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MatadorU student Madeline Gressel on owning the narrative.

This is a B&W screengrab from Day After Tomorrow or something. Via gordontarpley

WHEN THE TWIN TOWERS COLLAPSED, my father was sitting on his bed in the Conrad Hotel, Hong Kong, watching the news in horror.

I was safe and cozy in my morning art class, during my very first week of high school at my new school on the Upper East Side. My sister was standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows of her own high school’s library — four short blocks from the World Trade Center — watching in shock as the towers erupted before her.

It was hours of agony before my father could reach any of us to make sure we were okay, and by the end of the ordeal, he’d decided to give up his job in Hong Kong and move back home. Despite a cultivated distaste for the United States, he couldn’t stand the idea of being away from his children during another terrorist attack.

As an early devotee of fiction and history (and their often neglected love-child, historical fiction), I responded to the crisis differently than some of my peers. If my sleep was disturbed, it was in a state of momentous excitement. I was seized, perhaps a bit cold-bloodedly, not by fear or anxiety, but by a thrilling sense of possibility and immediacy. This was my chance to be a part of history in the largest sense, to be a part of something that mattered, something that — because of my birth and childhood in downtown Manhattan — I could claim as a seminal moment in the narrative of my life.

I was disappointed. While my sister headed to Saint Vincent’s Hospital to make sandwiches for aid workers and firemen, my mother decided I was too young and sent me home. Anyway, there were hardly enough wounded survivors to necessitate real aid work across the city. The casualties were dead. I was not called upon to be the nurse of my fantasies. Still, I had been there. And no one could take that away from me, even as I drifted back to the more pressing matters of ninth grade in a new school.

Now, as New York City is sloshed by a record-breaking 13ft wall of water, it is I sitting comfortably in a café in Hong Kong watching the light October rain outside. My father is in his 29th-floor apartment watching it pour; my mother is in my childhood home on the bank of the swollen Hudson River, presumably cuddling with my terror-stricken, thunder-phobic beagle, Oliver. My friends post photos on Facebook of candlelit dinners, submerged cars, and the powerless, darkened skyline.

And I wish I were there with them. Not because I’m afraid for their safety (I’m not), but because I’m missing a moment of New York history. I’ll never be able to say, “Remember the flood of 2012? That was insane.” I feel jealous at the pictures, like I’ve seen a photo of an ex-lover with his new flame.

These are times when it becomes difficult to live abroad. It is a perverse little voice inside of me that longs to say, years hence, as the fires and hailstorms of global climate change rain down on Earth, and we herd the animals two by two onto some intergalactic ark: “I was there! I was there when the deluge began!”

Of course, living abroad, your chances of experiencing a moment of national crisis are just as high. But it won’t be your crisis, the crisis of your native land. You will be an outsider, experiencing it as if from behind a glass, with no proprietary rights at all.

It’s an odd moment of nationalism. But then, isn’t all nationalism a product of suffering? Not only because we share our fear and sadness, but also because we as a people suddenly share a demarcated story. Narratives only become real and legitimized when they’re acknowledged and heard. During a crisis, the world is tuning in to your narrative, and your country is the star. To be a part of a nation is to be a part of a shared story. And to be a part of a national crisis is to be a part of a great story.

World EventsExpat Life


About The Author

Madeline Gressel

Madeline is a writer and journalist currently based in Hong Kong. Born and raised in New York City, she's lived in Montreal, Udaipur, Mumbai, and Hong Kong, and has traveled to over 40 countries across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Her website is

  • Scott Hartman

    Nicely done, Madeline, very nicely written and imagined. But take heart :)… in my opinion, the more the world shrinks, the more we are related… the more a crisis anywhere affects us all. Safe travels.

  • Maddie Gressel

    thanks scott!

  • Saladin El A

    Well written. Agree about the nation = shared story part!

  • Ross Haliburton Noble

    Totally agree with you about the unspoken allure of disaster, but don’t you think recent technology (the internet being the obvious one) diminishes the feelings of nationalism or “specialness”? These days you can experience almost anything in real time from anywhere, and often have a better understanding of what’s going on than those closer to the action. We’re all sort of part of everything now. (Also: hi!)

    • Maddie Gressel

      I think a big part of experiencing a disaster (natural, terrorist, war, or otherwise) is the confusion of not knowing what’s going on, of not having access to those technologies. In the case of New York right now, my neighborhood’s lack of power has really brought the neighbors together in an intimate, unusual way. They’re forced to rely on each other to an extent unusual in modern city life. In the case of war, it can obviously be much more harrowing. Crises have become like fishbowls: it may be easy to see in from above, but once you’re in there, it’s a very distinctive experience. I think that the internet gives outsiders the false impression that they’re participating in a national crisis, which sort of perversely underlines our desire to be a part of them. But really, I think it’s an experience that a facebook feed can only poorly approximate.

      Hello! long time.


  • Noel Morata

    Interesting take and viewpoint, I think at some point we are all attracted to some type of danger or living outside of our confort zone if not just temporarily and being a part of history does become a draw and point of inspiration.

  • Restlessjo

    One night I was watching the movie War Horse and the next this epic disaster movie. Looking at the bewildered and lost faces, I was only glad that me and mine were nowhere around. I don’t want to be put to the test like this, but I know I would feel wholely different if I were involved.

  • Heather Ferreira Gatto

    This is a strange article. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I’m sitting in my apartment in China, wishing I could be with my friends and family back in my devastated home state of New Jersey, but it has nothing to do with wanting to experience the disaster or tell people in some nebulous future that I was part of it. I watched 9/11 from the window of my college dorm. I don’t feel special because I was there. It’s not a story I like to tell.

    And I’m not experiencing the disaster as an “outsider.” I’m watching my childhood home – the boardwalk, the beach, the HOUSES- get washed away. I’m not jealous that I’m not there. I’m horrified at the destruction and I mourn for what has happened. But to wish I was there not to be with friend and family, but just to say that I was part of it? I find that… very strange. And I’m sure many people who had their homes and their livelihoods washed away in a giant wave would have loved to be sitting in a Hong Kong apartment instead.

  • Sera Senturk

    Ok I loved this article! Sooo true!

  • mogley

    I get the same sense of possibility and immediacy whenever natural disasters, riots, or even wars happen for some reason I just want to be in the middle of it. Regardless of where it is.

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