Sunday, September 11, 2011


Gold foil-wrapped Jordan almonds. Red silk jewelry boxes. 

For the days preceding September 11, 2001, these were the things that occupied my mind. With less than two weeks away from the most important day of my life, I was busy dealing with head counts, meal preferences and questions from vendors.

Then, early on the morning of September 11, my sister Linda called with the news that two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Vic and I were living together in California then and both of us had been asleep. He turned on the television, which stayed on the rest of the day. Shocked, sad and angry, suddenly, I couldn't think about our upcoming wedding any more, and in fact, the idea of assembling 180 wedding favors seemed downright frivolous. 

Even though 10 years have passed since that awful day, I still remember the dramatic emotional shift I underwent, from pre-wedding giddiness to post-9/11 anguish. Even though I hadn't lost any friends or family in the attacks, like so many Americans, I was distraught. 

I dug up a few email messages from that time to recall the exact words I used in corresponding with friends that week:

"I'm not in the mood to talk -- about my wedding, that is. It seems so inconsequential in light of everything else going on right now."

 "I am still so sad about all of this. On Saturday, I'm supposed to fly to Cleveland to iron out last-minute details about my wedding. But I can't even think about the wedding right now…"

Back then, Vic had been working for an Internet start-up whose office overlooked the San Francisco airport. He stayed home on September 11, but returned to work the next day. It was eerily quiet, he said, as the usual whoosh and roar of airplanes taking off and landing was missing. "There is zero apparent activity taking place over there," he said. 

We were in California and our wedding was in Ohio. We were scheduled to fly from San Francisco to Cleveland in four days, but weren't even sure if our flight would happen. For the next few days, we fielded phone calls and email messages asking if the wedding was still on. Someone suggested we postpone it, but we dismissed that idea immediately. A few people canceled their plans to attend. Too risky to fly, they said. 

One of my friends, Wendy, emailed me some wonderful advice then: "First and foremost, you need to thank God that you and your loved ones are safe and celebrate the time you have with them at your wedding.  I think you are actually lucky to have an event to celebrate with your closest family and friends this weekend during this tragedy.  Celebrate even more and tell everyone how lucky they are to have everyone together for this very important event in your life."

She was right. The wedding took place on a beautiful day in Cleveland and was a wonderful celebration of family and friends. The nation's official period of mourning had just ended, as President Bush ordered the American flag to be raised to full mast that day

In the time that has passed since September 11, 2001, I came to meet other women who shared their 9/11 stories with me - a friend who was pregnant then, a woman who even went into labor that day. In the 10 years that have passed, Vic and I became parents too. Our older son, a fourth-grader now, was upset this week that they didn't talk about September 11 at school. He was incredulous that they didn't discuss it in class, but said he did talk about it with his friend Lance during recess. I asked what they said. He shrugged. "We were just sad," my nine-year-old said. 

When I think back to the fateful day 10 years ago, I remember that after getting over the shock, I felt exceptionally proud to be an American and uncommonly united with all fellow Americans. September 11 marked a turning point for this country, and it seems that since then, we have blurred the difference between nationalism and patriotism. We have found more ways to divide ourselves. I hope today we will reflect on the losses we suffered together as a country 10 years ago and unite again.

News media love anniversaries and no doubt, the day will be filled with profiles, special reports and other commemoration features about the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I hope we will use this opportunity to remember, reflect and return to the values that bring us together. 

American, by choice

(Note: This essay was published in the San Jose Mercury News on November 25, 2001.)

Pride in becoming American intensifies after Sept. 11 attacks

Last year, I became a true American: I was granted U.S. citizenship.

At the ceremony, 1,500 of us gathered in San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium on Nob Hill to declare our loyalty to this country. An Iranian woman stood on my right, a Korean woman on my left. People of all ages, races and economic backgrounds were there, many dressed in red, white and blue. Some wore jeans, others business suits and dresses. We were as diverse in appearance and ethnicity as any group could be, but we stood as one in the crowded auditorium.

I had expected the naturalization ceremony to be just another bureaucratic ordeal to endure, much like renewing my driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But as 1,500 strangers from different lands pledged allegiance to the same flag, tears filled my eyes, pride surged in my heart.

Memories of that day flooded back to me on Sept. 11 Like millions of Americans watching the awful events of that morning unfold on television, I felt shock, sadness and fear. By the time the World Trade Center towers collapsed, I realized I felt something new, something I'd truly never felt before. We soon learned that this country, my country, would be going to war and I felt as patriotic as any native-born American.

It was my younger sister, Linda, who frantically woke me with the news that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers. And, it was my sister, Linda, who had an appointment with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Sept. 11. After we ended our call, I stared in shock at the TV for the rest of the day. My sister, I later learned, headed off to her INS appointment to be fingerprinted, one of the critical steps to becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.

