I never realized how quietly integrated remembrance had become into my annual routine. In the mornings, I would pass by the talking heads in the living room or in the office, with shots of serious countenances interspersed with montages of flags, moments of silence and, if the network was really shooting for views, replays of that hellish morning. Through the years, the topic of where everyone was when we heard the news became less prominent but never obsolete. Regardless of my lunch buddies or doubles partners or best friends or family, we’d take our turn recounting, and hearts would be strengthened as we recognized that fear, grief, disbelief and anger became binding agents in our collective healing, however small. It would be wrong to over play the extent to which I, a 15-year old in freshman English who had never traveled to New York, could understand the panic and fear felt by millions on that day in a place unseen. Equally worth affirming is that my reaction was and is valid simply because these were my people that had been shattered, my land that had been trespassed, and my concept of foreign and familiar that had been taken down with Tower Two. I gave a little thought to how I would celebrate American holidays in Mexico, conjuring up scenes of turkey dinners or secret Santa exchanges with ex-pats. It would be quaint, and its incompleteness would perhaps add to the story of my adventure. I didn’t anticipate the difficulty of marking this dark day away from the safety of a familiar emotional lexicon. You see, until this experience, my sense of national consciousness has been so embracing that I understand no land beyond its teeming shore and no language other than its familiar tongue. Being American is self-evident, and I can only beg the question when asked to define what American-ness actually is. But yesterday, my own foreignness marked my recall with a new sensation, and I’m still teasing out the threads from the new stitch on our collective wound.
I sat with coworkers over empanadas and Jell-O yesterday, and, desiring to find entry points into deeper conversational waters despite the shallowness of my vocabulary pool, I asked about what it was like to view the attacks from this place. One explained that school was cancelled, that TV coverage was all-encompassing, that uncertainty reigned. “Traction,” I thought. I jumped in, speaking with the push of experience for the first time, explaining that for my generation, September 11 has emerged as a singular rallying point of familiarity in the middle of centrifugal force, that everyone remembers with eerie clarity certain small moments about that day, that seeing my family mourn was unexpected, that every year sadness hits in a different way—sadness for continued conflict and evil, sadness for thousands who visit graves instead of throwing birthday parties, sadness for a loss of innocence and a recognition of helplessness all at once. My oratory (I'll admit, I padded the translated memory) was met with reserved glances in between plate rearrangements. “Do you think it was Bin Laden?” a coworker asked. The air went out of my hopes to make this the moment of connection I thought it should be. “Yes,” I fumbled, “I mean, yes, his organization, I don’t think that’s a big point of contention, but…” I faltered and waited for the next topic, disability and disappointment mixing together to kill the spice in my mouth.
As I returned from lunch with my group, my hard disk spun: I wasn’t offended or saddened at the conversation; at the same time, I wished for something that I couldn’t name. It wasn’t that I had some language of grief and patriotism that they did not. I wasn’t the noble sufferer in a sea of uncaring. I’m sure my new friends would think and act the same way were they to find themselves in my place on September 11, 2001. Later that night, I concluded as I drifted off to the first thunderstorm I’ve experienced here (and for a Texan, falling asleep to a summer storm is a marking of the passage of time as certain and welcome as the bluebonnets) that different allegiances result in different timing. September 15 (the anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain) means nothing to me other than another semi-monthly payday. I will spend the night observing the festivities with lightness, I will join in with el grito, and I will wish this place and its people the best, but I will miss the fullness of the experience that only personal history can provide. Perhaps the most gracious favor I can offer to my temporary home is a keen awareness of my own foreignness, a readiness to partake and emulate where appropriate and a respectful glance at my empanadas and Jell-O when the best I can do is think, “I don’t know right now, but I know.” Given that my peers have been nothing but gracious and excited to host me, teach me what a taco guisado isor explain the meaning of a “That’s what she said” joke in their language, I am content in my certainty that this is what they were extending to me: the freedom and space to be foreign without intervention. I wanted a low-context relatability, while Mexico and its people gave me high-context empathy through distance.
When I boarded the plane for this place, I imagined, if only at a subconscious level, that coming here would help me understand what it is like to be a Mexican, to have Mexican tastes, to speak with a Mexican accent and eat (real) Mexican food. And that’s coming. But yesterday, I learned in a way that I never could before about what it’s like to be an American, and that makes the sadness and grief deeper—what happened eleven years ago wasn't a nightmare that will only reside in the long arc of history. The ash and smoke filled my lungs, the shrapnel stuck in my leg, the cries hit my ears, and it would be treason of the worst kind to share in the joys of my homeland—security, freedoms of every kind, optimism, education, lots of gold medals at the Olympics—without bearing her collective pain. I have a responsibility to tell posterity about Ms. Abbott sharing the news with us that morning, about the dullness of the replays afterward, about the intense clarity with which everyone, for a moment, saw what mattered and what did not. I carry this on behalf of those who had a better vantage point than I but as a result lie silent. This year, from a foreign land, experience has backed up theory and sentiment. I long for “us” where there is only “I”. I miss home: not just friends, not just my restaurants, not just Texas, but the country that houses it all. At this point, I can only take hope that absence will turn into a foreign fullness my heart for the coming years and assure myself that no matter where I am each eleventh, I will tell the story as best I know how.