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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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This Could Never Happen in China    

By Peter V
2320 Views | 9 Comments | 6/18/2016 1:24:01 PM

“This would never happen in China,” she said, and I had to admit she was absolutely right. Taking away citizens’ right to own a gun removes the possibility of mass killings in a society the same way that getting a vasectomy eliminates the possibility of becoming a father. Although I recall reading a year or so ago about a killing at a train station in Kunming where a guy with a knife killed 4 or 5 people, that scenario is light years from the killing of 50 and wounding of 53  that had just taken place at a nightclub in Orlando.

But of course Yong is doing much more here than making a simple statement of fact. Communication if tricky in any marriage, but especially so in an Asian/Western intercultural marriage. The Chinese communication style (which is true for Asians in general) is what cultural theorists call “high context.” The meaning of what is said is derived much more from the surrounding situation rather than what is actually stated. Americans, by contrast, have a “low context” communication style, where most of the meaning is explicitly stated (hence the reputation of Americans for being “direct”).

So while a statement of fact can sometimes be a statement of fact, in a “high context” culture a statement of fact can sometimes be so much more. In this case, there is an implied second half of this statement “This would never happen in China,” that goes something like “and you people are barbarians for having a society provides the conditions for such a tragedy.” 

Yong, like many Chinese, like much of the rest of the world, does not understand the American fascination with firearms. Despite the fact that I share her confusion on this point and agree with many of her criticisms, my instinct is to defend my country, the way you will stand up for a brother who you may have just given a wedgie to if bullies assault him. However, such a stance is detrimental in an intercultural relationship, which calls for understanding and not indictment, assurances of mutual respect rather than assertions of superiority. Engaging in a competition of cultures is an especially dangerous path for an intercultural relationship to go down. The political all too quickly can become personal, creating an animosity that is hard to resolve.

Actually, we are both pretty good at this process of wanting to understand rather than condemn each other’s culture, though admittedly we don’t always follow the better angels of our nature. When this happens, one partner usually brings the conversation back to the level of curiosity rather than recrimination.

And this is what I try to do now as I attempt to explain (not defend) the American attitude towards gun ownership. The best explanation I have seen comes from the historian Frederick Jackson Turner and his classic 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a relatively short work I would recommend to anyone who wants to understand the American character. According to Jackson, the formation of the nation, in particular the constant westward movement into unsettled territory, "furnished the forces dominating the American character."  In this process, Americans found themselves having to revert again and again to a near primitive state of nature—a state where the kill or be killed instinct was required for survival.  The “Wild West” really was wild.  The desire for a firearm is a natural response to such a situation.   

Even once a region was settled something of this primitive attitude remained. Hence, this sense of being in the state of nature, what Hobbes called the war of all against all where life is “nasty, brutish and short,” is never far removed from the American consciousness and accounts for, among other things, the lore of the gun and its place in the American psyche.

“I see,” Yong says, thinking for a second and then adding:  “Americans are closer to nature than Chinese.”

That’s a good way to look at it, I reflect.  Chinese society developed in a much more communal manner, and so the suspicion of one’s neighbor and of one’s government that are characteristics of the American consciousness never really took hold in China.This is enough to cover in one day and importantly it gets us on the road to a mutual understanding.

But this is not all of the story.

For if gun ownership is the norm in America today, there is nothing normal about the current attitude towards gun in our society, which I think instead can correctly be described as a pathology. The desire to own a gun for self-defense has no logical connection to the desire to own 100 guns, or a gun that can shoot hundreds of rounds a minute such as the Sig Sauer MCX that was used in the Orlando massacre. Even Ronald Reagan, the hero of American conservatives, declared there was no rational basis for a private citizen to own an assault rifle.

In fact, the current attitude about guns in America is a relatively recent development and can I think be linked to the extremism that has infected all aspects of American life. A political system set up to require compromise has evolved into a nation that rejects the very concept. As a result, we cannot pass common sense regulations on guns even though poll after poll shows this is precisely what the American people want.

So as a nation I believe we have gone off the rails on this issue. Moreover, both of the people currently running for president only exacerbate the situation. Donald Trump embodies this national insanity while Hilary Clinton evokes it.  As a result, I despair of my nation moving in a more balanced direction on this or any other issue.

But this is a conversation Yong and I will have on another day.

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#2016-06-18 14:38:51 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Peter, as a Canadian I grew up in a country with moderate but firmly policed gun control. I think that in recent years it has become less moderate and perhaps a little stifling, but for me it has always made sense. I have one caveat on my belief that gun control is a necessity, and that caveat is becoming more and more important in my mind, but I'll get to that in a moment.

You and your fellow Americans talk about the Wild West and how necessary it was in that atmosphere to have a gun. But I beg to differ. I suggest to you that the main reason the Wild West in America was so wild is because every knot head on every corner was carrying a handgun, and ready to use it.

In Canada, which was also developing its Wild West at the same time as America,the NorthWest Mounted Police, which would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the Mounties), was formed in 1873 and initially composed of 200 men. Those 200 men were assigned the task of keeping the peace over the entire western half of Canada, which is an incredibly large tract of land for 200 men to police.

