“Bang bang” go our kids’ guns in Japan. “Ban ban,” in katakana, goes their imagination as they shoot invisible, stick or toy guns with no kickback, bullets or deadly consequences attached.
Across the Pacific in America, in the shadow of yet another horrific school shooting, there’s a whole different mood and conversation, as young people there seek to focus the nation on preventing any more bloodshed.
U.S. mass shootings are woven into the time line of my 10 years in Japan — in kindergarten classrooms, movie theaters, anywhere there is people. “My America,” I cry inside, watching the news as I pour our coffee.
The rest of the world cannot understand America’s problem with guns. All of this hit home for me when yet another school shooting — one of the deadliest — occurred at my alma mater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in sunny Parkland, Florida.
I woke to the news on Thursday, Feb. 15. Nearly a month later, I still cannot believe it is my high school splashed all over the media.
I know the buildings and environs they show on the news. I feel it in the pit in my stomach as cameras pan over the freshman building and wide-open pavilions. This is where I ate lunch with friends and dawdled to class 21 years ago. It was another time, before the kind of mass school shootings we’ve come accustomed to since Columbine. This was a safe place. Our open campus reflected the freedom we felt.
Everything has changed.
I am far from the terror and the tearful coming-together in the aftermath. I am not with my sister, friends or fellow teachers for Parkland’s vigil. I will not accidentally bump into parents and community members who have lost a loved one — one of the 17.
I know the city so well, my car could probably drive itself to the local synagogues and churches with their memorial services and parents eulogizing their children. That is my home, though I am not there. I join the ever-growing Facebook group of nearly 12,000 alumni and see that a few of us live in Japan. I am far from Parkland, but I am engaging in gun talk and shining a light on what the kids are saying.
I am sure my view of Parkland and surrounding cities within my beloved South Florida needs updating; it has been a while. While there has been much growth, Parkland has retained its special small-town feel. It was even named Florida’s safest city prior to the shooting.
My brother-in-law has much to do with this, as a city commissioner beginning in 2006, later becoming state representative for Florida’s 97th District, which includes Coral Springs, the close neighbor nestled right up to Parkland. He is also a Douglas High alumnus, championing families and the community while fighting to enact better laws. I have taken comfort from seeing and hearing him interviewed, going to bat for the students, families and the wider community. It is all so close. It’s family.
Someone on social media challenged my credentials to comment this week. “What can you really know?” he asked. “What can you see from Japan — are you there watching it real-time?”
It is true that I was not with my sister when her heart jumped as undercover police officers drove into the school zone at breakneck speed. She had zero doubt: This was a school shooter.
I was not with her when she had to wait as my young nephew sat in his “code red” preschool lockdown because of the active shooter — a shooter who would kill the daughter of one of his teachers and rip apart the community.
I am not there now through 17 unbearable wakes, viewings and funerals, or in my car following a hearse bearing the body of a 14-year-old. I am not there to pay respects, to hear parents weep and wail, to serve food in tents, watch rival high schools march in solidarity, or sell tickets to the community concert to raise money for victims’ families.
I do not feel the collective tension of Douglas kids being called back for their first full day of school to face the media glare, therapy dogs and empty seats. Instead, I listen as CNN’s Anderson Cooper reads the names of each of the 14 kids, coach, athletic director and teacher whose lives were cut short. “We will remember,” I say with the thousands crying at the vigil.
I am here, in Japan, reconnecting with alumni scattered across the nation. I am here with the news, tweeting my little words to brave 15-year-olds who outlived their friends. I am here wondering what might be solid first steps to move forward from this tragedy.
I speak with my former teacher, who taught in the same freshman building to students in those same chairs. I grieve 14 hours ahead. Life is certainly real-time.
I find ways to stay keyed in and cut through the distance. I am glued to CNN’s live stream of the Douglas High town hall-style meeting on gun control, which has over 2.9 million viewers. I simultaneously watch, yelling support and frustration, while rapidly typing messages to fellow alumni and fellow digital viewers.
He is wrong about something, this person who told me I am not aware of real, unfolding news, who told me I do not live there, and therefore I cannot speak.
Japan is my adoptive home — it may even be the place where I spend the rest of my days — but I am still an American citizen; that is also my community and my high school. I am vested in ensuring that generations of children are not snuffed out due to terrible laws.
Just yesterday, in fact, I received my request for a ballot to vote from abroad. I actively seek change from my home here in Japan. Thanks to technology and relationships, it seems we can be the bridge between two very different worlds.
We who live abroad still are part of our hometown or birth nation. We continue to be shaped and affected by what goes on within its borders. We have a voice and a vote, if we choose.
I carry South Florida in my throat — it certainly feels that way these days. I have prayed through my own code red alarms (both the drill and the real thing) while teaching in South Florida. I have also taught students here, in a nation where guns are almost impossible to get hold of.
Those of us overseas, especially in gun-averse Japan, know life without fear of a shooter attacking our schools. We know concerts without anxiety and movie theaters where the only “bangs” are on-screen. Japan is not Eden, but in the wake of more devastation in America and what feels like hopeless, widespread proliferation of guns — with the insanity of AR-15 assault rifles being sold legally to 18-year-olds — well, it feels closer to it.
Our children sleep through a small tremor in the night. It’s over and we’re safe. They don’t even stir. Asked about guns, they know only water pistols and ¥100-store revolvers. This is a luxury, I think, to only know toys.
I want my nephews and niece in America to know freedom from guns too. Everyone’s children should be so innocent.
Yes, that school in the U.S. all over the news? It’s mine. But really, it could be any American’s.
Melissa Uchiyama writes about travel, education and culture, including raising multicultural kids; see www.melibelleintokyo.com/writing-projects. Twitter: @melibelletokyo. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan.
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