American Expats and Gun Violence : How Does The World See Us?

When I started off the school year in August with my new 4th-grade English learners, I asked them if any of them had ever been to an English-speaking country: England, maybe? Australia? Or had any of them, perhaps, been to my home country - America?

A hand went up:

"My mummy says we can't visit America because it's too dangerous."

Me: (stunned)  Too dangerous?
Student:  Yes.  People shoot each other there all the time because everyone has a gun.
A few classmates:  (nodding vigorously) 'My mummy, too!'
Me:(still stunned).......
Student:  Weren't you afraid to live there?
Me:  (trying to recover and babbling):  Well, no.  I mean, I never lived anywhere dangerous.  I mean, there are probably dangerous places in every country.  And I don't have a gun. Lots of people don't have guns.
Student (skeptically):  Really? My mummy says that people shoot each other all the time in America.
Me:  (rallying slightly)  Well, I have lived there for many years and it has never happened to me or anyone I know.  So..who's been to New Zealand?

That little exchange...well, it gave me a new insight into how much of the world really sees me and my fellow Americans, one that I've been mulling over for the last few months, and which yesterday's events in Newtown, Connecticut, have put in a new light.

 I can't speak for all Americans, of course, but when I woke up yesterday morning (Korea time) and discovered that yet another armed gunman had committed yet another mass murder - this time of 6-and 7-year-olds and their teachers - I was in a state of shock.  Shock as a parent; shock as a teacher; and shock as an American.  I read article after article, and watched video after video, listening to voices that could have belonged to my family members, my friends, my neighbors - or even me.  And it was me.  It was my country, my people, my culture.

I know that Americans don't have a great international reputation these days.  I know that there are many countries with reason to dislike us.  I love my country, but I get that we have lots to work on.  I know all this, but I was still shocked to learn that there are people in the world - educated, sophisticated, well-traveled European and Asian expats whose children go to my school - who feel about my country the way I feel about Rwanda or Syria:  it's probably a lovely place, but based on what I know, it's  too dangerous for my family to visit.  

I can tell you, most of us who live in America don't think of it this way.  And yet - this is what the world sees and thinks about us.  About me.

Living in a foreign country - incidentally, one with one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the developed world -I'm wondering today as I go about my business what people are thinking about me - the American.  Me and the 'dangerous' 'violent' country I come from, where schools have to have lockdown procedures and metal detectors. Where people are gunned down at movie theaters, malls,  - and elementary schools.  Will they feel sorry for me?  Wonder how I can stand to live somewhere so dangerous? Whether I worry about my children? Wonder if I'm a violent person myself? Whether I own guns?

I'm actually relieved that the international school where I teach has already broken up for Christmas so I don't have to engage in any of the discussions in the teacher's room that would have been sure to have ensued.  My co-workers, who are all from European countries with strict gun laws, would likely express sympathy and shock, as have people from all over the world.  Of course, something like this could happen anywhere, they would all agree, and their hearts - like mine - would be breaking over the senseless loss of life.  But the unspoken (or maybe, spoken) comment would also be there:   why does it happen so often in America - and why don't you people do something about it? Would there be secret pity that I come from a country where my chances of dying from gun violence are approximately 15 times as great at theirs? Would there be morbid curiosity about what it is like to come from such a dangerous and violent place? Would they wonder why our 'world-class' healthcare system can't seem to provide adequate mental health care services for people who are suffering? Would they look at me differently, wondering how I'd been brought up, what I'd been taught in school, what my beliefs and philosophies must be if I come from a place that is so violent - and which, even now, rings with voices saying that the answer to this problem is more guns? Would they be asking me to explain all of that - as well as Aurora and Milwaukee and Columbine  and now - Sandy Hook?

I hope not.  Because I wouldn't be able to.

I look at my country and its people, and I think about the millions of well-meaning, warmhearted, go-the-extra-mile citizens that you find virtually everywhere in America, and I think, 'how can this be?' We Americans are enthusiastic to a fault; we are optimistic, we are energetic; we see a need, and we fill it.  And if there's not a way, we make it.  We hug strangers in times of grief (yes, we're a huggy country,) we chat on elevators, we open doors for each other, we hold fundraisers and walk-a-thons and food drives. We are soft-hearted; many of us are deeply religious; we are fiercely patriotic. We love animals, small children, and our hometown heroes. We bring cookies to new neighbors, lend cups of sugar, feed each others' cats when we go out of town.  We shovel our neighbor's sidewalk when it snows.  We fight for the underdog.  Yes, we're occasionally like a big, enthusiastic, barking Labrador puppy in the china shop of the Global Village:  we don't always get that the rest of the world sometimes rolls their eyes at us and our Good Intentions.  We are well-meaning, even if we don't always see the whole picture.  We think our brand of freedom is worth fighting and dying for - and we do it.  We believe in education, in awareness, in fixing things when they're broken. When our laundry is dirty, we still put it out there for the world to see, and we try to learn from our mistakes.  We believe that all it takes is one person with a message to start a wave of change- and we do it. We believe that ordinary people - people without power or money - have voices, too, and we have a system of government which - though imperfect - allows people to raise those voices.  We are people of great love and incredible compassion.

