The story appears on

Page B1 - B2

September 9, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

We will never be the same

THE attack on September 11, 2001, forever changed the lives and attitudes of many Chinese living in the United States. Yao Minji reports.

September 11, 2001 - when airliners crashed into the World Trade Center - forever changed New York City, America and impacted much of the rest of the world.

China, Chinese and Chinese Americans felt it too.

According to Chinese government, four Chinese nationals died in the attacks. The exact number of Chinese Americans among the estimated 3,000 who perished is not known. According to unofficial and some say "unreliable" figures released by New York's Chinatown community, around 300 Chinese died.

But thousands of lives were definitely turned upside down.

On that day corporate lawyer Chris Lin escaped from the World Trade Center South Tower and later decided to move back to China. Heidi Chan was finishing her last year at high school in New York, with no idea what she wanted to study in university, but soon opted for law. Jason Zhang entered his second year studying business at New York University, had wanted to settle in New York after graduation, and then abruptly went to Texas.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Lin has already moved back to his hometown Beijing, Chan is working as paralegal in New York, and Zhang has recently been relocated to Tokyo.

All three said they made decisions that they would not have made before the attacks. Their decisions were influenced by the more general changes and responses to the attacks that have long been integrated into daily life of residents in New York.

The attacks in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania (valiant passengers forced the aircraft-bomb away from Washington) caused 2,996 confirmed deaths, with 1,122 still unidentified as of August. Many more were injured, leaving families sobbing today.

As an immediate response to the attacks, the United States launched the war in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and began to hunt down al-Qaida and dismantle the terrorist network. Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan and killed by US commandos in May.

The Homeland Security Act was enacted in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security created; the US Patriot Act was passed to help detect and prosecute terrorism and other crimes; and the National Security Agency and others were given broad powers to combat future terrorist acts.

Many measures infringed on civil liberties, All these made it difficult for aliens in the country.

New York's GDP declined immediately after the attacks, with an estimated drop of US$27.3 billion for the last three months of 2001 and all of 2002. And in Lower Manhattan near the towers, 18,000 small businesses were destroyed or displaced, and many are still closed today. Some say the city's own economic decline started right after the attacks and it has never recovered.

"It may be invisible, but you can sense that they don't feel safe anymore. Before the September 11 attacks, there were terrorist acts in New York City, but never on such a large scale," Lin Yan, a Chinese United Nations staff working in New York tells Shanghai Daily.

On that day, Lin was on a flight from Beijing to Detroit as the attacks took place. The plane was forced to land at a small airport although it was only 10 minutes from its destination. US air traffic controllers grounded all aircraft in the skies, around 5,000 flights landed safely in two hours.

She was put in a hotel and for three days was unable to find an aircraft for the two-hour flight. No planes were allowed to fly to New York. She'll never forget the chaos and confusion.

When she did arrive in New York, it was completely different from the metropolis where she had stayed and worked from time to time. Despite the "war on terrorism" and security measures, "deep inside people have never regained their sense of security," Lin says.

Lin is among those least affected, with only a flight delay.

Shanghai Daily has found three Chinese and Chinese Americans whose life directions were completely changed by the attacks.

"I had nightmares of plane crashes for more than six months"

Chris Lin 56, lawyer

Many Chinese students went to the States to study in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and most chose to stay on, like 56-year-old Chris Lin.

After years of hard work, he had a job as a corporate attorney in New York City, a warm family life and US citizenship for all family members. They settled in a New Jersey suburb.

But in 2005, Lin moved back to Beijing, something he had wanted to do for more than three years after the attacks. In 2008, his wife moved back and they sold their house in New Jersey. They have no plans to return to the US anytime soon.

"After the attacks, I had nightmares of plane crashes for more than six months. Sometimes, I was aboard, and in other dreams, I was standing on the street when the flights smashed down onto me," he tells Shanghai Daily in a phone call from Beijing.

"The tension in the city, almost like in a war, was just overwhelming, and I just saw remains, collapses, and people losing jobs, businesses closing down every day. I wanted to move to a different place, someplace dynamic and emerging that would help me forget all this."

Lin worked at a law firm on the 18th floor of the World Trade Center South Tower, and he got to the office early on September 11, 2001. It was not long before Lin received a call from a colleague, warning him about fire in the North Town. Lin went down the elevator and ran across the street, wondering what had cause the fire and how long it would last.

Five minutes later, he watched United Airlines Flight 175 smash head on into his office building and disappear. Terrified and traumatized, he tried to call his wife to tell her he was safe, just what everyone else was doing. No calls went through. His family couldn't reach him either.

