As a wandering expat, I receive a lot of advice from fellow Americans. Much of it forecasts my demise. “Don’t go to South Korea. That Kim guy will nuke you.”
“Didn’t you hear about the Paris attacks? You’d better skip Europe.”
“The Middle East? Are you insane??”
Americans have strong opinions for people who generally can’t locate danger on a map. Too often, our perception of the world is just a messy glump of movie plots and half-remembered headlines. That being said, travel safety is a real concern, so I’d like to share some of my own thoughts on this topic.
Sam and I have had our share of thrilling experiences abroad. We were living in a target city when Kim Jung-Un got all frisky in 2013. We hit Bangkok days after the Erawan Shrine bombing, and our stint in Saigon coincided with an epic dengue fever season. We’ve even crossed the Atlantic on a plane marked for death—or so I assume from the onboard baggage search and the copious weeping of our stewardess.
Yet none of our travel destinations have felt more dangerous—or needed more justification—than the US. Yes, I’m talking about guns. If you read that sentence and think, “Ah, she’s one of those people,” allow me to assure you I’m not. Whichever those you’re referring to, I decline to fit that box. I’m one of you, a complex person trying to wrestle with a complex issue. The biggest difference between us is how often I’m called on to explain this country to people who can’t figure out what the hell is wrong with us.
America has a gun problem. Everyone in the outside world knows this, and they’re kinda surprised it took us so long to tumble onto it ourselves. When Sam and I lived in Korea, we were grilled about our country’s gun habit. In Korea, no one owns a gun; even police don’t carry them. Yet mandatory military service ensures that about 50% of the population has firearms training. Our Korean friends are baffled that Americans can load up on glocks as easy as choco-pies and carry them without instruction. As far as they can tell, this country is an ongoing, coast-to-coast massacre. One mother told me she would never visit the US because she couldn’t risk her kids getting shot.
Is this an overreaction? Sure. Much the same way Americans react to the rest of the world. I spent three years trying to convince Koreans that their odds of getting shot in my country were like me getting nuked in theirs—a lot of hype over nothing. Then we came back.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, the US has experienced 121 mass shootings in the 113 days since Sam and I got here. The only thing more shocking than that number is math you can do with it: mass shootings only account for 3.6% of this year’s gun deaths. Suicides, accidents, crime, self-defense—it all totals to 7,231 Americans dead from firearms since New Year. Plus the twenty-some people who will lose their lives while I’m writing this piece.
The temperature of the gun debate has risen dramatically these past few months. Now other countries are issuing travel alerts for the US, warning their citizens to avoid police attention and “protests or crowded areas.” This is the same advice our state department gave us for Thailand and Myanmar—it suggests similar precautions in Iran. If you’re surprised that we're being treated like a so-called "evil regime," consider last week’s videos of police shootings. Killing innocent people in front of their kids is a classic Bad Guy move. Combine this with all the school shootings, and its clear why my Korean friend wouldn't visit. Would you take your family someplace that appeared to value guns over children?
Perception is a tricky beast. It’s so easy for a few to be mistaken for the whole. We may look like a bunch of reckless Yosemite Sams, but our national outrage over Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas indicate otherwise. We’re billed as a nation divided, but 90% of Americans want background checks for gun buyers.
Yet as Einstein once said, them maths don’t lie. Ok, maybe he didn't say that. But the problem is real. So what do I say to Koreans who ask me how to stay safe in America?
“Hey what’s life without risk?”
“Don’t worry, you’re not the minority we usually shoot.”
Not so much.
I once taught English language and American culture to a group of Korean fighter pilots. These guys were badass. They were about to strap into F-16s and fly across the Pacific to participate in joint training exercises with the US Air Force. The state they were visiting had permitless carry for handguns. They asked me about safety.
I was about to spin my usual Don’t Worry Be Happy, when I suddenly realized all the possible cultural ramifications. Korean men hold hands as a sign of friendship. Affectionate physical contact in public is completely normal. Personal boundaries are nonexistent. Most conversations with new people begin with the questions “How old are you?” and “Are you married?” asked from an uncomfortably intimate distance.
Now imagine a couple of Asian men in combat fatigues walked into an American backwoods bar, slid up beside some guy, leaned real close and asked if he was married, then headed off to the toilet clasping each other’s hands and playing with each other's hair. Now imagine Guy At Bar was drunk. Now imagine he was armed. And had a touch of homophobia.
There’s a vanishingly unlikely chance that anything bad would happen. But it could.
So I had to tell a roomful of Air Force majors not to touch each other in public. I would greatly prefer to never do that again. So please, America, stop shooting one another.