Promoted by absentee
(I write this after midnight due to RL issues, but I did want to get this down.)
Seven years ago today, on September 11, 2001, I became an American.
There was no swearing-in ceremony. There was no recitation of the pledge of allegiance to my new country. No judge in black robes. All of those things had already happened five years earlier.
But mentally, emotionally, I was not an American on September 10, 2001.
Rather, I was a member of that peculiar group of people who are legally American citizens but mentally something else. Citizen of the world, maybe. A hyphenated American where the prefix matters infinitely more than what comes after the hyphen. An oppressed minority just trying to get what’s mine in a racist, unfair, corrupt society ruled by protestant white men. A member in good standing of the people of color solidarity movement. But an American? Eh, technically yes.
Coming to America as a 9-year old child, growing up feeling distinctly different, struggling to learn a new language and a new culture surrounded by kids who didn’t look like me, all of these things had a role in feeling not-really-American. But as I learned about America’s legacy of slavery, of exterminating Indians, of imperialism abroad, of gunboat diplomacy, of forcing Japan to open its markets, of its treatment of Chinese workers, of the Chinese Exclusion Act, of the Robber Barons and their ruthless pursuit of profit at the cost of workers, of the many foreign wars where white American soldiers killed Asians by the millions… as I learned about racist white people oppressing blacks in the South, as I learned about false consciousness implanted through the military-industrial complex, and all of the injustice and evil of the United States of AmeriKKKa, I felt extremely comfortable rejecting this hegemon of evil in all its forms.
You might ask where I learned all those things about America. My answer is: the public school system.
And in college, attending one of the elite universities, I learned even more. Reading Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, John Gaventa, Karl Marx, and others under the tutelage of professors who pointed out the sexism, racism, classism, patriarchy, homophobia, and greed inherent in American society and culture, I seethed in rage at institutionalized injustice. I came to see that really, there was My People, the other People of Color in solidarity with My People, and all the racist white people who were oppressing us every day — even when they appeared to want to break out of their racist habits and thoughts.
As a campus radical in college, I actually remember having lengthy conversations with other radicals about what it would take to destroy — with violence — the American capitalist system that was impoverishing and oppressing all of My People and all the brown and black folks in third world countries. Bomb the NYSE, sure, but how to make sure we get all of the backup databases of the global financial markets? Destroy the World Trade Center maybe, and the various Federal Reserve banks? Oh yes, we were crazy radicals, but we were smart crazy radicals who knew how the international financial system worked.
Thankfully, none of us did anything that stupid. True, we did go around campus stealing every copy of the local conservative paper and burned them — but those were racist opinions of racist white kids. Their thoughts and opinions did not deserve to be aired. First Amendment didn’t protect that kind of hate speech, did it? Sure, we’ll go marching and writing letter campaigns and doing ‘community organizing’ with PIRG, but thankfully, none of us crossed the line into breaking laws.
After graduation from college, reality started to intrude in small ways. Having to work for a living, to pay the rent, to pay for food, meeting people who did not define themselves strictly on the basis of color, gender, and sexual preference… to find out that they were human beings, and some of them interesting and friendly and fun — these were shocking discoveries at the time. Some of the activist groups seemed to spend a lot of time talking about the poor, about voter registration, about activism, without being willing to pay for any of the activities. We sure seemed to have a lot of elections to select leaders of these various community organizations, and heated debate about how we should condemn some action of the U.S. government, but not a lot of actually you know, helping people.
As 2001 came around, I found myself somewhat disenchanted with these so-called community organizations and their leadership. I found myself wondering if we were working for “our people” or for our resumes and pocketbooks. But still, old habits and beliefs die hard. I continued to see the world in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preferences: the racist, Bible-thumping, sexist, homophobic majority versus the oppressed minorities. I shoved some of the more disturbing questions to the back of my head so as to make my worldview continue to make sense.
On September 10, 2001, to be an “American” was a mark of shame for me. It meant that I was part of the biggest arms dealer in the world. A nation that had enslaved blacks, and then discriminated against them through Jim Crow laws. (The Civil War, of course, wasn’t about freeing the slaves; it was about Northern industrial bosses imposing their will on the Southern agrarians — they both hated negros. Of course.) It meant being identified with the loud, obnoxious, fat, ignorant, stupid, unsophisticated, redneck image of America everywhere. It meant the blood of millions of third world people was indirectly on my hands. If asked directly, I would answer that yes, sure, I was an American — but I was one of the GOOD Americans, you know, the kind that is actively working to CHANGE this backward evil country into a force for good in the world.
Then some guys flew two airplanes filled with passengers into the World Trade Center. And a third into the Pentagon. And a fourth crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania because the passengers decided it was time to roll.
I was supposed to be in World Trade Center that day; only an illness kept me from a meeting I was supposed to be at that morning.
My world crumbled around me. The lies I had been telling myself were no longer sufficient. The facts I had been ignoring became far too obvious.
The terrorists did not distinguish between “good” and “bad” Americans. They did not distinguish between African-Americans, Asian-Americans, or Whitey-Americans. That we were Americans was enough. They did not distinguish between straight, gay, bi, transgendered people. They did not distinguish between liberals and conservatives, between Democrats and Republicans, between men, women, and children. They did not care. To the terrorists, I was just an American like any other, and they wanted to kill me, just like any other American. We had been attacked not for our political views, but for our identity as Americans.
In the hours and days that followed 9/11, I saw something I had never seen. People of all races, creeds, religions, beliefs, politics, whatever coming together simply as New Yorkers. As Americans. For a glorious couple of weeks, we had all set aside our differences. I went to give blood like thousands of other New Yorkers, and there in the dark and dank auditorium on the Upper West Side, I came to understand that the politics, the ideals, the whatever-else did not matter when you need blood and when you have blood to give. All that matters is the blood itself. All that matters is that we are human beings.
I saw and felt a unity then that I had never felt until then, and frankly, haven’t felt since then. All of the ethnicity-race-whatever mongering just seemed so petty then. And frankly, it all seems petty now.
Underneath all of our differences, beneath all the things that divide us, we are Americans first for good or for ill. We may argue with each other about a hundred, a thousand things. I may become truly furious with some on the Left, and with others on the Right. But at the bottom of it all, they too will be attacked simply because they are Americans, like I am.
The transformation began for me. I’m not particularly proud of it, since the realization was forced on me by evil men trying to kill me, instead of being the result of conscious reflection. But however I came to be here, here I am, and here I intend to stand.
I started to read books I had never thought about. I started to question my assumptions, all the orthodoxy I had been taught. I started to wonder why nineteen men decided to kill themselves and thousands of innocent people. I went through the leftist talking points about how we asked for this, about how 9/11 was just chickens coming home to roost. And shuddered with revulsion at that vile logic. The full story of that journey cannot be told in full here.
No more could I consider myself some hyphenated American with dual identities and dual loyalties. No, I am an American who happens to be of Korean descent. I am rightfully proud of that heritage, but who I am today is an American first.
Many people refer to themselves as 9/11 conservatives. I understand that journey too. But me? I am a 9/11 American. I came into my new heritage, into my inheritance, on the blood and ashes of patriots and heroes. I was baptized into my new country through fire and death and destruction. And I will love her despite her flaws, instead of hating her despite her greatness. It is the very least I owe to those who perished to wake up a foolish, foolish young man on a beautiful, crisp, September day in 2001.