-English conversations with a bunch of people. Not put off at all by foreigners they seemed to be curious and friendly, even towards people of darker skin. Our Chinese-Canadian friend in the corner who’s very fluent in spoken Mandarin but not in writing was quiet, and out of nowhere she started flapping. Apparently we caught a live one.

She showed us some pictures and the news that he wanted to go see a movie with her this evening. We had no such desire to do that so we proposed to just meet him to hang out. He agreed and we excitedly freaked out and set off for our destination, unsuitably dressed in casual clothing and looking like a bunch of bums dying in the humidity of China. We got halfway there, underestimating how long it would take walking with the “Island” folk who clearly do things at a 1/4 pace compared to everyone else. So we stopped at a bus station and he called looking to find out where she was. She said to him the bus stop and gave a description, and for the next 5 minutes we waited for a very attractive Chinese man to meet us.

Dozens of cars passed by and with each there was a panic. It wasn’t until one of the girls got freaked out at me freaking out that she said, “Why are you freaking out? Don’t you do this all the time?” to which I screamed back “No! I chat to them for a month and then meet them for dinner or a walk! OMG!” Then a nicely finished and shiny black car approached and slowed down and the window opened. Unlike most catfishes, the picture was for real and we found ourselves in front of a somewhat shellshocked attractive Chinese man.

She told him that she was with her friends because she was nervous, and he said it was okay and asked us to get into his car. Being adults of excellent education, getting into a stranger’s car is probably one of the worst things that one can do, but onwards ever forging onwards or something. Two of us were in the back giggling and trying desperately to understand the Chinese conversation going on in the front. According to our friend who provided us with infrequent translation summaries, this man was 29, single with non-stable work, and recently was in a car accident on his way to get us. He was drunk, little did we know, after having 8 beers with his mates and as a result of being so excited to meet my friend, got into an accident for which he had to pay ¥500 to bribe the victim. All to meet some foreigner girl – keep it classy, China!

So as we giggle our way trying to understand the conversation, I got some parts about him knowing that she was from Shanghai because of her accent and such, and he seemed relatively harmless and nervous. Shy as Asian men are, having one black woman, a white guy, and a Chinese-Canadian in his car it would be unfair to expect different behaviour.

He drove us to some large pot structure outside of a park, and upon getting out of his car he immediately went to the trunk to get something, which I assumed to be a weapon with which he’d kill us, but instead he opened a package of cigarettes and offered me one, being a polite man to another man and ignoring the others. I refused, to his shock, as nearly all men in China smoke (eww!).

We walked around he desperately tried to explain the structure in Chinese but it was lost in translation. It was at this point that we discovered that he doesn’t speak a lick of English, which made our funny conversations all the more secretive. We got to this one part of the park and he ushered us back into the light; so apparently he’s not psycho and wants to stay safe. First good sign of the night!

He finished smoking and I was taking in the surroundings. I judged that he was divorced, had one or two kids, and was from the military. I based all of this information on the fact that Chinese people unmarried after 25 is rare, and he seemed too hot to pass up by some unsuspecting girl, and walked in the manner of someone that worked in the military. My friend was drilling him with questions, and he didn’t seem perturbed, just shy.

We got back into the car and he took us to another place, along the area of 西津渡 which is the old port ferry area that is nice. It appeared to be the Zhenjiang version of “Makeout Point” as it was mostly couples kissing, having what appears to be sex, and people illegally fishing. The water murky, and views of Yangzhou across the river, again China is keeping it classy. We walked around there and things were getting a bit flirty, the giggling recommenced and then the truth came out. I was dead on with my assessment, he’s 29, was married and has one child, and divorced which all makes sense. He showed us pictures of his ex-wife and his adorable 4 year old child and we proceeded to walk around the port.

We played some games like “guess my age” and I was horrified that for the first time ever someone guessed above my age, or above the age of 24 for that matter. He did preface the game saying that he has no idea how to judge the age of foreigners, so I guess I shouldn’t be that uncomfortable about it. We walked back to his car in the darkness of night and he appeared to be getting less shy. He has a great smile that’s very genuine but by this point, not understanding anything he’s saying, something still isn’t sitting right in my mind.

Hooking up with a stranger off the internet is not a good idea... mostly!

Hooking up with a stranger off the internet is not a good idea… mostly!

As we approach the decked out car, I asked my friend if we should get a taxi home, as to not – you know – cockblock or something. I was trying to be a good friend, I guess. She was horrified and ordered us into the car, and we proceeded. Then he’s asking us where he should drive us, and we told him what village we live in and to drop us off at a mall location where we can catch a taxi. He refused, being a gentleman and convinced us to let him drive us home. We tried to communicate the address but not knowing the Chinese characters he was putting into his GPS my friend whipped out her business card. I warned her that she wouldn’t get it back, and she thought I was crazy. He put it in, pocketed the card and I laughed hysterically. She was horrified.

He turned on the music and away we go. On our journey he said he was in our village to pick up money earlier in the day so he’s familiar with it. This made me more circumspect. Why would he be picking up money in my little fishing village? He warned us that we should be careful because it’s very dangerous there. This is where I started to ask questions and something didn’t make sense. I’ve never felt safer than my little village. This may be because I have no idea what’s going on and ignorance is blissful, but seriously I’ve rarely seen fights or arguments or anything nefarious.

Then he asks for our contact details and he’s all excited about meeting the first foreigners ever and making new friends. I gave him my WeChat detail and such, and being nonchalant about the whole thing. Then he decides that he wants to impress my friend by giving her a present. He whipped out a flashlight and started to hand it over, then turned it on and it was… wait for it… a taser. Yes, a freaking taser. We all screamed and at this point in the night I thought, “Okay, this is where our poor judgement comes to bite us in the butt and he tazers us all and robs us and kills us.” He calmed us down just trying to show this (all while he’s driving, likely drunk). He then proceeds to give her the USB charger, because, well, it needs power I guess. And then he gives her an extendable billy club, and I start to lose it.

Why the f* does he have a taser and a billy club? My friend asked him again, and he gave the same “It’s dangerous here in China” and while I was being a diva and all “What the heck kind of neighbourhoods does he live in? Why does he need this? Shut the front door!?” we decide it’s harmless and she takes the taser, but refuses the otherwise unclassy club.

We huddle to decide a nondescript place he can drop us off that’s close to everywhere, and he does. With no awkwardness, or lingering “I want to have sex with you” body language on his part, he exits and we proceed home. I forgot to mention that all of us had dead phone batteries, so obviously we made some really poor decisions.

I get home and plug my phone in, and within 5 minutes he sent a message saying he was home safely. I thought to myself, weird. Either he went back to the city 50km away at the speed of 150km/h or he lives very close, there is no way he could have gotten there in time. It takes 40 minutes at 100km/h to get to the downtown. I thought little of it and continued a conversation.

I mentioned where I wanted to go and such, and he got all intolerant and hateful of Xinjiang people. Then proceeded to send me videos of a woman getting her throat cut, and beheadings that apparently happen in Xinjiang province. Perturbed, I decided to peace out and go to sleep. Not before he tries to weasel his way into our plans for the next day. No dice, brother.

Hot may ye be, that desperate are we not. It wasn’t until the next day that my suspicions were correct about his military background and all the other details, but we brainstormed what he might do for work. He mentioned going to casinos and such, so he could be a casino worker (which we found out to be illegial in China), a drug dealer, a loan shark, or a prostitute. How else would he afford all this nice stuff? After him sending some racy photos to us, I started to think he’s a prostitute, or really just a regular guy. I mean, guys send photos like that, right? Well, I’m led to believe so, but overall he seems harmless to me.

He messages me all the time asking where is my friend, and he clearly wants to be with her. I just move on and bypass all that and ignore it, because the bottom line is we hooked up (in a nonsexual way) with a really hot Chinese person that didn’t decapitate us. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll be a nice friend that we go “clubbing” with.

Lessons to be learned: don’t do this again, unless you’re really drunk and in a group of 3 which is much harder to kill and cover up than doing it alone. Don’t associate with possible drug dealers, loan sharks, or prostitutes?