Experiencing 9/11 while Living Abroad

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

Unlike most Americans, I was out of the country when 9/11 happened.  Thus, my experience of the event was much different than that of many of my countrymen.  September 11, 2001 was a normal day in Thailand.  Classes weren’t cancelled. Everybody went to work.  The buses were running.  Nobody was huddled around TVs.  Life went on.  And September 12th was pretty much the same as the 11th.

Because of the time difference, I didn’t find out about the unfolding events in New York and Washington until 11 pm Thai local time (which is equivalent to 11 am EST).  A Thai teacher from the college where I was teaching in Central Thailand messaged me on AIM to tell me something about planes crashing.  The details were very confused.  Using my slower-than-anything dial-up connection, I tried to access the CNN website to get the scoop, but it wouldn’t come up.  I didn’t own a TV.  Called my brother in New York City and I got his voicemail.  Prayed and went to bed.

The next day, I went to teach English at the college, still not knowing much of what happened.  I eventually found out, from the bits I could understand from the local Thai language newspaper and reading online.  But the most eery thing for me was that I felt like I was the only person affected by it.

Some Thai colleagues expressed sympathy for what happened in the U.S.  That was good.  I wore a black dress shirt with an American flag tie to class.  My students asked why I was dressed like that.  I explained and some guys in the back of the room said, “Boom!” while smacking their hands together, and laughed.  I was not amused.

They didn’t get it.  One of the odd things about living overseas is that you don’t share in national events that happen in the home country in the same way that you would if you were there.  For the Thai people, the events of 9/11 were merely an important news story that happened far away.  It had no real impact on their daily lives.  They didn’t know anybody who lived in New York City.  Many of them couldn’t have told me where New York City was on a map.

Of course, it would have been unfair to expect the Thai to react the same way that I did.  When you hear about an earthquake, bombing, or some other crisis in some other country, it doesn’t really affect you, does it?  But in a globalized world, it is good to keep in mind that something that is “just a story in the paper” for one person might be a traumatic event with personal consequences for the immigrant family next door, or foreign co-worker or friend.


Image: Guy Denning




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