By David Nghiem
I still remember that day, September 11th, 2001. I was attending Spanish language classes at the language academy, in Cusco, Peru. I still remember how annoyed I was that a Peruvian kept mistaking me for a Japanese, and tried several times to engage me in Japanese. I'm a Vietnamese American, born and raised in Philadelphia, and among the traits I inherited from the region's people, was a rationalistic, "I am what I am, so what a youz gonna do about it?" With such a confrontational attitude, I harshly stated, "I'm not Japanese, I'm American," and I stormed off to my classes. Later, I reminded myself that most people outside the US considered an American to be white, blonde haired, and blue eyed.
I walked into the class, and started my lessons, when suddenly, Jeff, a Peruvian who was organizing a trip to Macchu Picchu, burst into the room in a frantic state of distress. "David! Oh my god, there's been a disaster! This involves everyone, Peruvians, Argentineans, Bolivians, Chileans..." he said as he counted on his fingers the numerous Latino nationalities.
"What are you talking about?" I asked him. I was surprised at his state of mind, which was a mix of anger and frantic breathing. "
You don't know? It's on the TV!" "What?" "The USA has been attacked!"
Cursing, I immediately ran out of the room into the student lounge, where a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman was sobbing in front of the TV, while another blonde haired man comforted her. I looked at the TV, and to my surprise, I saw the second plane crashing into the tower on CNN's English language channel. "Oh my god." I said. Underneath the video, where the headlines raced by, were the words, "America under attack." We sat there, as the woman sobbed. She also was an American, and her boyfriend or husband, was British.
For the next half hour I watched in pure disbelief, as CNN grotesquely, ran and re-ran the striking of the buildings with the airliners. I swallowed hard, since I had friends and family in New York City, and a family friend was working as a financial analyst in one of the towers. Yet, for all the queasiness I felt while watching the news, I suddenly felt revolted inside... angered... horrified.
And then I began to well up with hate. It wasn't the video of the planes smashing into the buildings that made me react that way. It wasn't the unbelievably quick collapse of the 2nd tower that was hit. No, none of these things created that reaction. It was what the white woman said that made me want to turn into a raging inferno, into a mad bezerker ready to trash the student hall and everyone in it. "Whoever did this, had to have been well integrated in our society!" was what she said. I knew what she meant. I knew exactly what the hell she meant, and whom she was talking about. She was talking about the Muslim Americans, the Arab Americans, and the Indian Americans. Anyone who was brown and swarthy looking, was suddenly, in her statement, ready for what the Japanese Americans endured and worse.
I wanted, I badly wanted to yell out at her, "It's racist Mother F--kers like you that f--k everyone up in the first goddamn f--king place!" But I didn't. Instead, somehow, I measured my voice and said, "There are a lot of innocent people who are going to suffer because of your statement." "They're your friends?" she asked, with an acidic quality that would have stripped the flesh off my bones. "Yes." Both she and her boyfriend gave me dirty looks, as I stared them down. They looked away from me, and then I turned back to the TV. Later that day, my horror turned to disbelief as I watched Dan Rather comment on the astoundingly impossible collapse of World Trade Center 7.
It was at that point that I shut down. Everything felt like bullshit, and I knew that what was once my three-month trip, would turn into an almost year-long sojourn in Latin America. I had neither need nor desire to return to the US. The US that I knew, that I cherished, for all its warts and issues, the place that I was born in, and despite the race problems, the USA was my home -- until that day. That place would never be my home anymore. That home was a ghostly memory that I carry in my heart to this very day. The very spirit of the USA is in an idea. That idea, is written in the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and in the Constitution, has no foundation in race, religion, ethnicity, or creed. It’s all that we as Americans have that make us uniquely and distinctly American. It is all we have that makes us different from the Chinese, from the Indians, from the British, from the French, the Canadians, the Mexicans, and from the Russians. It’s our foundation. Even Britain doesn’t have a solid principle of that most basic right, of freedom of speech codified as we do in the Bill of Rights. Before 9/11 happened, I maintained those principles inside of me, because it was all I had to lay claim to my birthright as an American in the face of racism and discrimination.
That night, after sending out emails to my family and friends to see who was alive or dead, I prayed before I slept. I didn't pray for the dead, for they were long gone. I prayed for the living, my friends, my Arabic, Muslim, Punjabi, Pakistani, and Indian friends. They were people I grew up with, and they’re Americans like me. I knew how racist the USA could be. I knew how nasty it could get, because all my life I've had to deal with it with my fist, feet, or words. I knew what was coming for them, and I prayed that they would be prepared.
Now, five years later, almost everything that makes us quintessentially American has been stripped away in the Patriot Acts, with a literal coup d'etat still ruling after five years. Gone is habeas corpus, destroyed by military tribunals and congressional laws for detention without even knowing what the crime is. Gone is freedom of speech, where writing anything that seems contrary to the administration puts us onto no fly lists, under surveillance, and into those god forsaken sterilized "free speech zones." Gone is our right to privacy, against self-incrimination, where the flagrantly illegal wire-tapping doesn't even revolt the typical white American... but from what I've seen, it revolts the rest of us colored Americans. Oh yes, plenty of Asians, Blacks and Hispanics know all too well how tenuous our rights can be.
Despite all the hallmarks of the American coup d'etat, which occurred on the date of September 11th, 2001, despite the fact that we are in fact living under a definite dictatorship, I haven't changed. I still maintain those principles. It's all I have that distinguishes me as a citizen of a country that was supposed to be based on an idea, not a tribe, not a race, not an ethnic group, not a culture, or a religion. America is an idea that has evolved over the last 300 years. Today, on September 11th, 2006, that beautiful idea is dead, not so much because of the coup d'etat, but because the majority of the American people willingly went along with it. But I'm not dead, and as far as I'm concerned, that idea lives on inside of me. They can try to legislate it away from me, they can lock me up, they can charge me, but as far as I'm concerned, they never gave me my rights in the first place. I was born with my rights from the very beginning. It can never be taken away.
Guest blogger David Nghiem is an explorer and adventurer based out of Philadelphia. His adventures have appeared in various publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Go World Travel, and BikeCulture magazine.