This morning I stumbled downstairs late, still in my nightgown, and encountered Wang ayi, our Shanghainese housekeeper, in my kitchen. She looked at me solemnly and said, “It’s September 11. I know that this is a sad day for you.”
September 11! I had lost track of the date. But she assured me that it was September 11 here, although in the US it was still September 10 and maybe that was why I hadn’t realized it yet. “Six years,” she said.
“No,” I corrected. “It was 2001. Seven years now.”
After I got dressed, I strolled down my street clutching an old VHS tape of the broadcast of the National Prayer Service in Washington’s National Cathedral on September 14, 2001. Three days after the planes hit, my son had sung in the choir at the service attended by four living Presidents and all the U.S. Congress as we all struggled to cope with the attacks. I wanted to see the footage, but don’t have a tape player here in Shanghai.
I paused at a tiny antique store on my block, where most of the wares are Mao statuettes, old posters of workers, and magazines dating from the 1960s, none of which hold appeal for me. But I had noticed a small sign advertising the conversion of videotape into DVD format. Sure enough, the guys hanging around inside drinking tea and smoking cigarettes called another man in from the street. He popped my tape into a machine and fiddled with his computer until he was sure that he could make copies. “I can have them tomorrow, maybe late today,” he said.
“I’d like to have it for this evening if I can,” I replied in Chinese. “You see, it’s September 11 and this is a tape about that and I’d like to play it tonight.”
So when he called about 6:00 p.m., I ran right back over. He handed me three DVDs along with my tape, and was playing the service on his computer. “I see now,” he said. “I didn’t understand this morning when you said it’s September 11.” He continued, complimenting me on my excellent Chinese – which is not excellent at all, as he would have noticed if he had slowed down and waited for much more than an intermittent nod or grunt from me. But he was on a roll, and, over the pull of the hymns emanating from the computer, I caught bits and pieces of what he was telling me. “We Chinese understand this…. We have the same problem with people in Xinjiang. You understand, Xinjiang?” He made stomach-slicing motions and although I am aware that there is a separatist movement in the western province of Xinjiang and that alleged terrorists have been arrested and executed, I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of the gestures. But I nodded and he continued, “And then there were the Japanese….All they did to us, and still they don’t talk about it in Japan…. We Chinese people aren’t like that. We saw your buildings fall. We understand your experience.” He and I sat for a few minutes more and watched together as he picked out Presidents Bush and Clinton in the frame.
I thanked him and paid him 119 yuan ($17) for the three DVDs, promising to come back with other tapes for conversion. When I turned away, he had rewound the recording and was watching from the beginning. As I headed up the street to light a candle and remember and watch, the music from his computer followed me: O God Our Help in Ages Past, Our Hope for Years to Come.