This article was originally published by Korean Quarterly (print).
“Teacher, you own a gun?”
“No, but I know many people that do. Some are family and friends,” I say.
A collective “really?” echoes within my tiny fourth-floor classroom in Daechi, Seoul.
It’s about 4 p.m., the beginning of English class at a private after-school academy. Another student quietly doodles his classmate with blonde Trump-styled hair.
“Why?” he asks.
At that moment, I know that I could never begin to answer that question, especially to an 11-year-old Korean boy with intermediate English skills. But even after ruminating, my answer now is the same as it was then.
“I don’t know.”
In December 2016, I moved from Tampa, Florida, to teach English in South Korea. Since I moved, I’ve skirted the current political climate under the Trump administration, but I’ve seen the headlines from back home and the families fighting each other on Facebook.
Here in Korea, there are very strict gun-control laws. Buying or selling a gun could get you thrown in prison for 10 years. And if you do have a hunting license, you must store your gun at a local police station. As a result, gun-related crime in South Korea is almost non-existent. Per 100,000 South Korean inhabitants, the gun-related homicide rate was at 0.0 last year.
Most of the updates from the U.S. have been difficult to digest 7,500 miles away, but news of multiple shootings, like Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and now Parkland have become especially foreign to me.
Should I feel angry? Why don’t I feel angry? Am I numb?
These ruminations usually result in a feeling of anger stemming from a lack of initial anger, which culminates in a kind of second-rate exasperated sigh.
Every day is another headline from the U.S.: Torch-bearing Neo-Nazis. Trump makes inflammatory remarks toward [insert name here]. Super storms. Nuclear missiles. Mass shootings. President hurls paper-towel three pointers at hurricane victims. Mass shooting. Immigration. Russia. Mass shooting. Rinse. Repeat.
Each headline sounds more and more foreign to me.
The truth is that I feel safer now, even walking home alone at 11 p.m. — less than 50 miles from the North Korean border – than I ever did in the U.S. I don’t ever feel the threat of being robbed or shot. While Korea is not crime-free, there is very little of the kind of street crime typical of U.S. cities. When it does occur, it’s the gun-free variety.
And even in the midst of hostility between the Trump administration and Kim Jong-un that could result in nuclear war, Seoul residents don’t seem fearful of a military invasion.
In late August 2017, as a part of the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military drills, joint U.S. and South Korean forces simulated an attack by North Korea at 2 p.m. on a weekday. These drills have been ongoing for more than 40 years.
On my walk to work that day, I see an ajumma (or old-enough-to-be-married woman), sweeping the street in front of her steel pots and pans, stacked neatly on the sidewalk. Then, a young girl, riding a scooter on her way home from school. A McDonald’s delivery moped zips through a group of businessmen walking together during their lunch break.
Then the sirens blare. Drivers are supposed to stop and turn on the radio. The announcer implores everyone to seek the nearest shelter. The ajumma pauses for a moment and looks up. She bends over, picks up a piece of trash.
And she keeps sweeping.