A Tribute in Lights, September 11, 2006- Reuters/Gary Hershorn
I’m sure that most people around the world, especially Americans, remember where they were or what they were doing on this fateful day five years ago. September 11 will forever remain a hauntingly, shocking day in history. For many people out there, I’m sure that this day marks a place in your personal history, conjuring up certain memories, feelings, occupying a particular context.
As I reflected on September 11, and was transported back five years ago, I realized that it marks the over five years I that I have lived in Taiwan. I moved to Taiwan in June of 2001 and spent my first two months or so living up in Taipei. In late August, I relocated to Kaohsiung, so by September, I had only been living in Kaohsiung for a few weeks.
On the night of September 11, 2001, I was alone in my parents’ apartment in Kaohsiung; they were out of the country in Canada. Taiwan is on Greenwich Mean Time + 8 ; New York is on Greenwich Mean Time -4; therefore we are 12 hours ahead here. As I was winding down and watching TV that night, my Mom called from Ottawa and it was then that I heard that the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. I immediately switched to CNN in disbelief. I have never felt so alone and helpless as I did that night. I immediately started calling up all of my friends who lived in New York or worked in the financial district and of course I couldn’t get through. I had no where to turn. I can’t even remember… I vaguely recall calling a few of my friends up in Taipei. We were all in disbelief. There was nothing to say.
At that time I was teaching English in the airline management department of a local college that specializes in training students to enter the hospitality industry (hotel management, tourism, culinary arts, and airline management). The next day I was in a daze. It was fitting that I talk to my students about 9-11, my disbelief and grief and their views on the responsibilities and risks of working in the airline industry. I told my students to be thankful for their health and safety.
When I look back on that time, I realize what a lonely time that was for me and how I struggled with that loss alone. I didn’t know anyone in Kaohsiung who could truly empathize with the complexity of emotions that I experienced. Not even my parents could understand. They had spent a few years living in the U.S. before immigrating to Canada where they have lived for more than twenty years. So they identify more as being Canadian than American. I was born in the U.S., and raised in Canada. But my adult life has been spent living in the U.S., beginning the day I went off to attend university in the Midwest, ending up in New York city where I joined the workforce, went back for a master degree, fell in and out of love, “reinvented” myself more than a few times along the way, where I was distracted beyond distraction, and yearned for a completely different experience outside of North America. That is (an exceedingly abridged explanation of) how I ended up moving to Taiwan.
In September of 2001, I was in Kaohsiung isolated and alone. In Taipei I had had an instant social network; networking was practically effortless, but it had been replaced by the desert, the desert of Kaohsiung. Kaohsiung is a difficult place to meet people. Call it a challenge. Kaohsiung is certainly not known for its dizzying array of nightlife options. There are pockets of communities which are spread out, hidden and self-contained.
Kaohsiung is an industrial city; it is not a center for science, finance or business. It is one of the four largest harbors in the world, but it is not really the center of any major commerce. Consequently, most people here have chosen to make Kaohsiung their home base because they have family here, have set up a business or are working for a family business here. And then there are the foreigners who are overwhelmingly employed here as English teachers.
My first year in Kaohsiung was a trying adjustment. Others who have moved to Kaohsiung from Canada or the U.S. have shared with me their stories of struggle and transition. It is a struggle that lasts only until one finds that link that opens it all up. If you’re not an English teacher working at one of the local cram schools or hooked into the English speaking community, it can be a lonely time of transition. But somehow you find your way, find like-minded friends, start building a circle of friends, finding a balance and living life again. That’s where I’m at now, more than five years later. It wasn’t easy, but along the way I’ve grown wiser, learned a few things about myself, and started in on a few challenging pursuits.