Alan Riquelmy: Half a world away on Sept. 11

ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 11, 2011 

The first plane struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, sometime between 10 and 11 p.m.

The sun had set a few hours before in Kurakuen, the small town I lived in on Japan’s main island. I’d just finished watching a movie and was getting ready for bed when the text message came.

“Plane hit World Trade Center. 30,000 dead.”

Information was poor. A call home required a phone card, which I didn’t have. My television had no English news channels. I had no Internet connection, and it was too late to go to an Internet cafe. News came through the dirty sieve of a friend who’d paid the extra cash for a TV that got English subtitles.

And so I waited for the next text message to come.

The next day, one of the two English newspapers didn’t even have the story; one had a big black-and-white photo on its front page with the basic information; the other finally got something on its front page the following day.

The story of 9/11 came like molasses over weeks and months. I still wonder how different it was for people back home.

Before I went to Japan for 18 months, the country was little more than a shape on a map. Home was real, something you could touch and smell. An island off the coast of China might as well have been in storybooks.

As the weeks and months passed while I was in Japan, the situation began to reverse. A foreign country grew more tangible each day while America became a ghost in my memories that faded away.

Sept. 11 marked the day when memories became concrete, regardless of where you were. Two planes crashing into the World Trade Center turned every city into New York City. Everyone has a memory of the smoking towers, the ash covering parked cars along a crowded street -- even those who lived a short bike ride away from the Hankyu rail station by the cherry blossom trees.

Months later, I watched as a French airport security guard spilled the contents of my bag onto a counter and told me I couldn’t take my bike lock on the plane. I shrugged and grabbed my stuff. It’s just the way things were now.

Once I stepped onto American soil after 18 months away, a uniformed man at the Atlanta airport asked if I only had the one bag. I assured him I had no checked bags and showed him my passport. He looked at the stamps and then back at me. “Welcome back,” he said. I smiled sadly. This wasn’t the home I’d left.

Alan Riquelmy, staff writer, ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.com

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