Wednesday, September 14, 2011

You Can only Remember 9/11 if You're on The List

This past Sunday my country stopped to remember the tragedy of the attacks from 10 years ago. What should have been a day for all Americans and sympathetic people from around the world to reflect and support one another was, for myself and dozens of Americans in Beijing, a day when our country turned us away at the door, refusing to let us beyond their velvet rope and forcing us to walk away in dismay.

Here's what went down.

On Friday, I was alerted to a posting in City Weekend announcing a public ceremony to observe the 9/11 attacks:

…A 9/11 memorial service led by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke will honor the victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of ten years ago. The American community is invited to come to the U.S. Embassy at 7:30pm on September 11 and light floating lanterns, a Chinese custom for mourning. Those planning to attend must arrive 30 minutes prior to the event and bring photo ID.

I'd already made plans for a private get-together with some American friends (several of whom I had not seen in a while) but decided to delay it by an hour to check this out. My only worry was the "American community" part. My girlfriend, Alya, as I often still find myself amazed by, is a Russian citizen and I was concerned that she might have trouble getting in.

I called the embassy to see if people of any nationality would be allowed to enter, and while the polite woman who answered the phone did not know right away (and could not reach the "duty officer" at that moment), she asked me to call back in a bit and said that she would have an answer then. I  dialed them up again about an hour later and the woman cheerfully told me that the duty officer had told her that it "should not be a problem" getting my girlfriend in because the ceremony was not being held inside a building; it would just be on the grounds.

[An aside: My good friend Iris also called the embassy for some information but had a much worse experience. She said that the person that she spoke with was "rude" and that the call was entirely unpleasant. The embassy has a reputation in Beijing for bad service, lousy communication and general inconvenience.]

Fast forward to 7:00pm. Alya, Iris and I walk up to the security gate and get into line. There is already a sizable crowd gathered:

There were lot of families, contingents of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and lots of people that I did not know. (I don’t hang out with very many Americans here in Beijing.) Between the three of us, we only recognized one face, but I could see that lots of the folks in line were of the full-Expat-package and/or Big Business Owners crowd. A warning bell in my heard started to go off. Where were the "regular" folks: the students and "Halfpats" like us?

As we moved closer we saw that there was a table with 4 people seated behind it, each holding a list of names in front of them. When we got to the front, we were asked for our names and if we had RSVP'd. I said that we hadn't and that we'd had no idea that an RSVP was required.

The way it was explained to me, the event at the embassy was by invitation only. There was never supposed to have been an announcement made on the expat websites and the woman who was coordinating the staff at the gate didn’t even know who had given the information to them in the first place. The best that she could do, she said, would be to put our names onto a waiting list and let us in if some of the invitees who had RSVP'd did not show up.

This did not sit well with me. But then it got worse.

I saw a Girl Scout in uniform turned away, her mother calling out to another parent in the troop, "Did you guys register the whole troop? They're telling me that she's not on the list!"

"Sorry," came another parent's reply from the approved group. "You had to RSVP as a family."


Not only was there no mention of needing an invitation on the expat websites, but there was no mention of the event on the embassy's own site. There still isn’t, in fact. If you want to see what went on, you've got to check out an expat site or China's state news agency, Xinhua. (Really?!) Furthermore, neither I nor Iris were informed when we called to ask about admission that it was invite-only.

And not for nothing, but what the FUCK is the US Embassy doing holding a private 9/11 ceremony in the first place?! Of all of the days to encourage the local American community to come together, this was it! Hell, they should have welcomed all comers, no matter their nationalities!

At brunch earlier that day, an Italian guy that I know came over to me, shook my hand and said in a low voice, "Today we're all with you." People in the embassy should have been falling over themselves to get him, and other like-minded folks, to join the memorial ceremony. This was a missed opportunity to try to engender some goodwill among the international population here.

It seems like a trivial thing, not getting to enter the embassy for a little ceremony, but it was such a symbolic event, and I was in such a patriotic mood, that the experience made me feel absolutely disgusted.

On a day when our country could have reached out and tried to reclaim the spirit of togetherness that was squandered so shortly after the attacks occurred, the US Embassy in Beijing displayed incompetent planning, absent leadership and a laughable lack of vision by not doing so.

Our tax dollars at work.