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11 Sep

Still waiting, and remembering – It may be a bit trite—perhaps even disingenuous—to write about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center two years after the fact. Maybe even more so if the writer was halfway around the world when it happened. I never wrote about it, though, even when everyone else was. I thought about it, and I certainly talked about it, but there is something therapeutic about writing for me, as if taking the thoughts in my head and the words in my mouth and putting them down somewhere makes them more real. It’s not so much the finished product as it is the process of writing—it makes concrete the abstract and fleeting thoughts that circle my brain. Enough apologetics—I have decided that this is the year I write about it, no matter what may end up coming out.

“I need my closure, and I’m not going to get that until I stand there at the place where the towers once stood.”

I have never lived in New York City, but up until the age of 22 I had never lived more than a few hours’ drive away. For us it was never “New York” or “New York City.” It was just “the city.” Maybe it was because it didn’t need a name—when you live that close to one of the greatest cities in the world, even the most obscure reference to it will generally be understood. Maybe it was a subconscious way to reclaim New York. After all, we lived in New York, too—New York the state, not New York the city, but a majority of the world’s population doesn’t really know the difference.

So although I’ve never lived in the city, it has been an unavoidable part of my life, a vast presence that I implicitly understood to be the center—the Sun to my Earth, the Earth to my moon. The city had always been there, and it always would be there. And then, when I left my native land at the age of 22, the city suddenly started meaning a lot more to me. I remember the night before I left for Korea. My father and I were standing in Battery Park, and I was gazing south across the water toward the tiny light shining out from the Statue of Liberty. After a while I couldn’t see anything but a blur of light through the tears in my eyes.

Whenever my wife and I visit the States we spend a lot of time in the city. She loves the city, and that makes me feel both happy and proud. When I first brought her there I told myself that it wasn’t “my city” because I had never lived there. But it is “my city”—it has always been “my city,” and it always will be. Seoul means a great deal to me, of course (and it will likely mean more the day I leave it), but I don’t think it will ever mean as much as New York.

Our last visit to the States was in the summer of 2001. Toward the end of the summer, my sister-in-law came over from Korea, and we traveled to Washington, D.C., and Boston while she was there. And, of course, we went down to the city. We took the Staten Island ferry in the morning and enjoyed the sun, the Statue of Liberty, and the view of the city. Then we began walking north along Broadway. My sister-in-law looked to her left, then straight up into the sky. “Is that the World Trade Center?” she asked. I didn’t bother to look. There was no need—what else could she be referring to? “Yup,” I answered, and we continued on toward Chinatown. It never occurred to me to ask her if she wanted to go up to the top. After all, we were going to the Empire State Building, and the Empire State Building was much nicer.

Not two weeks later, I was back in Korea, chatting online with a friend from the States one evening. I have no idea what we were talking about, but I do remember when he suddenly said, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” I shook my head and thought, ‘Great, some idiot in a Cessna flew his plane into the WTC.’ It was a terrible accident, to be sure, but things like this do happen. I didn’t think much of it until, not too long after, he said, “Another plane just flew into the second tower.”

‘Oh my God, this wasn’t an accident,’ I thought, and I quickly pulled up There they were—pictures of the towers smoking and a hastily written story trying to make some sense of what had happened. Then, from my friend: “The south tower just collapsed.” ‘This can’t be happening,’ I thought. I turned on the TV, and it stayed on until late that night. I eventually went to bed, feeling sick, and when I woke up in the morning I immediately turned the TV on again, hoping that it had all been just a horrible nightmare. It hadn’t been. The images were still there, and they weren’t going away. I sat in front of the TV the whole day, unable to move.

The next day, I moved on. My father works in the city, but he was OK, as was everyone else I knew. The tragedy did not touch me directly, and all I had to do was turn off the TV. After all, the nation around me was not reeling from the most devastating terrorist act it had ever seen. Friends asked if my family was OK, but everyone seemed fairly reluctant to talk about it. Or maybe it was that they saw the reluctance in my eyes.

Since I came to Korea, I have lost two extended family members: an uncle and a grandfather. My uncle died before my wife and I were married, and on that particular day I had been locked out of the apartment I was sharing with two other people. I got a message on my pager from my future wife, and I went across the street to a payphone to call her. She sounded like she was in tears, or on the verge of tears. “Your mother called,” she said. “Your uncle Bobby died. I’m so sorry.”

I stood there in the phone booth, staring blankly across the street as the cars rushed by. It was night, and it was cold, but I just stood there. “Are you OK?” she asked. “Yeah, I’m OK.” Then I hung up, and I continued to stand there in the cold night. I had seen my uncle Bobby not too long ago. He had come to Korea on one of his frequent business trips around the world, and we spent the day together. That’s not what I thought about as I stood there, though. I thought about the sound of the cars, the harsh lights shining out of the buildings across the street, the cold, biting wind, my breath on the glass of the phone booth—because I knew that was all the closure I was ever going to get. That was it for me. Just one phone call on a harsh, cold night.

Earlier this year, my last remaining grandfather died. This time, it was an instant message from my mother that brought the news. And this time around, Liminality was here for me to get things off my chest. But closure? No. Sometimes, if I’m not careful, I still think of my grandfather as being alive. I can remember very clearly the time my wife and I spent with him and my grandmother two summers ago. It is only natural for me to think of him as still being there, and I feel a mild shock when I remember that he is not.

Going to their funerals most likely would have hurt, but it would have helped bring about some measure of closure. No one wants to see the lifeless body of a loved one, but the pain is where the healing begins. In truth, the deaths of my uncle and my grandfather are still quite unreal for me. I know in my mind that they are gone, but I’m not sure if that has quite made it down to my heart yet—or if it ever will.

The World Trade Center is gone. It is, in fact, the least of what was lost on that day: the lives of thousands, a feeling of peace and security, and, indeed, a generational innocence. But the World Trade Center was the most visible part of what was lost, at least for those people (like myself) who were not directly affected by the tragedy. In the past two years I have seen many pictures of the city, all painfully lacking the World Trade Center towers. But in my mind, they are still there, and the city is still the way I last saw it as I stood on the Staten Island ferry. I need my closure, and I’m not going to get that until I stand there at the place where the towers once stood.

There is another reason that I mention the passing of my uncle and my grandfather. By some strange twist of the lunar calendar, 11 September is when the Korean holiday of Chuseok falls this year. I have often heard this holiday described as the Korean Thanksgiving, but it is nothing of the sort. It has, in fact, absolutely nothing to do with the harvest. For Koreans, the most important part of the holiday is reverencing one’s ancestors. Many Koreans travel to their ancestors’ graves and perform commemorative rituals. My wife’s family is Christian, and does not perform these rituals, but our Chuseok gatherings begin with a family worship service to commemorate the family ancestors.

It is just a coincidence, of course, but I think it is fitting that on this day I should think of those who have gone before me. Two years ago today, many went on well before their time. They can never be replaced, and the hurt caused to so many families can never be fully healed. I just wanted to take the time to remember them, and all who were lost, honoring them from halfway across the world. My time will come to mourn, but until then I will remember. Two years may have passed, and my city may have tried its best to move on, but it will be just a little longer for me. Just a little longer.

The city, seen from the Staten Island ferry, August 2001
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