Brown Boy Problems: There's Before 9/11, & There's After 9/11 (S1 EP5)
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I was sitting down on our living room couch on a Tuesday morning. I was home sick from school with pink eye, which was a bummer as I’d rather be in my eighth-grade social studies class than in our cramped two-bedroom apartment in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.
As I was flipping through a magazine, my dad stormed in. He had the phone in his hand and he was talking fairly loudly, just short of yelling. This wasn’t by any means an abnormal experience, actually fairly par for the course.
What was strange, however, is that his thunderous footsteps led him to the TV. In our household, the TV was only on in the evening, so I couldn’t imagine what he needed to see so urgently.
It was a confusing scene. Not only was I confused, but the news anchor also didn’t seem to quite understand what was going on. And when the channel got changed, it was the same level of confusion coming from the next broadcaster.
A plane had somehow accidentally crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers? I wasn’t sure how that was possible with it being such a gigantic building.
The building looked to be intact, though, and there wasn’t any sign of a plane. It must’ve been one of those really small private planes for the business executives coming out of Teterboro.
Oddly enough, about three weeks earlier, my mom came home from work on a Saturday morning. She wanted to go out and do something rather than stay cooped up in the apartment that we were all crammed into.
“Do you want to go to the World Trade Center today,” she asked my brother and I. “We’ve done the Empire State building, but we haven’t done the World Trade Center yet.”
She made a fatal move of asking us in the middle of playing video games. As we were only allowed to play video games Friday after school through Sunday night, we weren’t about to voluntarily turn off the Playstation.
“Mama, we can just go there another time. They’ll always be there,” I said.
Back in real-time, about five minutes after my dad had initially turned on the TV, a much more shocking scene played out. Another plane briefly appeared on the TV screen. This was no little 4-seater Cessna. This was one of those large commercial planes that you fly to California on.
Just as fast as it had appeared on the screen, it had crashed into the other World Trade Center tower.
I’m looking blankly at the TV. My dad is shouting at it. The next thing I know, he’s shouting at me, which once again, is not a rare occurrence.
“HOW ARE YOU JUST SITTING THERE QUIETLY? SAY SOMETHING! SAY SOMETHING!"
I just continued to sit there silently. I couldn’t process what was going on. This couldn’t actually be happening in Manhattan, right? If one plane crash was an accident, what did that make two plane crashes?
Shortly after the second tower was hit, my mom arrived home from work after her overnight call had ended. At the time she was working in Lincoln Hospital up in the Bronx. She already had an idea of what was going on from the car radio.
After watching fifteen minutes of the TV broadcast, she assessed the gravity of the situation and decided to head back to the hospital. While she’s an OB-GYN, she figured this could be an all-hands-on-deck situation; it’s possible that even the hospitals in the Bronx would be taking in a large number of patients.
She never made it to the hospital, however. After making it through several police checkpoints, she was finally turned around by a cop at the George Washington Bridge. “Even the pope isn’t getting across the bridge today,” he relayed.
That afternoon my brother came home from school. He didn’t have the full picture of what happened as they weren’t playing the TV broadcasts in school. They made a handful of announcements over the PA that talked about the situation very broadly. Eventually, some of the teachers got a better understanding of the situation and shared what they could in their individual classes.
At some point, the school administrators decided to remove from class the children whose parents had been working in the World Trade Center, which in total was a larger group of seven buildings. His best friend was one of those kids as his dad was working in one of the buildings that weren’t directly hit by the planes.
On September 12th, things were different in school, and yet they were the same from September 10th. They were different in that all the lesson plans for the day were completely derailed—all we were talking about was what happened the day before.
They were the same in that we still showed up and left school at the same time. Everyone who was there on the 10th was in school on the 12th. On a personal level, I also didn’t feel like my day-to-day life was all that different.
In the days following, as signs were pointing to Osama bin Laden being the culprit, there were reports of Muslims being harassed and assaulted. From the sound of it, though, the worst cases involved Sikhs who also wore turbans like bin Laden. White America was apparently too stupid to be accurately racist.
My dad taped onto the inside window of our Honda Odyssey a printed paper that read “9/11, Never Forget.” He was saying that it was going to be different for us now, and we’d be targeted in different ways. He wanted to get ahead of the situation and show some outward signs of patriotism.
He was overreacting, in my book. There were always slight differences between my classmates and myself, but nothing serious. They ate ham sandwiches, while I usually stuck with turkey. I fasted a month out of the year while they didn’t. Their parents drank wine at dinner, while mine drank Coke. I couldn’t see eye-to-eye with him on how 9/11 was going to make those differences more pronounced.
Part of that was because I didn’t see any connection between bin Laden, all the way out in Afghanistan, and myself.
My family was from Pakistan. While there is a shared border with Afghanistan, unless you’re living within shouting distance of it, Pakistanis don’t draw a particularly strong connection with Afghanis.
Pakistanis are much closer to Indians and Bangladeshis. We even use the term “desi” to refer to those people from the Indian subcontinent who are now living abroad. When you go to a little India, you see Pakistani and Bengali restaurants there, never an Afghani one.
A week and a half after September 11th, I was at the basketball court near our house. Every weekend I was out there playing ball with a group of guys from my middle school: Gerald, Jonathan, and Charlie. (Looking back, it’s funny how in predominantly white towns, the non-white kids always seem to find each other on the basketball court.)
Depending on the day, we’d sometimes be joined by other semi-regulars. Two of them were brothers, Rick and Josh. They were older, bigger, and already in high school. They always tried to act a little tougher than our 8th-grade crew, but we never really had any issues.
After we finished up the first game, Rick asked, “Hey Moose. Where is your family from?”
He had been playing basketball with me for a year and had never previously been piqued by anything other than my jump shot. I knew where this question was coming from. “My parents are from Pakistan,” I let him know.
“I should punch you in the face,” he said without a tinge of humor.
Jonathan, who was by far the smallest person there, but also the one to take the least amount of bullshit immediately shot back, “You’re such an idiot! They’re helping us out right now with their military bases,” referring to the operations the Pakistan military was working on with the U.S. military.
Jonathan’s reply closed the matter at hand, but in the grand scheme of things, that incident truly marked the second phase of my life.
I now think of that day playing basketball as the first day of the second phase of my life: “After 9/11.” In “After 9/11” the definition and perception of who I was, were entirely different than in the days of “Before 9/11.”
As much as I would like to have the ability to do so, there was no way of going backward to a time when the World Trade Center simply meant a place that our mom wanted to take us out to for a weekend family excursion.
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Next week on Brown Boy Problems: we fast forward a couple of years to a time when racism against desis has become a commonplace occurrence. Oh joy!
This essay was edited by Matt Goodgal and Meena Rajulu. Blame all grammatical errors on him and all style issues on her.
You can catch up on past writings here.