Among many other issues they were to deal with was the enforcement of the law against handguns being carried about and the careful watch for armed American roughians acting out in any untoward manner. They also had to police the ongoing migration of native American tribes back and forth across the border.

Amazingly, they managed to do this job very well and with very few serious incidents occurring over the history of Canada's Wild West, which was not nearly so wild as yours at all.

Handguns were allowed only for the defence of house and home, and were not to be carried off a person's own property. Hunting rifles and shotguns ("long guns") were free to be carried by anyone in public solely the purpose of hunting, and otherwise to be left at home.

I remember as a youth when we would cross over into Montana and instantly see pickup truck after pickup truck with 3 or 4 rifles mounted in the cab back window. It was always a shock. In Canada we'd have paid a substantial fine for carrying our hunting rifles around on public display, and for carrying them at all if not on an obvious hunting trip.

Of course, over time, as hunting has ceased to be a part of life for people, most Canadians have gotten rid of their guns, seeing them as a potential accidental death in the making, as opposed as a necessary tool for self defence.

Fast forward to 1992 when I arrived in Los Angeles for an intended 2 year course of study at UCLA. It was late April and I got there just in time to witness the city during the Rodney King Riots.

But even before that, on the way into LA from the LAX Airport, one of the first things I saw was huge billboard that was noting the number of homicides by handgun in America compared to Canada for the year 1992. At that time the number for Canada was 7 and for the US was 2,500 (a little more but I forget the exact number).

Now based on population, if Canada had 7 murders, then the US number should have been 70. I suggest that speaks loudly about the effectiveness of moderate gun controls.

And again, I believe our history strongly suggests that your Wild West did not create the psychological need to own a firearm felt by almost all American males, it was the already ensconced psychological need to own a firearm that caused your Wild West to be so wild.

My caveat to all this is that I do believe that when a government of any nation decides to declare Martial Law, to desert democracy and to start brutally imposing its will on its own citizens, the only thing that might hold it back is the knowledge that about 3/4ths of its citizens, when fired upon, are going to be ready, willing and able to fire back.

Unfortunately I suspect that America is going to experience such an event sometime in the next 10 years or so, but I sure hope I am wrong.

#2016-06-18 17:11:26 by WarmLifeGz7 @WarmLifeGz7

As an American ... and as one has lived in the great Pacific Northwest .. very close to Vancouver as well .. I will definitely side with John on this issue ... However, I was raised in a household with more than a dozen rifles ( later as an adult I purchased my own handgun as well as a rifle for target practice in the forests of the foothills of Mt. Baker or Mt. Rainier or even in the city of Portland to travel out into the forests ) As a kid and as a teenager I went with my father hunting every year in the Cascades (a mountain range ) Although I never shot any deer most likely because of the position or setting my father set up for me -- maybe -- or the deer simply never came my way . My father always got his limit and never more -- although there was always the prevalent slaughter of many "does" by hunting guides allowing their clients to mercilessly kill whatever was in the way of getting that one buck . Thus from primary school upwards I was in the midst of rifle toting and gun toting individuals . My father always supported the State Fish and Game dept. as well (unless there was some political infighting which americans seem to have a love for) . There are considerable amount of deaths from someone playing around with loaded weapons as well. The so called Wild West could be viewed by various angles and probably some of it is more legendary or fit for Hollywood like scenarios than what actually transpired . The gold rush ...various other social scenarios do bring about any fascinating comparison between what both writers wrote above . I have been in Vancouver and the ocean area near it too many times and Blaine is the border town with zillions of cars zooming in each direction . It would be fascinating to observe how many weapons are carried by the americans in contrast to the canadians --- there are zillions of canadians who travel into Whatcom County by the way until the monetary exchange changed enough. Recently, Texans are allowed to carried handguns in public as well . In two cities near the border there are several sporting goods shops that sell hundreds of rifles and handguns as well as semi-automatics plus I imagine since I have left there -- most likely many more kinds . Could it be a dysfunctional social mindset to seek to "use" these rifles, handguns or AR-15 or more advanced or powerful weapons??? A dysfunctional psychological profile ?? My father was very strict and spent an inordinate amount of time training each of his children to learn how to clean, inspect, use and most of all RESPECT how to handle these rifles that were easily accessed via a closet in the hall. If he ever caught any of his children even attempting to "pretend" or "play" with these rifles then he would suddenly transform into the Hulk ... which resulted in wrath for whoever tried it ... albeit temporarily . This also applied to toy rifles that were more realistic than simple plastic squirt guns as well . As an adult I joined others with realistic weapons that were converted into shooting bb's -- even paintball hurts enough .. In the USAF I had to observe and train as well with AR-15, shotguns and handguns. Could the mentality of those who assert their "personal rights" for smoking or drinking alcoholic drinks (here in Gz there are too many who drink and smoke in the face of anyone while in Spas or KTV) or those who are involved with taking narcotic drugs... or "road rage" -- these phenomena might have some similarity to having assertive "personal rights" for toting handguns in public as well as ownership of other weapons -- or unfortunately acquiring these weapons for the expressed purpose to terminate the lives of other people --
-------- I certainly do not tell other people they cannot smoke or drink or use narcotic drugs -- however, when does the issue of "personal rights" allow others to aggressively violate the arena of people who do not ???? Perhaps, my father's persistent strict training to have RESPECT for others and how to properly handle weapons of any kind (including hunting knives etc.. ) might be the key ... Laws seem to be rather ineffective at times within the arena of "personal rights" that aggressively threaten others ... B.C. British Columbia sits between Alaska the the lower Western states ... Thus attempting to state that there was a Wild West in Wash. Ore. and Calf. with Alaska -- so there was a good reason for people back then to use weapons indiscriminately -- seems to be " a legend in its own mind " compared and contrasted to what transpired in B.C. which has mostly the same terrain and settings ... Of course this is only my perspective and surely there are lots of NRA or others who would aggressively disagree with me ... :o;);)

