“Where were you when . . .?”

My mom listens to NPR in the morning hours. Yesterday was no different aside from the subject matter: the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Interviews packed the a.m. program: memories of loved ones lost, experiences retold from those on the ground, reflections after visiting memorials. . . Interspersed between recorded segments were in-real-time broadcasts of commemoration ceremonies taking place.

“This is so much like Pearl Harbor,” my mom said. “I remember we were all sitting around the radio, listening to the shocking announcement of the bombings carried out by the Japanese. My dad signed up for military service not long after that. Only the Army would take him as a chaplain. Other armed forces didn’t want him due to his poor eyesight. From that day onward, we’d all ask ourselves the same question, ‘Where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor?’ The same with JFK’s assassination, and now with 9/11.”

My Experience of 9/11

It didn’t take me any time at all, like most of you, to remember that “Where were you when…” moment of 9/11.

I had finished my time in Taiwan at Wesley Girls High school where I had taught for 3 years. While I was satisfied with that position, my heart was never in Taiwan as much as it had been in China. I requested a move to the Mainland, to return to the Amity Foundation as an Amity teacher at the college or adult level, and it was granted.

The exciting part of this was landing in a brand new Amity placement.

To fully grasp all that my memories of September 11 had to offer, I turned to my emails to my parents, which my mom had printed out for my dad to read. She had done this from my first emails sent in 1996 all the way to my last email before I became “stuck” here in January, 2020.

Where are all these printed, detailed daily reports? In carefully labeled (by country, month and year) 3-ring-binder compilations, currently in 5 bins, in the garage.

I was in Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia (yes, that’s a province of China), where I was placed along with Swede Lena, sent by the Lutheran Church. We were to teach at the Adult Language Training Center, among adults who were English teachers looking to further expand their language and teaching skills under Amity’s newly formed program.

As I scanned several printed entries of that first week in Hohhot, there was so much going on. Both of us had just arrived. We were getting to know one another, settling into our apartments in the foreigners’ guest house, excitedly exploring the city on our bikes, finding the best places to shop, meeting with the director of the program, discussing lesson plans, searching out decent books our students would need, making friends with the Chinese staff and other foreign teachers in the building . . .

All those detailed accounts were so vividly recorded! And 20 years later, as I read them, quite vividly relived.

The Day Before

9-11 Three


When I landed upon my September 11th entry, which would have been Sept. 10th for my Mom and Dad, it was full of frustrations concerning getting things ready for classes. It was Day 2 of teaching, my Internet was not yet connected to my apartment so I was using an Internet cafe. Then I had given reports of the students themselves, having just arrived for classes from their distant small towns and cities.

When I Did Hear

Since our Internet connection was not yet established in my apartment, I was delayed in checking emails or news reports.  I was so involved in my lesson planning and acclimating myself to my new home that I hadn’t had time. It was Lena who informed me, on our September 13, that something ominous had happened.

“Have you heard about the attacks?” she asked me that early morning, right before classes began at 8 a.m.  

“No,” I asked in surprise.  “What’s happened?”

Lena looked at me in astonishment.

“It’s terrible!” she replied. “Two planes hit the World Trade Center.  Also the Pentagon.  I’ve been hearing reports and watching all these stories.  People on cell phones, saying goodbye to loved ones.  People jumping from the towers.   The entire building collapsed.  I just couldn’t listen anymore.  It was too overwhelming.  You really have to go online to find out more.: 

At that point, it was time for class to begin.  Lena went to her classroom, I went to mine, all the while wondering what in the world was I missing.  Even my students mentioned it during the break, telling me how sorry they were for my country.

At noon, after our morning sessions had ended, I finally was able to quickly bike my way back to the guesthouse, grab my computer and head off to the Internet cafe. 

There I read the emails from my mom, describing the television coverage of the chaos and shock that ensued.  It also allowed me to read more online and send my own reply.

9-11 Four


15 September 2001

Hi, Mom and Dad!

Once again, it seems so odd to be here, far removed from the US while all this is going on. I don’t need any more information. It’s all on the Intnert and it’s overwhelming, especially the video tape versions. I’ve seen it all, from the trade center collapse to eye witness accounts and so on.

Monica emailed to say she was so sorry about the happenings in the US. She said Taiwan is very concerned and calling loved ones in America. She entitled her email, “God Bless You American”. That was sweet. Monica is such a nice person. She has been well-taught and always does/says the right things. I do miss her.

Well, life here has been mostly hovering in my apartment . . . “

After that, I went on to the daily news from my end, where I was far removed from what the US was experiencing.

Reflecting on that Email

After reading that page, I’d completely forgotten my best friend in Taiwan, “Monica” (Zhang Qiuhui), had sent me a note of concern. She and I taught together but she taught Chinese literature at Wesley Girls High School while I taught English. She was my first friend at the school and we did so many things together for 3 years: theater, hiking, swimming, eating out. I was always invited to all her family events. She was such a special person, a trusted companion and a true friend.

Monica was also one to be aware of others’ celebrations or tragedies, then send appropriate comments for the occasion. I see in this instance, she was fully informed, as always, and made sure that I knew she was thinking of me and my country.

As this 20th anniversary of 9/11 comes and goes, I hope there’s healing for those still feeling its devastating effects.

And for all those in the world suffering from catostrophic events, current and past, I wish you strength, courage and a comforting embrace.

From Illinois, here’s wishing you 平安 (ping an, Peace) for your upcoming week.

About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
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2 Responses to “Where were you when . . .?”

  1. Jean Marsh says:

    I do remember where I was when JFK was assassinated. And, I remember where I was when the events of 9/11/2001 occurred. One deficit in our remembering and memorializing 9/11 is all the death and destruction in many parts of the world, sometimes wars that we have been in. We think 9/11 is so unbelievably awful because it happened to us. We must not forget others and think we are more significant.

  2. Kate says:

    I, too, remember where I was on these occasions as well. Our son Vic posted on FB Saturday nite 3 items (voices) that for him captured many of the conflicting emotions he was feeling on 9/11/21. I won’t list them here, but you might look at his post. He worked for David and David was the minister at V/B’s wedding.

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