The State of the Union

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Normally, we are pretty disconnected from American news.  We watched the recent election hoopla with indifference, and stories of the American fiscal cliff quite frankly bore us to tears.   We know we should probably be more connected and interested in American politics since we will be rejoining the land of the free and the home of the brave in 18 months or so, but living abroad makes it pretty easy to be apathetic.

Or so we thought.

Watching the coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has been heart-rending.  As teachers and as parents, it has been sickening to think about what the families in the Newtown community are enduring right now.  Sometimes I feel like I’m watching my country bleed from too far away to do anything practical about it.

Normally, we are pretty disconnected from American news.  We watched the recent election hoopla with indifference, and stories of the American fiscal cliff quite frankly bore us to tears.   We know we should probably be more connected and interested in American politics since we will be rejoining the land of the free and the home of the brave in 18 months or so, but living abroad makes it pretty easy to be apathetic.

Or so we thought.

Watching the coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has been heart-rending.  As teachers and as parents, it has been sickening to think about what the families in the Newtown community are enduring right now.  Sometimes I feel like I’m watching my country bleed from too far away to do anything practical about it.

There are so many issues at play here:  mental health, gun control, school design and funding, the value our country places on life.  Like many of our friends back home in the States, Ric and I find ourselves in discussions about these issues, with the result being few very real and practical answers.  Both of us agree that, without some kind of substantive change, children in our country will continue to be murdered.

And then we leave our apartment here in Korea and go out into this city where we live, a city of four million that is so safe that children still walk themselves home from school and play on sidewalks unattended.  In Busan violent crime is so uncommon that my students were still talking about a murder committed in the next town over more than two months after the homicide–a crime of passion perpetrated by a jealous lover–had taken place.  This, in a city as large and as technologically advanced as LA.  At the same time as school murders in both China and the United States.

Korean children are just as cell-phone obsessed as their American counterparts.  They play the same violent video games, often for hours and hours at a time in PC rooms, and they are definitely obsessed with guns and violence.  Ric came across a group of GIRLS in one of his English classes watching a YouTube video of the beheading of a Russian soldier last week.  Almost all Korean children receive martial arts training during their childhood.  Children are very physical, and hitting each other is as common as a high five among them.  All Korean men complete two years of mandatory military service, receiving advanced training with weapons.  There is no shortage of violence in Korean culture.

Suicide is also a big issue in Korea.  There are signs all over local parks and cliffs urging people not to do it.  There are websites linking people (mostly students) who have contemplated suicide.  Recently, three Korean teenage girls killed themselves by jumping off a building in Busan during the city’s annual fireworks festival.  In fact, Korea and Japan both struggle with issues of teen suicide and have been piloting government programs to help halt it.

However, there are a couple of key legislative differences here.  First, guns are illegal.  Only police officers and soldiers have them, and the guns they carry out in public are tiny little handguns.  Additionally, Korea has universal health care for citizens and resident aliens.  Doctor’s appointments are easy to get, and even complex procedures like CAT scans are relatively cheap. In addition, citizens can visit specialists like chiropractors and acupuncturists without a referral, and these services are also covered by insurance.

There are more cultural differences.  Most middle class Korean families can live comfortably on one income, which means moms can afford to stay at home and raise their kids.  The culture has its roots in Buddhism, which emphasizes how your actions affect others and affect you in the next life.  Etiquette is still taught in schools–not as part of some hokey character education program, but as a way of being that is essential to living in such a populous and crowded society.  In general, children spend more time studying, reading, and being physically active instead of watching TV.  The culture doesn’t consume nearly the amount of fast food we do–though this is changing, particularly in the younger generation.

Maybe it’s some magic bullet combination of these factors that keeps violent crime relatively low in South Korea.  Maybe it’s the fact that this culture still values the elderly and LOVES children, probably more than any other group of people I’ve ever seen.  Maybe, as Ric is wont to remind me, it’s the relative cultural homogeneity that encourages civil behavior.  After all, Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous cultures in the world–there are only 111 Korean surnames in the country, a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of Koreans.  They literally are all one family.

I’m not advocating revoking the 2nd Amendment here.  I have no problem with responsible gun owners possessing whatever type of weapon they desire to own.  But I confess I’m not sure how to keep guns out of the hands of people who can’t handle them responsibly, who desire to harm others.  I’m not advocating universal health care, although I will testify that the system here is pretty convenient and definitely encourages overall wellness.  But something needs to be done about health care–particularly mental health care–in this country. And I’m certainly not advocating any type of religious conversion as a panacea for American social woes.

But I am saying we need to transform ourselves as a society.  We need to assess what elements of our culture encourage violent reactions.  We need to figure out what fills increasing numbers of people with so much rage and hate that they seek to destroy others.  We need to identify and correct security gaps in our public schools.  I think that saying we need to increase or ban guns is a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t deal with the real problems at hand.  America is becoming a society that produces killers, and heated discussion about what to do isn’t going to fix anything.  We are in need of thoughtful, coordinated action.  A public school should be one place in our nation where EVERY child–regardless of his or her race, beliefs, background, religion, or sexual orientation–is safe.  And maybe, just maybe, an essential part of this process is examining what other countries do differently to prevent these atrocities.

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