#2016-06-18 22:21:56 by Anniehow @Anniehow

The approach you adopted in this conversation is commendable. It does provide an alternative perspective on American mindset on gun ownership. A fresh reading, especially compared with "mud-throwing" atmosphere lately ;)

Despite the commonly acknowledged high-low context culture distinctions, there is some complexity in the cultural norms. The Chinese are infamous for being direct or blunt in terms of commenting on others' appearance and giving unsolicited advice, which is often avoided in Western cultures.

One story that will always stick in my memory is about our beloved Cicada, a cat I had with my American roommate. We brought her home when she was so young and skinny. Before we knew it, she grew into a happy, biggish cat. I couldn't help my Chinese instinct and commented one day, " Oh Gosh, Cicada has gained weight!" Unexpectedly, my dear roommate got offended. I had always known to steer clear of topics about people's weight with Americans but it took me by surprise pets were no exception.

Not to mention Chinese grandma's comments on baby's clothing, why you are single or do not have children on top of how much you earn every month...

I am inclined to think it is a heritage from a communal society. With more mobility and exposure to different lifestyles, it seems that China is getting more " high-context" in this regard.

When it comes to conflicts and dissatisfaction, the Chinese tend to be more indirect. When one party totally disregard the other's face, something is seriously wrong and probably unredeemable.

#2016-06-19 07:26:13 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

Guns aren't bad; people are.

#2016-06-19 07:47:57 by melcyan @melcyan

Congratulations Peter. You have given us a glimpse of what needs to happen with our partner before the words "you are wrong" come from our lips.

#2016-06-21 03:22:23 by anonymous15111 @anonymous15111

I will never forget the time I was in Arizona in 2004 visiting my then bro and sis in law, we were driving on the main highway from downtown Phoenix heading back to Mesa, I was warned by both of them to never look into another car with darkened windows, I asked why and they said you will more than likely get shot at and they were both quite serious. I asked why looking into another car would cause this, their exact words were as follows "there are so many gang members (thousands) on the highways looking for a reason to shoot, they consider it a challenge if you look into their car windows while driving." I thought this was absurd mentality but I came to realize this was true, so many murders on the highways being reported on the daily news and in the newspapers. Every day and night you would see shotup cars and lifeflights buzzing all day long. I have not been back since...The same occurrences happened while I was in Miami, Texas, New Mexico, New York.

I agree with Paul, it is not guns which are bad it is the people.

Whilst in China I have seen many, many road rage fights and many fights on buses and subway, women and men not just men. Haven't seen guns but my gf assured me they are present...


#2016-06-21 15:56:59 by anonymous15114 @anonymous15114

We all seem to agree that there are a lot a bad people in the world and that there are also a lot of stupid people in the world. Doesn't it make sense to adopt measures that will make it very difficult for guns to get in their hands?

#2016-06-22 07:18:15 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@Johnabbot: An article in the most recent issue of the New Yorker ("Making a Killing") has caused me to change my mind on the thesis that the Wild West instilled the current gun mania in the American mind. It shows that the current attitudes toward gun ownership are a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1937, the head of the National Rifle Association declared the use of guns "should be sharply restricted and only under licenses," and in 1967 the hardly screaming liberal governor of California Ronald Reagan declared that he saw "no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons." Hence, while I now agree with you that the "Wild West did not create the psychological need to own a firearm felt by almost all American males," it does not seem that the need to own a gun "was the already ensconced psychological need."This is a maybe four or five decade phenomenon, although I don't see any reason to be optimistic of it reversing its course.

#2016-06-22 07:26:09 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@paulfox1 & @anonymous15111: Your comments reinforce each other. Yes, guns are not bad, people are bad. But bad people can do a lot more damage with lax gun laws than without them. This is why so few people are killed in road rage incidents in China as compared to America, and why a mass murderer in China can kill maybe four or five people, not forty or fifty.
@Anniehow: Yes, this high context/low context distinction comes into play constantly Even though I am conscious of it, I still find myself getting in trouble as a result. I have mastered things like realizing that when my wife says, in response to where we should go out to eat, that "x is a nice place," this is not an expression of taste but something more like a direct command: "we should eat at x." But I am tripped up in other areas. More on this later
@Melcyan: True that

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