I was checking email in my office at National Geographic when I first heard that two planes had slammed into the World Trade Center. It was the morning of September 11, 2001, and my office was evacuated shortly after the Pentagon was struck. My shocked coworkers and I spilled out into the streets of downtown Washington, DC. It was complete chaos. I remember the rest of the day in a tangle of emotions. Disbelief. How could this have happened? Fear. Could the fourth plane be headed for the Capitol Building? Chris was on his way there for a press conference. Oh please, God, no. Please don’t let anything happen to Chris. Horror. Two National Geographic colleagues were on the plane that hit the Pentagon. They had died while helping others. Relief. A close friend and Boston-based flight attendant for United Airlines wasn’t flying that day. Heartbreak. All those innocent lives lost, gone forever. Gratefulness. None of my loved ones died that day.
One year before 9/11, I had been living in a predominantly white, middle class suburb in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. After a brief stint as a newspaper reporter, I had packed up my life and relocated to Washington, DC, to work at National Geographic Traveler. I had never lived further than a 45-minute drive from home, and I was the first person in my family to ever live outside of Ohio. I would spend the next six years learning about fascinating cultures throughout the world. I would interview people in Syria, Iran, North Africa, India, and France. I would travel to Turkey, the Greek Islands, Belize, and beyond, and I would meet amazing people who would teach me about their cultures through their cuisines. Those years were life changing. Prior to moving to the District, I had never met anyone from the Middle East or Africa or Central America, and I had certainly never eaten Pho or Naan.
Flash forward 10 years, nearly a decade since 9/11. Chris and I have been married for 8 years, and we have Mason, the love of our lives. We split our time between New York City and Washington, DC, where we interact with people from all over the world every day. In New York we live in Queens, the most diverse borough in the city. At the subway stop around the corner, notices are posted in seven different languages. Many of our neighbors own restaurants where they serve authentic dishes from their homelands, and we dine in their restaurants as often as possible. We learn something new every time we try a new dish. Mason tastes some of those dishes with us — his first step toward learning about other parts of the world.
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I think about all the lives that were lost on that awful day. I think about the tragedies that happen every day because of cultures clashing. Of course Mason is too young to understand any of this. When he’s old enough, we’ll figure out some way to explain it to him. In the meantime, we’re focusing on teaching him to embrace other cultures; because of who we are, many of those lessons will be through food. It’s our hope that Mason will learn to embrace other people, even if they’re nothing like him at all. We wish for him to be surrounded by people who are equally as kind to others. Perhaps then terrorist attacks will be something that our children read about in history books, not something that they’ve actually experienced.
How will you explain 9/11 to your toddler? How will you teach your child to respect other cultures?