I was on a night train from Shanghai to Beijing on the night of Sep.11. As we arrived in Beijing on the morning of the 12th, the news announcements came on and naturally led with this tragic news. I couldn’t believe my ears and asked my Chinese neighbours in the train car if I had understood the Chinese correctly about two planes crashing into the World Trade Center. They confirmed that I had indeed heard correctly, and then they started to discuss what the US response would be. I was too much in shock and too busy explaining the news to my non-Chinese-speaking American friend to take part in the discussion, but it ended after a brief time with one old man stating that the Americans would definitely attack whoever did this.
A day or two later, my next-door neighbour, with whom I rarely exchanged more than a greeting in the hallway as I had just moved into the apartment in August, knocked on my door and offered her condolences for the attack. While I thought it was highly commendable for her to be so neighbourly and caring, she also gave me the feeling that she expected me to be in the full throes of some patriotic fury about this attack (dare we say ‘national humiliation’) on my country. I thought about trying to explain that while I was concerned (Would there be more attacks? What were the long-term consequences of the fall of the twin towers?) and deeply saddened at the loss of life, I wasn’t angry and out for revenge. But I didn’t say this and just thanked her for her expression of concern.
In the weeks that followed, I also remember a taxi driver telling me that he had seen a person ‘dressed like an Arab’ and had been afraid to pick him up because he might be a terrorist. I tried to point out that the link was extremely tenuous and he had nothing to fear, but he wasn’t persuaded.
In general, the reactions I received from Beijingers in the following weeks were mixed: the US had it coming vs. the terrorists shouldn’t have attacked and killed civilians. A very good friend of mine several years later admitted laughing (not really that uncommon a reaction in Beijing from what I heard) when first seeing the footage of the World Trade Center attack. She explained that at least in her case, this was less about satisfaction in seeing the US get its ‘comeuppance’ than it was surprise. She also stated that once she saw the film United 93 it really drove home the point that ordinary people had been killed. Reflecting back on her initial reaction, she said she felt ashamed and cried after the film.
Doug Fuller is a senior lecturer at Kings College London.