At a Loss To Explain

In the wake of the Aurora shooting, in which a young gunman killed 12 people in a cinema, I find myself in the awkward position of trying to explain why my country is the way it is.

This isn’t an unfamiliar position. Being a foreigner abroad, one is frequently asked questions about where one is from. When you are from a country with as high of a profile as the United States, those questions frequently involve questions regarding politics, culture, food and general inquiries on why the fuck is America so crazy.

I try my best to answer questions, and sometimes I seem to come up with satisfactory answers, but when it comes to trying to explain the American affinity for firearms, I don’t have a clue. For seven years of my childhood and early teenage years, I lived on US military bases in Japan and Okinawa, so some of my cultural markers are a bit different than other red-blooded Americans.

Although I never learnt Japanese well enough to really understand them all that well, the Japanese cartoons I watched growing up didn’t have guns. The girl soldiers of Sailor Moon had wands that made them change from schoolgirl outfits to… schoolgirl outfits that were a little shorter and snazzier. They kicked ass somehow that way, and Dragonball and Dragon Ball Z had martial arts and their “Kamehameha!” beams. There were no guns. There were a lot of possibly inappropriately-drawn female characters with massive breasts, but guns? Not much, and they were frequently used to comic effect.

Even the more adult anime I watched after school, Cat’s Eye, didn’t really have guns from what I can remember. It featured a trio of sisters who were cat burglars (awesome) who stole paintings without the use of firearms. In fact, on the subject of cat burglars, I loved watching Batman cartoons as a kid. Yes, they had guns, but it was often the idiot mobsters who wielded them. The clever ones–heroes and villains–frequently ditched firearms in favour of whips, fists, ivy and little bat-shaped ninja stars.

The guns I was exposed to were on the Armed Forces I came into contact with growing up. Not everyone was running around the base armed, but I did see them. That was the context for me in having guns–it was part of your job. It wasn’t in your glove box or in your purse.

There is an article on The Atlantic that compares and contrasts the attitude towards guns in America and in Japan. It’s a fascinating read, as is this other article from Andrew Cohen on how this most recent tragedy involving guns is a link in a very long chain of shootings that will unlikely end, as people in America are killed or injured because of guns every single day. To quote Cohen in the article, and I shall put this in bold, “How many lives would be spared if law enforcement officials enforced existing gun laws as aggressively as they pursue the war on terror?

I can’t answer really why Americans love guns so much, as I have no affinity for them, nor do many of my American friends back in the US. Although 34% of Americans do personally own guns (including my father), which is a lot higher than, well, anywhere, the majority of Americans do not personally own guns, although they may be living with someone who does.

Interestingly, 34% is close to the percentage of American adults who are obese (35.7%).

America is a land of extremes. The same US state that saw the Columbine shootings and the recent tragedy is also home to a lovely Buddhist university I once considered going to. Also, to give a sort of relevant example at the risk of sounding like a complete smartass, for a nation of fat asses we sure win a fuckload of gold medals every Olympics–though I’ll try to bite my tongue on that point when I read and hear complaints about fat American tourists getting in the way (although part of the huge medal hoard is due to socio-economic reasons, as much as it is on the aptitude and talents of the athletes). The comment on fat Americans I hear periodically will likely be far more common now that the Olympics are nearly upon us, and many tourists from all over have come to London… to basically get completely and utterly lost as all the games events are spread out all over the city.

I am normally quite cynical about the Olympics coming to London, particularly after reading yet another article from The Atlantic (I love The Atlantic) and hearing about the closure of the Lea Towpath and plans to make Hackney Wick’s westbound platform exit-only. Still, when I heard the torch was going all around (though not past) the Jolly Butchers, my curiosity got the better of me, and I managed to watch the Olympic flame and its torchbearer start down Rectory Road after it had made its round around Stoke Newington. It was quite sweet, actually, to see loads of people coming out, chatting to each other on the street, craning their necks to look down to see when the torch was coming, booing the Lloyd’s bus, etc.

It’s interesting to see how the Olympic games and events are all over the city. For some reason, up until early this year I was under the impression that it would all be located in Stratford. I had initially thought that it would be something like how Orlando is, in that the “Orlando” that the tourists know is actually in a city called Kissimmee, which is a slight distance away from the real Orlando. Disney, Universal Studios, the hotel you and your parents stayed at when you were 8 years old… that was all actually not in Orlando. Somehow, there was the creation of what I call Tourist Town–a part of the Greater Orlando area that packs a massive amount of amusement parks, hotels and Golden Buffets together–separate from the Orlando people actually lived in, which is about 40 minutes or so driving northish.

London didn’t take the approach of building an Olympic Town, so instead the out-of-town attendees of the Olympics will be puzzling over tube maps and shall be guided by pink stickers and signs trying to shepherd them on to the various venues. Yes, they’ll be in our goddamn way as we try to get to work, try to get home, try to get to the pub. But they don’t mean to. They just want to see some great sport (or maybe really bad sport…), see the sights tourists normally see and maybe also see what makes London one of the most fantastic cities to live in.

And among that mass of people, some of them might be interesting to talk to. Maybe some of the American tourists might be better than me at answering questions about our gun-toting, our freedom-loving, our inability to see the sense in having a national health insurance and why our passports now have a ridiculously huge eagle in its pages and an inane quote from Ronald Reagan.

These things, and so many more, I am at a loss to try to explain. All I can do is tell you how much I wanted to be a cat burglar when I grew up because of watching Cat’s Eye and Batman.

And also the abomination they serve up at The Diner is not what real homefries are like. Seriously, you can’t call a handful of dried-up parsley on some sorry-ass hash to be “spiced homefries.” This encounter with these impostor homefries happened two years ago, and I’m still upset.



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  1. hey,
    I did the whole I don’t get Americans thing for ages, and was braced for it before I went to the US for the first time. Ended up on a huge road trip LA – Salt Lake – Arizona – Vegas – LA – Dallas – Amarillo – Dallas, so ended up staying in some really small places – one night I slept in my car in the middle of nowhere.
    I guess that when you’re in a house and if you have a phone, the police are maybe hours away you’re kinda on your own facing threat unknown. Basically to me it felt like walking alone at night, and I was always wary of where I was and how unprotected stuff felt. Not sure a gun would fix it, but a lot of time I walked round with closed fists and a key handy had I had to “defend” myself. I suppose having something more powerful might have put me more at ease with where I was. I’d not want a gun myself, but I could see why some one would.
    And for the laughs – my two favourite questions when I was in America
    1) Do you still feel guilty for the Balfour declaration
    2) When are you going to let Scotland be free

    • Hah! I never realised Americans were so concerned about the plight of the Scots. Maybe Braveheart really got to some folks.

      Yeah, as travellers or expats in other countries, we often find ourselves unofficial ambassadors for our home nation or nations. It’s an unpaid task, and at times inconvenient, but sometimes it can generate wonderful conversation when talking with the right people.

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