Responding to Tragedy from Abroad

Sunday night I had dinner with some friends at a Korean BBQ restaurant. It was a laid back evening, and afterward we all came back to my apartment for ice cream and a bit of venting about the frustrations of working in Japan. As a group of Australians, Americans, and South Africans we were all coming from a different place, culturally and physically, but our experiences of foreignness help to tie us together.

At some point in the evening one friend, another American, checked her phone and said, “oh man, twenty people were killed in a shooting.”

I want to say I was horrified, or enraged, or deeply saddened. But in truth I barely blinked. I think I said something like, “wow, really?” and we moved on to talk about some youtube video.

When I woke up Monday morning and checked my Facebook, I was overwhelmed with reports of the attack, messages from LGBT friends who had attended Pride events and felt afraid, reports of another near-attack on Pride in LA. I was (and am) heartbroken, angry, and conflicted. Watching the US from a distance while retaining my ties to home is a strange experience. The tragedy, the idiocy, and the hatred take on a slightly more theatrical air. I frame thoughts about events in terms of how I will explain them to others, or I rush out to find fellow Americans who will understand without explanation, who can join me in a rant or tears, as the occasion requires. I try to think how best to tell others what has happened without playing into stereotypes about how scary the US is, how everyone has a gun. A friend of mine went to school last week and a student screamed when he saw her, then said, “she’s American, she has a gun!” in Japanese. This was a first grader.

In more conservative Japan I also find myself wondering how I would frame the conversation about an attack on a gay club during Pride, when the very concept of homosexuality is shaky here, existing only in the major cities and certainly not out here in Miyazaki, or at least not to my knowledge. I thought of a junior high student who wrote in her diary a few months ago about her favorite character in a game, telling me, “he’s handsome, and he has great vocal ability. But don’t worry, he’s not a gay.” I still don’t know what to say.

And while I still find myself coming up with speeches and explanations in my head, they weren’t needed yesterday. Not a single person at worked talked to me for more than a minute or two, and never about anything more than a schedule change or a grammar question. I couldn’t tell if this was because they knew what had happened and wanted to let me be, because they knew and didn’t want to talk about it, or maybe they had no idea and it was just a quiet day. The layers of passive implication involved in work here are trying on a good day, and utterly alienating on a bad one.

When I left school, after passing off my English club duties to the other ALT, I reflected at home on what had happened, how I was feeling, what this meant for the increasingly murky future of the country I call home. I cried, I talked to my friends and neighbors about it, I wrote letters to elected officials and posted articles to Facebook. I ended the day by watching another video, this time of the people who had lined up around the block to donate blood for the victims. And I cried again.

So far from home I feel I am both part of and apart from the tragedy. I hurt, and I feel guilty. Shouldn’t I be there, trying to make a difference, grieving with loved ones? I feel relieved, to be in a place that is so safe I can walk around at night alone without fear. My school doesn’t have lockdown drills. My students have probably never seen a gun in real life. And again I feel guilty, for being safe when others aren’t. And then I stop, and I realize this is absolutely not about me. The guilt remains.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post was. I think it was mostly for me to work through my feelings, to let people know that what happens at home affects those far and near, that even in Japan we care. I know in the coming days people will want to talk about it, will look to me for explanation. Today I talked with another teacher about the attack, about how worried he is for his daughter who will move to the US later this year. The world is watching the US, and it’s not pretty.

To everyone back home, I love you and want you to be safe. I want change, and I want an end to violence and bigotry. If you feel the same, I urge you to contact your elected officials and let them know. To vote in November and to start thinking seriously about what this event says about our home, our lives, our futures. To remember that acts of terror do not exist in a bubble, but are perpetuated by hateful rhetoric agains everyone from LGBT folks to Muslims, from people of color to women. Perpetuated by easy access to weapons of war. Perpetuated by our inaction, our resignation to the cycle of tragedy.

I’ll leave you with the words of Leonard Bernstein, delivered in 1963 after the JFK assassination, which are no less relevant today.

“This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.” Leonard Bernstein (find the full speech here)