As the only soldier on base here who grew up in the United States, some of the most frequent questions I get asked by my peers are
“Isn’t America dangerous?”
“Doesn’t everyone have a gun there?”
“Have any of your friends ever been shot?”
I was admittedly rather taken aback by these inquiries at first, since I was fortunate enough to live in a quiet Jersey suburb and go to school without ever having to worry about my safety. As a relatively meek Asian-American student, I was also lucky enough not to have ever experienced any form of racism or racial profiling. For a long time, these were issues that I had never given due consideration.
A View from Abroad
Living outside the United States for the first time in thirteen years, this past year exposed me to a completely different perspective. Hearing these baffling questions from my peers made me realize that, sadly, this is the impression of America that many people across the world may get.
You could brush this off as ignorance, sure, but is it really?
From 9:00 to 9:30 PM here every day, all soldiers are required to watch the news. In the past several months alone, the biggest news about the U.S. has been entirely about mass shootings. Some of my friends here have even told me that they’d never travel to the States because they’re afraid they’d face racism or get shot. Whether or not that’s likely, in light of recent events, can you blame them for worrying?
Think about this: I am currently residing in a country where regular policemen are prohibited from carrying firearms. Bear in mind, this is a country that requires twenty-one months of compulsory military service for all male citizens over eighteen. That means almost EVERY man in this country has learned how to shoot an assault rifle, handled bullets, and, technically speaking, learned how to kill. And yet, not even most POLICEMEN are allowed to carry guns. So, from the Korean perspective, you can imagine why the tremendous violence happening across the world is both horrifying and perplexing.
When people ask me what I miss most about America, my answer is always the same: its diversity. The United States exposed me to people of all cultures and backgrounds, and I truly believe it’s been my single greatest privilege: to meet and befriend people whose ancestry hails from every corner of the world, and to admire and respect everyone’s differences. This is, I believe, what makes America truly special. When I say I’m from the United States, THIS is the impression that I want to give to people like my army friends.
Unfortunately, it still seems we’ve got a long way to go.
It’s 2016, for fuck’s sake.
No more racial discrimination. No more police brutality. No more mass shootings.
Please stay safe, everyone.
Kang Lee is a South Korean student at Harvard and is currently on leave to complete his compulsory military service