This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.
My grandfather shook me awake suddenly.
My eyes slowly opened, feeling groggy and tired from our overnight flight. It was five in the afternoon there, in the suburbs of Moscow, as I woke up from a much-needed nap.
“Something is happening in America,” he said.
I didn’t understand what he meant. My brain was foggy and I was in no mood to be woken up. I know that I hadn’t seen my grandparents in years and that this next week was meant to be spent with them, but the jet lag had gotten to me pretty hard this time around. I stretched and tried to figure out a way to stay in bed.
“Something is happening in America,” he said again. Finally, I got out of bed and walked lazily from the bedroom in which I was staying, through the living room and kitchen, to the enclosed patio where my Russian family often spent their evenings.
The little TV out there was turned on. This wasn’t really an unusual occurrence. In fact, despite having a perfectly decent (and much bigger) television in the living room, we almost always sat on the patio to eat and relax.
But this time our family reunion wasn’t relaxing.
As I joined my mother and little brother, both of whom had come on this family vacation too while my father remained in the states to take care of my parent’s real estate business, I could not have prepared for what was on that television screen.
It was September 11th, 2001, just after 9 a.m. in New York City.
Images of the plane that had just hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center were all over the tiny TV. Instantly, my body froze. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I didn’t understand.
As my grandfather had said, something was happening in America… but what?
The rest of this day is a hazy blur. The only thing I remember feeling is confusion. What was happening? What were we watching? What were were going to do now?
Before long, we started to understand what was happening: America was being attacked. And my family was stuck in Russia.
Yesterday had been a perfectly normal day. A Monday like any other, I was excited to have the week off from school. We had flown from our home in Florida to New York City for our transfer flight before continuing on to Moscow.
I had seen the iconic skyline with the Twin Towers standing proudly at the southern edge of Manhattan when our plane departed at 8 p.m. That time is now forever burned in my memory.
This morning, as I greeted my grandparents at the airport gates, I took my first steps on international soil as an American citizen.
My parents had become naturalized the year before and my brother and I joined their ranks just a month earlier. Thrilled about our new journey as a family, my parents expedited our U.S. passports and booked these tickets. We would be missing a week of school, sure, but the trip was sure to be worth it.
Never in a million years could any of us have imagined what would happen.
Nobody in the world did, of course.
The entire world watched that day as the Twin Towers were hit, as they crumbled, as what seemed like the greatest and strongest country was attacked by what later was revealed to be terrorists.
I can’t imagine what my dad felt, hearing the news this morning. All I remember is my hysterical mother on the phone with him, anxious and crying. By that point, we knew that all airports in the U.S. had been shut down indefinitely. So what now?
My mother, my brother and myself were stuck in Russia… Almost 6,000 miles from home… indefinitely.
With the tragedy that we had just seen unfold in America, my only thought was that I wanted to be reunited with my dad, that I just wanted to go home.
I no longer cared about having a week off of school and even the visit with my grandparents had been soured. My mom spent hours on the phone with my dad, trying to figure out what we were going to do if it came time for us to fly back and there was, well, no airports to fly back to. The winning plan was to fly to Canada and drive down.
I didn’t care. All I wanted was to be home.
Before this tragic day that shook the world, I still very much felt like an immigrant. I had spent the first eight years of my life in Russia (mostly) and only the last seven had been spent living in America.
Although I didn’t have an accent, I looked different than my peers and classmates. Whenever someone asked, I always told them: I’m Russian and Cuban.
But after this day, I realized that I wasn’t just Russian and Cuban anymore. I was an American now.
My desire to just go home after this tragedy showed me what my true home had become. It was no longer about the things that made me different and it was no longer about where I came from before. It was about what made me the same as my countrymen and women. It was about the place that I, and my family, proudly chose to call ours.
As they say, home is where the heart is. And this is the day that my heart, now and forever, was America.
(Image via Patrick Nouhailler/flickr)