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The Regulars at Ground Zero – Justin Zhao

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Ground Zero in NYC. Image from Viator.

As a kid, I dreamed of becoming the world’s most famous Justin Zhao. When I was 11, I googled my name to see who else in the world had the same name as me and how likely I would be able to beat their fame.

Sure enough, there was a Justin Zhao who was more prominent. He graduated from the City University of New York and worked as a computer technician for Aon in New York City. He died on September 11, 2001. He was a victim of 9/11.

Seeing his misfortune as the top search result only sharpened my ambition — I didn’t want people to Google my name and find vestiges of a tragedy that killed thousands of people. Over time, I built up an online presence through music, awards, and social media. Google’s search algorithm was tweaked to favor fresher material. Slowly but surely, my search results outranked his. Today, his articles can still be found, but are buried several search results pages deep.

More than 10 years later, I graduated from Columbia and had begun working as a software engineer in the city. The new World Trade Center and Ground Zero Memorial had been open to the public for a few years. I heard that it was worth a visit, so I made plans to check it out. As I strolled through for the first time, just as thousands of visitors do every day, I noticed names carved into the stone borders of the pools. I eavesdropped on a tour guide nearby and learned that these were names of people who died in 9/11.

Instantly, I was reminded of the Justin Zhao I discovered when I first googled my name many years ago. I felt excited that his name might also be engraved somewhere. As I searched, I couldn’t help but notice the people around me — tourists, families, and kids took pictures, marveling at the architectural spectacle. There were folks who seemed like regulars, sitting on benches, socializing with friends, or switching between being on their smartphones and leisurely people-watching. There were career-hungry young adults racing through as if there wasn’t a minute to waste. It was all very consistent with the diversity, energy, and hullabaloo of New York City.

Image from The Architect’s Newspaper.

Finally, there were those who stood closer to the pool, who moved a bit more slowly than everyone around them, looking on with heavier hearts. Some people would touch or underline a name with their hand. Some would place flowers on a name that seemed to mean a lot to them. One family stood quietly at the eastern edge of the North Pool. One could presume, from the single older male, that they were remembering their mother, but it could have just as easily been a brother, a sister, a second father, a cousin, a grandparent, or a friend. Even on an arbitrary day, like today, there were many who had come to cherish their loved ones who had perished more than a decade ago. It started to drizzle, which subtly masked their tears. My heart goes out to them.

As I was about to give up in the midst of the rain, I found his name, our name, memorialized in the bottom right corner of the South Pool. I was stunned to see it before me.

Face to face, I contemplated our similarities. We were both raised in Chinese families; we both studied and worked in New York, and in a technical role. I recently turned 26, which is the same age he was when he passed away.

In myself, I recognize the enthusiasm I feel for the path ahead of me. I feel tremendous sadness for Justin and the other victims, who might have felt the same way, but whose lives were cruelly cut short. According to a New York Times archive, Justin is survived by his brother Jimmy, which I find some comfort in.

If I’m ever in the area with time to spare, I go the Ground Zero Memorial to find Justin. I greet him and I ask how he’s been. Sometimes I’ll retell him the story of how I found him. Other times, I’ll share the latest search results for “Justin Zhao” on Google (recently there’s been a high school basketball star). I confess to Justin that I would love to meet him someday, even though I know it’s not possible. I pause for Justin and 2,981 others in a moment of silence. I look up at the sky. I take in the moment. I feel grateful.

I reflect on the fleeting lives that we all live. A simple coincidence of having the same name has woven Justin’s story into my own. I use Justin to remind myself of the weight of tragic events like 9/11, the brutality of misunderstood conflict, and the toxicity of terrorism, but our story is also about appreciation, sympathy, and shared humanity. I admire the unique and complex paths we all forge ahead on, and the deep and peculiar connections we share as a human species through collectively living, loving, and ultimately dying, on this Earth.

The time we have is borrowed from the past and will be returned to the future. With that time, may we hope and work for a better world.

My name engraved on the South Pool. Rest in Peace.

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