I arrived in India a little more than a month before September 11, 2001, ready to explore the country and learn more about Hinduism and Indian culture. Before I had left the US I talked with my family about all the “what ifs”… Should I be notified if a family member should get sick? What if someone should die; how would I get home? We discussed, briefly, what would be done if something should happen to me and I transferred power of attorney just in case. However, we didn’t discuss a national tragedy and how that may affect me during my year abroad.
Although shaken up while watching the BBC coverage, I didn’t start to panic until I saw the ticker with the information: “Plane Crashes Outside of Pittsburgh”. Being from outside the city, the newscast started to become much more real. The next few hours seemed like years as I tried to get in contact with family through international phone lines. I rode my cycle to multiple phone booths in town, escorted by my 12 year old host brother who acted as my chaperone at night. After 2 hours of lost calls and dead phone lines, I eventually reached my family who were safe, shocked, and an 11.5 hour time difference away.
Experiencing 9/11 was difficult; figuring out how to proceed and process 9/12 and beyond was even more confusing. The first few days consisted of separation and reflection with the other American students and our director. We tried to process what happened in our home country, comfort each other through own our tears, and wondered what could happen next. There wasn’t a lot of contact with family members or people from the states, but the BBC newscasts and the local and regional newspaper coverage supplied us with images and stories that others back home were experiencing.
Because details about the attack were vague and speculative, many of the students in the program didn’t know if presenting ourselves as Americans in a foreign country was the best idea. We tried our best to hide our “Americanness” and told strangers that we were from Canada. That plan quickly failed when we realized we didn’t have other details about Canadians that would make us believable other than some interesting fake accents. We’d continue to see gruesome images on TV and in newspapers, as Indian media coverage censored much less than I’d been used to. We saw people jumping out of buildings and others crushed by rubble; images that were disturbing, sad, and unexplainable. In temple stall shops I even saw tailored shirts with the design of the twin towers and planes approaching being sold. Although I was initially disgusted and offended, it was explained that the shirts were made to connect the public with what was happening. Seeing 9/11 from an outsider’s perspective for some was like watching an action movie and having images from the scenes on everyday items helped people feel even more a part of the show.
When I returned to the US in May 2002 I could feel that not only had I undergone significant transformation and growth, but the country had as well. From being selected for a random search on the flight home while in my sari to seeing the largest concentrated mass of American flags in my life, it was clear that things weren’t how I left them. In addition, everyone I talked with seemed to have shared a common experience by living through and during 9/11 in the US. However due to my adventure half way around the world, I didn’t truly feel a strong connection and individual sense of American pride like many others said they experienced.
Even now, ten years after the event, I feel like I somehow missed out on a significant time in our history and find myself wondering how my time abroad during 9/11 shaped my cultural identity. In a way, my interaction with South Indian culture was like re-learning how to live – how to eat, how to dress, how to communicate, even how to use the bathroom, was different than how I’d understood it before I arrived on Indian soil. Pair that with being thrown into a post-9/11 world filled with fear of the “other” and pro-American sentiments left me feeling confused, curious, and struggling to find a culture where I felt I truly belonged. However, I’ve realized that the experiences and environments that I’ve intentionally (or unintentionally) placed myself in have had a significant impact on my worldview, perspectives, and the way I’ve shaped my future. Despite the questions and internal arguments I’ve had as a result of this experience, I wouldn’t want my journey to be any other way.
Amanda Scheerbaum is a Residence Coordinator at Rochester Institute of Technology.