Years ago, on a long distance train ride in India, I asked a young man sitting next to me if he’d ever traveled to the United States. He mentioned a 48-hour layover in Los Angeles so I inquired about his sightseeing — imagining a whirlwind tour of the La Brea Tar Pits and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I stayed in the airport,” he said, “I was afraid of getting shot.”
This very violent month in Seattle has me remembering that conversation as I’ve been preparing to teach a class about American journalism to a group of South Asian students visiting the University of Washington.
In the three weeks it’s taken me to finalize my syllabus two young men were shot and killed on Capitol Hill (one of them, Dwone Anderson-Young, was a recent graduate of the UW Department of Communication where I teach), a shooter at Seattle Pacific University killed one student and wounded two more, and a man was charged with threatening to shoot women on the UW campus and elsewhere.
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As all this horror hit the news I wondered about the international students arriving this week to start their program: Did they know about these recent tragedies? Were they scared? What did they think about coming to a country where the threat of gun violence seems increasingly normal?
“We read about it in the news and my mother freaked out,” says Medha Kohli, 19, of India, referring to the SPU shooting, “We knew that shootings are pretty common at universities in America but then it was happening in Seattle; that was very scary for my mother.”
Kohli and her classmates have grown up watching American school shootings on TV and they casually rehashed some of the bigger ones (“the one with the kindergarten students,” “Adam Lanza,” “Virginia Tech”) while navigating new American breakfast foods (Tater Tots are popular, reconstituted scrambled eggs are not).
There are a lot of stereotypes about guns in America clearly perpetuated by Hollywood, from the ubiquitous handgun in the bedside drawer (one student, from Nepal, assumes all Americans have one of these) to references to “cowboy movies.”
But stereotypes aside, there’s genuine confusion about why guns are so easy to access in the United States.
“We don’t see these kinds of things happen in South Asian countries,” says Dipendra K.C. (who never spells out his last name to avoid revealing his caste). K.C., 24, is from Nepal — a country where guns are tightly controlled by the government.
There’s a moment of thought before his classmate, Simran Bhui, 20, of India, pipes up to add: “We have other kinds of terrorism.”
Bhui’s use of the word to describe gun violence in America momentarily stunned me and seemed extreme. But it got me thinking about how our sense of fear and awareness of risk is heightened when traveling. It also got me wondering if I’ve become desensitized to violence. Maybe Americans are being terrorized by gun violence.
“You do think of it,” says Thilini Kahandawaarachchi, 31, of Sri Lanka, describing her decision to become a graduate student of international studies at the University of Washington. “It has happened in so many universities, in so many schools and it keeps on happening . … So it’s one of the things that are talked about.”
UW recruiters often hear about concerns over guns in America, says Kim Lovaas, associate director for International Admissions at the UW.
“Safety and gun violence is a general question, especially in countries where guns are outlawed,” says Lovaas. “I’ve been doing this 14 years and have probably been asked [about this] every time.”
Lovaas is quick to point out — to me and to prospective students — that violent crime on the UW campus is low and that students should be more concerned with theft.
The South Asian students I spoke with had mixed opinions regarding whether the threat of gun violence would color their time in the U.S.
But K.C. says it won’t be on his mind at all.
“I won’t be thinking about it because I’m not used to the idea that someone will suddenly come up to me and shoot me,” he explains.
Hopefully, someday American students will be able to say the same.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeaStute