Life In the Rest Of The World:
September 12th

Linda Leaming Thimphu

Copyright 2001 by Linda Leaming Thimphu
Photo by Raimond Klavins at Unsplash.
Photo by Raimond Klavins at Unsplash.

Life in the rest of the world on September 12 was far from normal. Although the physical damage happened in the United States, so many people from so many countries were affected. The terrorist attack truly shook the world. As an American living outside the United States in the tiny Buddhist monarchy of Bhutan, which is sandwiched between China and India, I was able to see the tragedy from the outside-the way the rest of the world saw it. And from my perspective, the world was a noble, compassionate place, and people in the rest of the world were also shocked and grief stricken. For a short time, there were no national boundaries. The world was one.  About 10:30 in the evening on September 11, I got a call from a friend, an American woman working with the U.N. here in Bhutan. She said, "This is going to sound like I'm making this up, but two planes have just crashed into the World Trade Center, another plane has hit the Pentagon and a fourth plane has crashed in Pennsylvania."

Like most Americans I was stunned and although I understood her words I couldn't get around the concept and comprehend that something that horrific had happened. I just kept saying "oh, no, oh, no." Since I'd recently moved and didn't have the required cable hook-up to get television stations, she told my husband and me to come to her house to watch the news reports. I felt like I couldn't think straight, but sensed it was a time we needed to stick together as American, so we went. But just before I called my family in the U.S.. In Bhutan we're 12 hours ahead of Eastern time. They, like most Americans that day, were glued to the television and in shock. But they were okay.

For most of the night we watched in horror, like everyone else in the world, as television stations showed the plane crash into the second tower of the World Trade Center. As my friend flipped the channels we saw it over and over again on tv stations all over the world. We saw reporting from China, Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan, Star News Asia and CNN and Fox News from the U.S. What was remarkable was the sense of compassion and the sense of loss that all the news stations all over the world seemed to have regarding the tragedy.

News of the U.S. is often reported in Asia, but this wasn't only an American tragedy. The entire world seemed to share the loss of American innocence and its sense of security and grieve with us. "They love to kick us," my friend commented, "but not when we're down."

The heads of many nations, including Malaysia, visited their countries' American Embassies to express their condolence. People in countries all over the world immediately established organizations to collect funds for the families of fallen Americans. In the days after the tragedy I got calls from people from the U.K., India, Bangladesh, the Netherlands and Bhutan, all expressing sympathy.

There were no reproaches or blaming, only shock and a strong sense of loss. There were so many people affected by the disaster. People from all over the world have friends and family in the U.S. That night in Bhutan as we watched the television, national boundaries seemed to melt away as reports came in and people slowly realized the scope of what had happened. What was unspoken but what was truly felt was that if the United States wasn't safe, then nobody in the world was safe. We watched the news until about 3 am and came home and went to bed.

On the morning of September 12th, we were awakened at about 5:30 by a call from the Protocol Officer of the Foreign Ministry of the Royal Government of Bhutan, a very hard working and energetic man named Kesang Wangdi. He apologised for calling us so early and then he said how sorry he was to hear about the terrorist attack in the United States. Then he told me that His Majesty, the King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was requesting all Americans to come to Tashichhodzong, the seat of government in the capital, Thimphu, for a small ceremony to pray for the fallen Americans and their families. The Bhutanese government was rounding up all the Americans in the country, which turned out to be about 13 of us, and was conducting a ceremony for us. We would light 1,000 butter lamps while several hundred monks and lamas of the Buddhist faith would chant prayers. It was a remarkably compassionate and thoughtful thing for a foreign government to do. After all, there were only a handful of Americans here. It not only reflected the compassion of these lovely Bhutanese people, but it was also a continuation of the feeling we'd had the night before watching the news from all over the world: everyone in the world was grieving for our country and wanted to help.

The Bhutanese people do many things very well including ceremonies. When I arrived at Tashichhodzong I was greeted by a protocol officer from the Foreign Ministry and escorted to the entrance of the temple where the ceremony would be held. Tashichhodzong is the seat of government for Bhutan. It houses the king's office and many government offices. And since Bhutan is a Buddhist monarchy, church and state are not separate, so Tashichhodzong is also home to about 600 monks and houses about 30 different temples. It is a massive, imposing structure, larger than four football fields, made in the traditional Bhutanese style with no nails or architectural plans.

As I waited outside the temple other Americans started to come. My friend who worked at the U.N was already there. We gave each other bleary nods as we had just recently sat watching her television. The other Americans included were a doctor who was working in the Thimphu hospital for a month and his wife from New Mexico; an anaesthesiologist from Alaska, his wife and three children; a woman from Palm Desert, California living in Bhutan with her husband who headed the Dutch relief agency; the head of the United Nations Development Program, a nice man named Herb from Chicago; a geologist from Phoenix, and a student from Seattle doing an internship with the World Wildlife Fund.

Everyone looked tired. We all acknowledged each other, but we couldn't talk as the King of Bhutan was inside the temple and protocol dictated that we not speak. Besides we were all feeling pretty overwhelmed by the circumstance and the imposing surroundings.

We were ushered into the temple where we were greeted by most of the Bhutanese royal family. The temple was large with very high ceilings that seemed to disappear into darkness. The walls were hung with religious tapestries and paintings called tangkhas. Along the main wall, in front of an enormous, two story golden statue of Buddha, were 1,000 gold chalices, each holding oil and a wick. First, we were announced by the Protocol officer to the King, then his queen. As I shook hands with the queen of Bhutan, a remarkably beautiful woman with delicate Asian features, she said, "I'm so sorry." "Thank you," I said. And then as she held my hand she looked into my eyes and said softly, in elegant English: "It's the broken heart of freedom." Then, I cried.

We lit the butter lamps and then sat on the low wooden benches of the temple as the monks chanted their prayers of peace and well-being. It was short ceremony. Some wept and some sat in silence. Some of us were Buddhist, some of us weren't. All were deeply moved. We came from all parts of the United States from many different backgrounds. But we all felt, no matter what else we believed, that God hears all prayers.

After the ceremony, Herb, the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Program suggested all the Americans go for lunch. We went to a local hotel and had a long, delicious meal. We were able to talk about our families and friends in the U.S.; some of us knew people who had been lost in the tragedy. Like most Americans we had all been affected in some way. The hotel didn't charge us for the meal. We've gathered together several times since then to talk and share news, opinions and feelings. The tragedy has brought our little group of ex-patriots in Bhutan closer, and I understand this has happened to Americans all over the world.

We will never forget the terrorist attack, but the broken heart of freedom will mend. I will never forget what happened in the rest of the world the day after September 11th. It had nothing to do with governments or religions. For a time, after that terrible day in America, people all over world who are just like us came together and wept for us and prayed for us and helped us.
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