American news hits home in Prague

by Kiana Duncan

When difficult, tragic or controversial news breaks in America, how does it feel to be a student abroad -- especially when new peers look to you to explain your country? CCI senior Kiana Duncan, now finishing her semester abroad at Anglo-American University in Prague, offers her perspective.

This semester, another mass shooting in Texas occurred, and was followed by smaller, horrible gun attacks around the United States.

In times like these I’m reminded what it felt like to be living in Italy, thousands of miles from home, during the election a year ago today. I remember watching my roommates cry in class as we all struggled to understand that the country we were going back to in such a short time differed greatly from the one we had left. Mostly, I remember feeling so far away; farther than I had ever felt before. I didn’t just feel physically displaced, I felt emotionally distant from the millions of Americans who decided that a man who once bragged about sexual assault belonged in the Oval Office.

I’m finding similar feelings now. And I’m finding it harder every day to understand how to represent the American population in the classroom, in my residence and on a global scale. Do I represent every American? Not by a long shot. But every action we take, especially when far from home where we are the minority, creates an image of what an American looks like.

I answer questions and hear comments, no matter where I am in the world, that make me think critically, make me cringe, and often times, humble me:

“America seems like the place where you can do whatever you want.”

“So you’re American. Do you carry a gun? Do you have one right now? Does your family have guns? Have you ever shot one?”

“Are you scared of getting shot?”

“Did you vote for Donald Trump?”

“America is the most divided country on earth.”

What I am grasping from Czech culture, and from many other European cultures, is that it’s difficult to understand what it’s like to have guns so at your disposal, and even harder for Europeans to grasp why we don’t just do something about it. It’s hard for us to understand, too. While I agree, I will say that the diversity of such a large country, along with our massive population, makes it difficult to agree on many issues. What I fear, however, is that we are growing numb to mass murder while other countries are not.

What’s more horrific than watching people die?

Watching a lot of people grow accustomed  to it.

Can we examine with fresh eyes a topic that has already happened far too many times in America?

I think we can.

A new person seeking to understand, week after week, in the classroom and on weekend trips, questioning and probing as to why all of this gruesome death is happening is extremely painful --  but it keeps me scared. It makes me stay disgusted. It doesn’t let me give into the heart-wrenching exhaustion of hearing the details of countless families that will never be the same again. It keeps me angry. It keeps me upset. Most of all, it keeps me aware.

No one likes to be upset. It’s troubling, to say the least, to keep up to date on how many more people died this week at a gunman’s hand. But speaking with people who are struggling to cope, just as I am, with the way our world seems to be growing used to gun violence keeps me active. Answering questions and participating in discussions in this global community helps me stay in touch and not take the easy way out of disconnecting with my home country, just because I am far away and it’s hard to watch your own people die in such needless violence. I am part of an intercultural community, and I have a place in it that community that I am still discovering every day. I am part of this discussion no matter where I am in the world, and silence is not an answer my country deserves, so I will continue to speak about it.

Our Place in the World

I struggled for a long time feeling ashamed of my nationality and succumbing to the rhetoric that we are an ignorant population. This is a challenge I think many Americans face. I’ve had conversations with hundreds of people representing dozens of countries, each more puzzled than the last: “We don’t hate Americans, I’m not sure why people think that.” It’s a perception  we give ourselves, and unfortunately, it ends as a self-fulfilling prophecy: “They already hate me, so why try?”

We need to move past our national insecurity and educate those who want to learn about American issues. There are horrible incidents that occur in the United States, and we have a lot of work to do before our country represents the best of and for our people. So how do we act as representatives? We stay informed. We listen.

We act and react respectfully when the values and issues of our country are challenged or misinterpreted. In a small group discussion class on sociolinguistics, I am the only American and native-English speaker in the class, and this often leads to many questions on language, culture, and news being asked directly to me, even by the professor. Some are spot-on observations of American culture; yet others are occasionally stereotypes or questions that could be taken offensively (However, these are not mutually exclusive). I’ve been asked everything from why we let people die if they cannot afford healthcare to politically correct ways to address minorities. It is far more beneficial for all involved to create an atmosphere of open discussion, rather than defensively and blindly arguing.

What we cannot do is live in fear of or in isolation from the rest of the world. We cannot continue to believe that other countries are more or less safe than our home country. We cannot play into the entitled idea that although we have had countless mass shootings, America still remains somehow better than our neighbors or any other country across the ocean.

I have many conversations with my family on the safety of me flying through Ukraine or Istanbul, visiting Israel, or on how cheap that plane ticket really was (read: how safe the plane is), that always leaves me giving the same response:  It’s all relative. Unfortunately, gun violence is a worldwide epidemic, but Americans and Europeans aren’t as far away from each other as we think.

Just this week, I was informed of an event on Friday called (translated) Albert’s Remembrance of November 17th. I was discussing my home university in class, when a classmate recognized the name, Kent State, from the May 4th shootings.

“It’s the same!” my professor said, handing me a paper with the headline Albertov.

A student was shot 28 years ago while protesting for democracy in the Czech Republic, and now the day is remembered as one for academia, students, and vocal citizens to take part in government. Now, on Fight for Freedom Day, citizens and students especially celebrate the fall of communism with music, activism and speeches from public leaders.

For as much time as I’ve spent in the classroom here, I’ve had so many moments outside the university that have taught me the value of sharing ideas and connecting with others as more than my nationality, more than my home country’s successes and failures. We’re all global citizens here, and national news is seen as an opportunity to discuss and learn, rather than to judge.

It’s an ongoing education, and I will never stop being an avid student of the world.