I was upset that my sister kept the appointment on a day people fled most government buildings in droves. “Are you crazy?” I asked. “I’m sure INS would have understood your wanting to reschedule.”

My sister, who is five years younger, knew the truth.

Time is of the essence
“I’ve waited too long for this,” she said. She knew that missing her appointment, even on that terrible and frightening day, could delay her naturalization process several months.

Linda, 26, is the last of us to see American citizenship. A San Francisco social worker, she has nerves of steel. Whether she was overcome with patriotism or she merely wanted her family to stop nagging her – or both – she kept her appointment with the INS.

Her defiance of fear on the day that changed America – and how we think of it – forever was similar to my new feelings of patriotism.

Until my naturalization ceremony, becoming a U.S. citizen had been a mind-numbing process of filling out forms, cramming for the civics exam and waiting for further INS instructions. Until I entered the auditorium, I felt only relief to have reached the final step of naturalization.

But after I turned in my green card to INS officers as part of the ceremony, the weight of the experience overcame me. I was about to begin a new life. When I took my place in the auditorium, I felt exuberant. Although I began the naturalization process alone, I was ending it surrounded by hundreds of strangers, all looking as proud and happy as I.

Looking around the room, I was reminded of the official motto of the United States of America, printed on Page One of my official “Guide to Naturalization” booklet: E Pluribus Unum – From Many, One.

For years, our family never felt an urgency to apply for citizenship. We weren't able to vote, but having a green card seemed enough at the time.

My family’s road to U.S. citizenship began with my parents in the late ‘60s when they emigrated from Taiwan to Canada, where my dad attended graduate school. He eventually received a job offer to teach and do research at an American university, so in the summer of 1976, our family drove across the border to begin our life in the United States. We moved to Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

In the mid-‘90s, my parents worried about growing anti-immigrant sentiment. They decided to formalize their commitment to their adopted country and were sworn in as official Americans in 1997.

Reasons to apply
I decided to apply too, for other reasons. Unlike my Taiwanese-born parents, I was raised in the United States. I was born in Canada but had lived here since age 7. Citizenship status was a mere technicality and I had been content being a U.S. permanent resident or as my green card said, a “resident alien”.

My feelings changed when my parents became citizens. I realized that if my mom, who still speaks with a heavy Taiwanese accent, could make the leap to American citizenship, then surely I could. Both my parents required extra effort to study for the naturalization civics exam, but I already had the benefit of an American education, from grammar school to graduate school. I had been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance since second grade. Surely if anyone in my family were to be called an American, it should be me – and my sister.

I had already missed three presidential elections already and decided that was enough. My parents and I voted as U.S. citizens for the first time last year.

My road to citizenship had taken two years.

The experience is the same for everyone who seeks citizenship. You begin by filling out a detailed application in which you are asked if you have any affiliation with the Nazi Party or various other groups. You must declare if you've ever been a prostitute, a gambler or a “habitual drunkard.”

The questions are meant to determine the moral character of an applicant but seem so pointless, especially now. During the oral exam, an INS inspector quizzes you on a variety of U.S. government and history topics, which sometimes include having you list the 13 original colonies, explaining what the colors of the flag represent and naming local elected representatives.

Does knowing those things make us good citizens?

Pose these questions
In our post-Sept. 11 world, we need to know so much more. Perhaps it's time to change the citizenship application process to reflect modern reality. If I were in charge of developing a new citizenship application, I would ask people to answer: Why do you want to be an American? What does it mean to you?

The answers, I imagine, would be as varied and individual as the applicants themselves. I had wanted to vote. Others wanted a better life for their children. Some sought religious freedom. Or education. Or opportunity. When I first came to the United States, the Pledge of Allegiance was just a jumble of big words. When I recited those words at my oath ceremony, I finally understood and cherished each one.

Just like a marriage oath, the oath of allegiance to this country is something sacred. It means declaring to the world, “I choose you” and being willing to fight to protect the personal and political freedoms we hold dear.

At my oath ceremony, 1,500 people simultaneously renounced allegiance to their countries of birth and swore to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It was an easy promise to make in peacetime, though. The oath bears greater weight and significance today. Will young men still pursue naturalization now, knowing they could be drafted for war?

As part of the Sept. 11 aftermath, there has been talk of monitoring student visas and imposing more stringent background checks. While it is important to protect the country from enemies, we need to be careful not to discourage the people who come here with good intentions. Somehow we must distinguish between those who come to visit and those who come to stay.

Unlike people who are citizens by birth, naturalized Americans choose their allegiance. They choose to put their faith, their hopes and their dreams in their adopted country. And if necessary, they will put their lives on the line.

In a way, those who come forward to seek citizenship now are quiet heroes. They will be the ones who, even in times of danger and backlash, keep their INS appointments.