Wednesday, June 11, 2014

expat perspective: a new normal


Usually I do not write about topics like this but after two weeks of repetitive tragedies in the United States due to gun violence, it's been a constant topic of conversation in my office and something that is impossible to ignore, even from an ocean away.

Local Taiwanese teachers and parents wonder: what is going on in America and is it safe?

They have a right to wonder. After all, 99 percent of our students go to college in America.

But all I can do is shrug my shoulders in the face of their questions and concerns.

We, the Americans on staff, try to explain that the events that recently unfolded in Seattle, Santa Barbra and Portland are not surprising or shocking.

We are used to it.

We expect it.

As teachers in America, we are trained for the eventuality of it. 

We're taught to lock the doors, turn off the lights, cover the windows and huddle our silent students under their desks or in a corner while trying to remain calm and reassuring.

Some teachers have even been trained to disarm gun men and some now legally carry weapons in their classrooms.

It's the American norm and regardless of what people say or think, it has been for a while.

I grew up in the era of Columbine and remember my father telling me over dinner at the dinner table to zig-zag run or drop and play dead if I ever heard gunshots at school.

Then, from my very first day of teaching in America, I was prepared for the possibility that someone on a murderous rampage would come to my school building with the intent to kill my kids and me. Safety experts came to our staff meetings to go over possible scenarios and how to best respond.

All I could remember thinking the first time I sat through such a meeting is: I am here to teach kids about literature and grammar and spelling. Why am I doing training that people in the army or police force do? This.is.wrong.

But it was my norm so I did it and it is still the American norm so that is what teachers do and those are conversations parents have over dinner while seated at the family dinner table.

After living abroad, I see the acceptance of this for what it is and was: inexcusable insanity.

And now, after two years living outside of America and traveling the world extensively, I can say with confidence: it is not normal and other people do not live this way. 

And luckily, I have had two years in Taiwan to rewrite my norm as a teacher, woman and fellow society member.

And I have.

I live in a country where gun ownership is illegal.
I live in a country where schools have no concept of lock down drills or intruder drills.
I live in a country where my classrooms have sliding glass doors that lock at the end of the day with literal chains and hanging locks.
I live in a country where violent crime is extremely rare and mass murder is nearly unheard of.
I live in a country where everyday, regardless of the time or my location, I feel safe.
Even alone.

I live in a country where the concept of teachers being trained to fight off gunmen is viewed as absurd and insane.
As it should be. 

And I live in a country that has proven to me that the U.S. is not normal.
It is not okay.
Are there other countries out there in similar situations?
Sure.
But it is not the way things have to be.
It is not our only option.

Our kids could go to school and be safe.
We could go to shopping malls, restaurants and movie theaters and be safe.
We could walk down the street and be safe.

Being an expat, especially in Taiwan, has given me new perspective on the world and on lifestyles and on choices.

We could choose to be different.

But in the meantime, I will simply feel lucky that I, a middle school English and social studies teacher, can go to work without fear of violent crime because so many of my teacher friends and so many of your children cannot do the same back home.



10 comments

  1. YES to this. I'm not a teacher in the States, so I never thought of whether teachers were "trained" to fight gunmen. . .but it makes sense given the whole culture of insanity. It's baffling how the even the thought of stricter gun laws causes such conflict here. I always felt so safe, no matter where I was in South Korea/China - now that I'm home, I think twice about walking around by myself late at night in certain areas.

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    1. The more I think about my experience teaching in the US, the more incredulous I become about the things I accepted about my job. Even more so, the more flabbergasted I am that parents send their kids to school and hope that nothing happens because that's the best they can do. It makes me so sad. My kids here go to school without fear and parents send their kids to school without fear. Why can't we create that for our kids??

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  2. Wow that was very well written! While I am not American and didn't even realise it was this bad with the 'training' to disarm gunmen, etc. I had heard of the reputation and also found it very abnormal. While I can understand why teachers are trained like that, etc. it also makes you realise what a sad reality it is! Thank you for sharing this!

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    1. It absolutely is abnormal. I am a 5'2" petite lady and somehow I was supposed to be responsible for the same kind of work as trained, fit police officers. Me. A school teacher. It still blows my mind that someone would look at me and think, "Yup, part of her job could be fighting off an armed intruder". That's part of the reason I moved abroad. Here, in Taiwan, my job is pretty cut and dry: teach.

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  3. Excellent post! My husband is a teacher and all of these shootings (the one in Sandy Hook isn't far from where I'm from) have really made me worry about us eventually moving back to the US and him teaching here. This shouldn't be something we worry about!

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    1. I really, truly believe there is a cause for concern. If we ever move back home, I have sworn to myself that I will not participate in the insanity. I will never again teach in a school in America. No way, no how.

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  4. Oh wow, I had no idea teachers had actual training for these types of situations. Great post! It is absurd that this is the norm and that it is necessary. Around the same time, Canada (and Vancouver surprisingly) has had a number of violet gun related incidents as well which is so unusual. My Hungarian boyfriend thinks it's all too crazy.

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    1. Yes. The training was as specific as this:
      "A kid passes you a note saying Little Johnny has a gun in his backpack. What do you do?
      Option A: Say that, Oops, you forgot about a presentation in the library and start sending rows of kids down to the library leaving the row with the potential gunmen last and in the class with you. Send one of the first rows to leave with a note for the librarian so she can notify the office and then..."
      C-R-A-Z-Y.

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  5. Very well said!

    After four years of teaching abroad, I feel the same way as you about the situation in the US regarding gun control and violence in schools. I hope that if I ever go back to teaching in the US there will have been some major changes.

    -Amanda at http://teachingwanderlust.com/

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