Remembering 9/11 as an American and a South Asian American

 

turban surveillance

I remember my father gathering the papers on a Saturday morning to go to a bank in Cleveland.

“PLEASE don’t go,” I tried not to sound like a 5-year-old. I was 25, visiting my parents in Akron after a successful career in Washington, DC and getting ready for graduate school in Chicago.

Banks don’t usually cause so much anxiety, but it was September 15, 2001, and a mosque in Cleveland had been firebombed the night before. “It’s not safe,” I said in the most reasoned tone I could muster.

“I shall make a tee shirt,” my father joked, “saying ‘I am a HINDU. We hate Muslims, too!’”

I remember finally getting ahold of my friend who lived and worked in Manhattan to see how he was doing, when the phone lines finally cleared a couple of days after the attack. He had seen the towers go down from his office. “We’d better go in there and bomb the hell out of them,” he said.

“Who?” I asked—things were still complicated in my mind about who the target should be.

“The whole country,” responded my recently socialist, politically nuanced, religiously tolerant, brilliant friend, meaning Afghanistan.

I remember thinking, “but they’re us,” meaning I saw my history and theirs connected, and I saw them as humans who couldn’t all be at fault. And I remember thinking it would be neither compassionate nor politic to say so. I remember my silence with an ache.

 

I remember explaining to the deputy director at The Interfaith Alliance, where I was still consulting on a remaining project, that I could TRY to get on a plane on the 15th from Cleveland to Berkeley for an event we were hosting, but even if they had cleared the backlog of flyers still stranded away from home, I was not convinced that when security saw my name that I was going to be getting on any plane. (Even at that point, even in the mainline media, reports were beginning to surface about people who had the same name as a terror suspect being detained without families being notified of their location. I had been given a hard time by British immigration in my teens for similar reasons and didn’t want to take the risk.)

 

I remember my quasi-boyfriend at the time, a liberal minister in San Diego, writing me a letter just after I got to seminary. Several Mexican Americans had been beaten almost to death in his community for “looking Arab.” He wrote, “I wanted to make you a tee shirt that says, ‘I’m Scottish! Honest!’”

 

I remember the horror of 9/11 unfolding in front of me, knowing that it was directly impacting people I could not reach in the city of Washington I had just left a month earlier. I remember the horror unfolding on the television. I remember watching priests running from dead body to dead body amidst the wreckage and blessing them. I remember meeting for lunch with my pastor as we tried not to watch the TV screens in the sports bar tuned not to ESPN but C-SPAN.

But my memories of that day were equal parts “What’s happened to us?” meaning my beloved United States of America, and “What will happen to us?” meaning the South Asian community that would soon merge with Arab Americans (and occasionally Latinos when attackers weren’t being fussy) in the minds of fearful and violent non-hyphenated Americans.

 

South Asian Americans are, by and large, very loyal to this country. We came here for advantage, not to flee political unrest. We’ve pretty well internalized the notion that White culture is normative, and we work pretty hard to fit in. We acculturate and lose our native language faster than any other Asian group. (Note: My father stopped speaking Bengali to me as soon as I started to talk, and my Scottish mother’s only language is English, so I came here a native English speaker.) And yet, for a number of us who were pushed together because Hindus and particularly Sikhs, along with Arab Christians were targeted for violence just as much as our equally America-loving Muslim brothers and sisters (and to a lesser extent experienced some of the same police and political harassment and detentions), we came to realize that Langston Hughes’ jeremiad about America might in fact be true for South Asian and Arab Americans even as we were being told “Today there are no Black Americans or Hispanic Americans or Asian Americans—only Americans” with the unstated “or anti-Americans” lingering in the air. (For a story from New York Magazine about one Arab American girl’s idea of America getting turned on its head after her detention, click here.)

 

I have had it pointed out to me that the world by and large does not observe me as South Asian American. I am mixed. I can pass.

 

There’s one more thing I remember on this twelfth anniversary of 9/11. In my Hebrew Bible course in grad school, we studied the literary and historical purpose of the book of Esther. Queen Esther was Jewish, living as a consort of the Persian King. She didn’t look Jewish. She enjoyed all the privileges that her social location afforded her. And when an advisor to the king sought to wipe out the people of Israel, her uncle came to her and reminded her of who she was and whose she was. He promised God would stand on the side of God’s people, the Jews, but she had better get really clear on where she stood in relation to that struggle. “And perhaps you were born for such a time as this,” he said. I had just been complaining to another mixed race friend who could NOT pass about the ugly things I was privy to in conversations people had when they thought it was just White people at the table, and how I didn’t ask to be in this in between place and didn’t fully know what to do with it. “You have that privilege,” he said, “so you can help get rid of privilege.” Maybe, he was saying, God had created me for such a time as this.

 

And so on 9/11 I remember. I remember the horror of that day. I also remember America becoming a little less America in the days and weeks and months that followed. And I see the days that followed as just as important as the day itself. May we continue, together, to strive for a day when “we’re all Americans” is no longer a code and when both 9/11 and its aftermath for minorities are equally mourned.

 

were number three

 

 

 

Comment (1)

  1. Matt

    Sandhya,
    great stuff you write here. thank you for writing. Amidst the crappy tv coverage today, your writing was a breath of fresh, honest air. If I may be so bold, perhaps it was something like Ruah for me, the breath of God.

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