And we kill each other with guns.

We have a mental health care system that is broken.

We can't agree on how to fix things.

And people - beautiful little children and their dedicated teachers -are dying.

If there's one thing that I've tried to remember as an expat, it's this:  I may be the only American that this person ever meets. I do my best to be a good ambassador. I try to remember that the world is full of people whose ideas about America and Americans are based entirely on what they read or see on the news - not on relationships with any of us.

Today, I'll try to be kinder, more polite, more patient.  I'll work on being a better ambassador.  I'll do what I can to dispel the picture the world has of America and its people as violent and angry and gun-loving. But I can't do anything to change what people hear in the news, read in the papers, watch on TV.  I can't do much to change their image of my country as a dangerous, violent place where children are not safe in their schools and people are gunned down in shopping malls.

I can't change it until America changes.


Karen said…
Oh, boy, Carolyne, your post hit me in the gut. All of it so true! For me, you hit on the 2 biggest and most important points surrounding this event. Guns and mental health. I have seen firsthand how difficult it is to access and get appropriate help from the mental health system in this country, even when in a psychiatric crisis! And I do not believe that more guns are the answer, although you are right that many do.
You've said all this perfectly and my hat goes off to you today...thank you.
That said, I have a staff meeting tomorrow to deal with the effects that this event will have on students in my school.
God bless all the lost children and their teachers and all those who survived and will have to deal with this event for the rest of their lives. A true tragedy.
MsCaroline said…
Karen - Thank you. So many posts have been written, but I hadn't seen any yet about how these things affect those of us living overseas. These thoughts have been percolating ever since I discovered that there were people who wouldn't consider traveling to the US because they perceived it as a such a dangerous place. It still floors me, but at the same time, being outside of the country has made me realize what the rest of the world must see and think - and it makes me cringe. If you haven't read it already, I would recommend reading a post by 'Anarchist Soccer Mom' in which she frankly - and heartbreakingly - discusses the nightmare she has gone through trying to get help with and support for her mentally-ill 13-year-old son. If this is truly the way things are, we're in for many more such incidents.
greg said…
Really good perspective on this very sad issue. As an American expat in a different Asian country, I have also been getting a lot of reactions from the locals and European expats about how life in America must have been for me there. It also doesn't help that just about every TV show and movie coming out from the US has something to do with someone shooting someone else. While I don't believe banning guns in America will help, I do believe there must be a change of attitude from everyone in the US, especially the federal government, against aggression towards others, whether by foreign war or in the neighborhoods of America. There is a very negative image of our country around the world and you put it very well indeed. Sometimes we need to listen to the kids, because we are giving them this world, with the good and the bad.
I hear you Caroline, very well said. I have come across the same comments, no matter where we lived, even in England. I hope they are able to get to the heart of the matter and take a close look at mental health and who are the most vulnerable. If they could address even a could help to save the lives of so many.

On another note, I left a message for you at my blog, Expat Diary...Vietnam.

Best wishes for the holidays.

Jeanne :)
Trish said…
A very thought-provoking post, Carolyne. I can't get my head around all the issues surrounding this terrible tragedy, apart from feeling a profound sense of sadness. Your post has given me another angle to consider.

The events of Friday bring back the terrible shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, where 16 children were killed in a similar incident. Changes were made to hand-gun ownership in the UK after this.
Thank you for writing this - an excellent piece with so many truths in it.
BavarianSojourn said…
A truly heartbreaking tragedy. I read this (together with the incredibly brave article written by the Mother about her son), and it's just all so sad. If it makes you feel any better, I truly think that no country is perfect, mine certainly isn't, but like you say, all you can do is be the best ambassador... Hugs xx
MsCaroline said…
Greg: Yes, it's a continual education for me to understand how the rest of the world sees us and why. A little self-reflection is probably called for.

Jeanne - If nothing else, living abroad gives one a chance to see one's own country from another perspective. The longer I live in Korea, the more perspective I gain. And thanks - I went back and read your other comment at your blog!

Trish - yes, a number of UK bloggers have mentioned Dunblane, and I was encouraged to hear how the problem had been addressed, although I don't see that ever happening in the US. It's very discouraging.

Circles - thanks so much. It's not always pleasant to see yourself as others do, but it's sometimes necessary...

Emma - I read that article too, and I had nothing but compassion for her. Maybe if we could just fix our broken healthcare system and ensure that people get the support we need, that would be a huge step in the right direction...

Well said and well expressed - I agree with so much of this post. Funnily enough when we first came to America someone in the UK asked weren't we worried about guns and schools. It hadn't really occurred to me at the time, and I love America, but there really is a huge attitude problem within this country.
Ditto everyone else's comments. It is something that you don't consider unless you ARE an expat. Will pass this along for others to read as well.
Sara said…
I would like to present a different perspective on the situation. I can understand the situation of an expat. I am from a bi-national family (one parent from Asia and one from the US, and I have lived in both countries as well as others). I have experienced the kinds of interactions that happen when an incident like this happens. I have also experienced many times situations in which people express major misconceptions about the countries that I come from. In this case though, I wonder whether their perception may be quite accurate.

