Sunday, December 16, 2012
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!'
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.