Twenty years ago yesterday, shortly before ten o’clock in the evening, I was sitting at my computer in our small one-room rooftop apartment near the Gwanak District Office—not too far from where we live now. I was a graduate student at the time, studying for my MA in classical Korean literature, and HJ was studying for her MA in TKFL (Teaching Korean as a Foreign Language). On that particular evening, I was on ICQ chatting with a friend back in the US. I don’t remember much about our conversation, up until the part where he typed: “A plane just flew into the Twin Towers.” My immediate thought was that some idiot in a Cessna had somehow managed to fly straight into the World Trade Center. It’s not a likely scenario, but what else was I supposed to think? My friend didn’t elaborate until about fifteen minutes later, when he typed: “Another plane just flew into the other tower. I think we’re under attack.” To say that I was confused would be an understatement. My prior assumption had been disintegrated, and I struggled to make sense of the information. I probably typed something like, “What are you talking about?” I don’t really remember. I do remember that the last thing my friend typed was: “I have to go. Turn on the news.”
I did as he suggested, and there I saw the towers smoking like macabre candles on the Manhattan skyline. I stayed glued to the television late into the night, watching events unfold. I think I was in shock as I sat there, trying to figure out what this all meant. Did I know at the time that the world was never going to be the same again? I don’t know if I can say that I knew that, but it certainly did feel that way. Looking back on it now, though, I realize that although you often hear it said that 9/11 changed everything, that’s not exactly true. The attacks on 9/11 were in fact a very violent and traumatic exclamation point at the end of a sentence that had been a long time in the writing.
I last saw the Twin Towers only a few weeks before the attacks. We were visiting the States, and HJ’s sister had come to join us. I remember that the three of us (along with my mother, if memory serves), had decided to take a trip down to the city. We emerged from the subway station at Wall Street after taking a train down from Grand Central. HJ’s sister looked up and said, “Is that the World Trade Center?” I didn’t even bother to glance over to where she was looking—it was obvious what she meant—I just nodded and said, “Yep.” The WTC wasn’t on our agenda for the day. A few weeks later, the towers would fall.
A lot has changed in the past twenty years. Just looking back at the night of the attacks (it was night here, at least), I can see so many differences even on a personal level. I haven’t used ICQ in years, for one. The friend I was chatting with at the time is no longer with us, his life tragically cut short by cancer. And I haven’t been a graduate student for over a decade now. As far as how the world has changed, well, that’s a little tougher to pin down. Being in the middle of a pandemic (although hopefully near the end of this insanity) might skew my view of things a bit, but it does feel a little darker. Is that the world being a different place, though, or is it just me? I suppose it could be both.
It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since the attacks. It does indeed feel like a lot of time has passed, but so many memories are still so clear. Has it really been that long? And then I look at the faces of my undergraduate students in those little boxes on my screen and I realize that for them 9/11 is an abstract history lesson—something that happened before they were born, or at least when they were too young to remember. The only world they know is a post-9/11 world. (If for whatever reason you ever want to feel old, just teach undergrads.)
I don’t know if I really had anything meaningful to say today. I guess I just wanted to mark the occasion with a remembrance, even if it is a day late now. I’ll leave you with a not-so-great scan of an old photograph, taken from the Staten Island ferry. The moment captured was just a few weeks before the attacks, probably the last time I really looked at the towers. At the time, it was just a photograph with no special significance, but I’ve looked at it a number of times over the past twenty years. To remember.