You say that most Americans do not think of the US in that way. But I wonder... I don't know if it's most or not, but a LOT of Americans do live in an America that is exactly how your students perceive it to be. These types of experiences are so divided along the lines of race and class that those who do not experience may not be aware of how widespread it is. According to an analysis from a pro-gun organization, gun deaths exceeded vehicular deaths in 10 states. Severe violence, including deadly violence and fun violence, is part of life for many Americans.
Sara said…
I meant "gun violence", not "fun violence"
MsCaroline said…
Sara - You make an excellent point, and one that I didn't think much about when my students talked about American being dangerous. I was thinking about the neighborhoods where I had lived, and also the areas that my students and their families would be likely to visit - areas which are relatively safe - or appear to be. I have, in fact taught in schools located in neighborhoods where gun violence was much higher and my last high school saw its share of gang activity, but, at the end of the day, I drove home to my safe(r) subdivision in another part of town.
I agree that gun violence is a serious problem in the US, but for your average educated suburban professional, it's not a something that we confront on a daily basis, which is probably why there's not an overwhelming outcry about it. I'm sure you've seen some of the news commentary talking about the fact that Newtown has received so much more attention because of the 'these things don't happen here' factor. I suppose when US citizens are as enraged about the senseless murder of children who live in a housing projects as they are about the murder of children who live in a picturesque small town, we will have made some progress.
Thanks again for your comment. It made me think - and think again.
MsCaroline said…
*America* not *American*
Wilma said…
I am not afraid where I live but I am conscious of it. John does not allow me to take trash to the dumpster alone after dark because there have been issues in that lot. We hear gunshots all the time, sometimes followed by sirens and the police helicopter, sometimes not. We have never lived in a place where we don't but we probably hear more here than we have before. Sean can identify the difference between gunshots and backfires--"No report, Mom, it's just a backfire." Several months ago there were gunshots, five of them I believe, literally right outside our window. I heard it but my brain didn't even register it as that and incorporated it into my dream. In the morning the neighbors were asking me if we heard them and I honestly had to think hard to remember if I had or not. Sean slept through them. Just part of life, not a good part but part of it nonetheless. :)
Unknown said…
I've read this about a dozen times and cannot express how deeply it resonates.

We are a nation of good, truly good people, but sprinkled with evil. I wish it weren't so.

love to you from across the way..
Roleplayer said…
I think the fact that Americans don't realise how others view their country is a big part of why there's so much resistance to changing gun laws. I've been to America 3 times and never felt at risk, but it has been in the back of my mind that anybody could have a gun and, regardless of whether you feel safe or not, you are actually at risk of being shot at any moment.
John Bocskay said…
Thanks for the thoughtful post. I'm also an American expat in South Korea, and I've talked to a lot of my Korean friends about this. Naturally they are having trouble understanding why we allow the conditions that perpetuate this sort of tragedy to persist, as am I and many other Americans. If it were a simple matter of showing Americans how the world sees us, and how we stack up against what is going on in the rest of the advanced nations, this would be fairly easy to deal with. After all, the statistics regarding firearm fatalities are fairly unambiguous and extremely lopsided. The sad truth is that America doesn't care what the world thinks, and has cultivated a belief that the rules somehow don't apply to us. It's sad to say but I don't see anything changing until a little humility creeps in to the American psyche, and that is in very short supply these days it seems. I wish it were otherwise, but what can you do?
MsCaroline said…
Wilma - yes, in the US, it's definitely a part of life - more so in some states and cities than others! I remember when we lived in AZ there would always be warnings about not shooting your guns in the air on New Year's Eve because there always seemed to be an unintentional fatality.
MsCaroline said…
Traci - I don't think we're sprinkled with any more evil with other countries - at least, I hope not. It's a sad situation, and one that I can't see being resolved any time soon.
MsCaroline said…
2217 - I think you're right: most Americans don't know how they're viewed by other countries - and I suspect that most(many?)don't care.

Naomi - It's amazing how your viewpoint changes when you live abroad, isn't it? It's one of the reasons I think it can be such a life-changing experience for people. Learning how to see yourself through a different lens provides a whole new insight!
MsCaroline said…
John - Yes, I know my Korean friends are puzzled, too, and I can only imagine what our culture must seem like compared to theirs. I've been here only 18 months, but it's been long enough for me to gain some valuable insights. The US psyche (generally speaking)is such an odd combination of geographical isolation, dogged independence and powerful patriotism, that you can see why most Americans wouldn't even consider an argument based on what other countries are doing. Great observation on the need for a little humility. There's not much room for it in current US thinking, and suggesting that we need it will not win you any popularity contests - I've learned that from painful experience!

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