There were fires burning, smoke billowing, sirens screaming, people wailing, and Lin kept running down the street, got on a subway to Times Square, where his wife worked. That was just before the subway system was shut down. "Except for the first few days, I could no longer watch TV anymore. I couldn't see those images," Lin recalls.

The city felt strange, streets were deserted except for ambulances and emergency vehicles. There was no traffic on the Hudson River, except patrol vessels. The skies were empty except for warplanes.

His law firm reopened only two weeks later, just around the corner of the original site, to provide legal assistance to Chinese victims. But businesses were failing.

Lin frequently took business trips to Beijing, but after the attacks the city really captured his attention because it felt so vibrant and overflowing with opportunities. It was then that Lin started thinking about moving back.

When an opportunity arrived in 2005, to work for GE's law department in Beijing, he didn't hesitate. "The decision to leave New York for Beijing helped me a lot to forget about the September 11 attacks, how I survived and my fears afterwards," Lin says.

"After the attacks, I felt like an alien"

Jason Zhang 35, financial consultant

A similar decision was made by Jason Zhang, then finishing his master's degree at New York University. Before the attacks, Zhang and his family were determined that he would find a job and settle in New York, then try for a green card and then US citizenship.

"Because of the attacks and the series of policies about domestic security, my life and probably the lives of all foreign students completely changed after the attacks," Zhang says in a phone interview during his trip in Chicago.

"The immediate change was I didn't go home for winter holidays, as I had planned. I intended to go back since I stayed in the city for an internship in summer, I missed my families."

But he was afraid that visa policies would be tightened immediately, and he would not be able to get back to New York if he left for vacation in China. He was right. Many Chinese students were unable to get visas in the years immediately after the attacks, especially in 2002, right before the one-year anniversary.

Zhang was also notified by the foreign student adviser that he would have to report to the school every time he left and city and returned. Otherwise, he faced deportation. He was required to complete more courses than before to prove that he was a serious student.

"Life got much harder for me, and it completely changed my impression of the United States, which I considered a place full of freedom and opportunities in my first year here," he recalls.

"But after the attacks, I felt like I was in a prison, and like an alien, like the immigration term. So I discussed the possibility of going back to China with my parents (who were living in Shenyang, Liaoning Province), but they were strongly against it." Zhang compromised, but insisted he would not stay in New York. He ignored all recruiting in New York by corporations, but there wasn't much going on.

He found a sales job in Texas. After living there for three years, he had an opportunity to work for the company's representative office in Hong Kong. He moved, and now he works in Tokyo as a financial consultant.

"If every one is destined to have a turning point in life, September 11 must have been mine"

Heidi Chan27, paralegal

In 2001, Heidi Chan was 17 years old, entering her last year in a New York high school and preparing her applications to universities. She didn't know what to major in, but her parents wanted her to study finance so she could get a good job and help the family's jewelry store in Chinatown expand.

Chan's parents went to New York from China's Guangdong Province in the 1980s, before she was born. Like many typical immigrants, they didn't speak a word of English and made their living mostly in Chinatown.

After 12 years of diligent work and savings, they managed to open a small jewelry store, one of the most profitable small businesses in Chinatown.

"It all changed from September 11, although I didn't even realize the changes until a month later," recalls Chan in a phone call from New York.

"At first, I only felt fortunate I didn't know anyone inside the collapsed buildings and I felt extremely sad for the victims and their families."

Close to the twin towers, Chinatown lost a lot of tourists - its major customers - overnight, since people feared further attacks and stayed away from lower Manhattan. The situation got more serious in the following three months, as the US tightened visa requirements and as many Chinese Americans lost jobs in the economic slide.

"At first, my parents didn't even tell me about it, because they wanted me to focus on my school work and applications to universities. But I could sense the tension. They were definitely very worried," Chan says.

Small restaurants, stores and inns near Chan's family store gradually closed for lack of business and Chan's parents struggled into November. That was when Chan's uncle told her the store would have to close.

"Because we had a temporary rather than year-long lease with the landlord, and because we had less than five employees, our store was not qualified for financial aid from the government, like many other small businesses in Chinatown," Chan says.

So they only managed to get about US$4,000, which covered rent and operations for half a month. Her parents joined other Chinese American business people in negotiating for more government assistance, but they failed.

"When we had to close the shop in mid-November, I saw the saddest expression on my father's face and he felt bad for me, because he was worried about my university tuition. I would have to apply for more financial aid," Chan says.

That was when she decided to study law "so that in the future, I can help those in similar situations."

She majored in public policy and got a bachelor's degree, then she got a law degree. Now she works as a paralegal at a law firm, specializing in immigration law.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend