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  • I always rose early so I could breakfast alone. College was crowded: room-mates, hall mates, cafeterias, libraries. Everywhere I went there were people. But at 7 a.m., the dining hall was exactly the way I liked it: quiet and empty.

    Until September 11, 2001. That morning, I sat eating breakfast like usual until one of the kitchen staff wheeled out a television set. I ignored it as long as I could, annoyed that it should invade my solitude, but when a crowd started to gather around, I sallied over to investigate the hubbub. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. Flames. Collapse. Running people. Terror.

    I went to English class. Professor Nelson insisted we must not let the violence win; we must carry on like normal. That was before “Keep Calm and Carry On” was cool. Leaving class, my fellow students and I floated in a daze. We spoke in hushed tones. We looked for television sets—in the common rooms of the dorms, in the international studies office—and gathered around them like moths around a campfire. They showed the same footage again and again. Flames. Collapse. Running. Rescue workers searching through rubble. Terror.

    The images still loop through my mind when I think of that day. My heart was almost numb—saddened, of course, but mostly uncomprehending: what had possibly happened? That week was full of sadness, anger, compassion, relief, and confusion as our community, and people all over America, tried to understand what had happened and why. As it came out that it was an act of hatred—a symbolic act against American greed, corporate hegemony, and arrogance, I simply felt sickened. I knew America was so much more than that. But then, as America started its response—“The War on Terror”—my sickness turned to revulsion. We were exactly what the terrorists said we were. We were everything I feared.

    Two years later, when I graduated from college, I wanted nothing but to leave. I wanted to live abroad, speak other languages, and, as much as possible, erase my nationality. This one event—an attack with which I wasn’t personally connected one iota—greatly impacted the choices I made after college: my rejection of the “American” dream, my resolute refusal to create a resume, my desire to leave the country as soon as possible and pursue a life of travel. I didn’t have the money to gallivant freely, so I had to find ways to pay my way, but I searched diligently for grants, scholarships, and jobs that would take me away from America.

    It wasn’t so easy to run away, though. For in my time away—first in France and later in Mongolia—the emotional roller coaster continued. In one moment I would hate being American—hate our money-worship, our materialism, our egoism—and then, a moment later, as I looked upon my French students who seemed so locked in by tradition, I would be profoundly grateful for my robust, free-thinking education. In Mongolia, poor children who lived in the sewers would beg me for money as an American Humvee would whiz by. I was ashamed of our arrogance and dominance—our excess, our sense of entitlement—and at the very same time I keenly felt the privileges it afforded me. I didn’t have to live in the sewers. Children didn’t live like that in America. We might not always raise our poor up, but we certainly try to take care of them. The Mongolian children--admittedly, from an outsider's perspective--seemed so alone. On top of all that, if I hadn’t been an American, I wouldn’t have even had the chance to go to Mongolia, for the American government paid for my trip. I knew I was a beneficiary of the full advantages of being American.

    And so, when I came home, after years of longing to be gone, I didn’t want to leave again. I felt like a failure, giving up on my ideals and my dreams after only a couple sojourns abroad. But I was grateful for vegetables in the grocery store. I was grateful for herbal tea. I was grateful to be safe. I was grateful that I had the right, the privilege, to choose my own path. My patriotism is still conflicted. The impacts of 9/11 on America’s foreign and domestic policies make me sick and overwhelmed. When I see ethnocentrism and racism on my home turf, it still enrages me. But none of it changes my gratitude for being who I am: an American.
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