I had a really weird experience here in Antwerp last week; an experience that left me shaken. And the funny thing, it was the most mundane thing, the most casual conversation, that has left this heavy guilty feeling weighing on my conscious.
I am never more aware of being an American than when I go abroad. People are usually able to pick it up as soon as I open my mouth. Just the other day the man at the tram stop started talking to me speedy Dutch urgently pointing at my shoes.
"Sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet zo goed" I told him apologetically, absolutely clueless about what he was trying to tell me.
"You're American?" He asks. I told him yes. He continued to inform me, in English, that my choice of sandals was bad for my knees and going to give me back problems when I was older. I thanked him for the advice and the boarded the tram.
These encounters are not uncommon. I went to a shop to buy a pair of tennis shoes because I had forgot to pack a pair for my trip, and despite asking in Dutch if they had a particular pair in size 38, the man answered, in English, "yes, we have that in a US 6. Let me go get that for you." Such experience remind me that I am so obviously American, and what I say and do will either affirm or reshape someone's perspective on the American people.
So when Hale*, a man from Pakistan, asked me what part of the U.S. I was from, even though I hadn't told him I was American, it really didn't surprise me. The two of us made small talk outside a sandwich shop about the Dutch course we were both enrolled in for a while until I asked him "What brings you to Belgium?"
He shrugged as we walked along the side walk back towards class. "I'm seeking asylum," he informed me. I had no idea how to respond to that. So I tried to keep things casual and just asked him how long he had been in Belgium.
He then asked me if I knew how many people were on record as having been killed by the CIA drones in Pakistan. I usually dread talking politics with people outside of the U.S. because it's too polarizing. I don't tell my best friend who I voted for the presidential elections, why would I tell a total stranger? At times people have called me an ignorant American because I feign disinterest or ignorance, but this time I didn't have to fake it -- I truly didn't know. The only thing I did know with any certainty was that whatever number is the official word of my government, it was probably significantly lower than the truth, and I told him as such.
He very casually said to me "3,600 people have died on record, but 36,000 civilians have died as a result of the bomb blasts." I was stunned. That's the roughly the population of my university. But what really unsettled me was that he wasn't accusatory or confrontational, just so very matter of fact, as if he expected my ignorance. I am more bothered by my ignorance than the facts he gave me.
I didn't know how many people died in Pakistan, but I can tell you how many people died in the Virgina Tech Shooting of 2007 (32) and tell you how many people died in the Aurora shooting this year (12** with 70+ injured). This is probably because Virgina Tech and Aurora happened in the U.S. rather than abroad. Three men are being hailed as heroes from the Aurora shooting because they saved the lives of the girlfriends, but how many fathers, brothers, boyfriends, mothers, sisters have done similar in Pakistan?
A blog entry from one of the fallen Aurora victims, Jessica Gawi, who narrowly escaped another shooting the month before wrote:
'I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening.'
I see so many people stating things like "my heart goes out to all the families who lost someone in Aurora" or "putting a face to the tragedy puts it in perspective" on Facebook and other social media sites, but what perspective do the American people have for the war going on in Afghanistan or Pakistan? It's not covered by the media the way the Vietnam war was covered. Please believe me when I say that Aurora was a tragedy and those that lost their lives should be remembered; it is just my hope that people do not forget that people are losing their lives every day because the actions of our government. Are you aware of what it going on in these countries, or have we been embroiled in this conflictt so long that it's like a nagging mother telling you to do the dishes when you're watching tv?I know it was just some background knowledge that really didn't affect my life, except for worrying about the occasional friend in the armed forces. Are you aware of Obama's "kill list"? Are you aware that even American citizen on this "kill list"? I wasn't until I started doing more research on our current foreign standings.
I am bothered that I did not the death toll count of the war my country is embroiled in. I am disturbed with the fact that I am probably not the only one. I feel guilty by association for actions I had no hand in and no voice to object with as I was too young to vote when this started. And I am truly angry by the fact that Obama says the war on terror is over and that he promised to be out of Afghanistan and shut down Guantanamo by end of his term, but none of it has really truly happened. The domestic and economic situation in the US is consistently getting worse and we are borrowing millions of dollars to fund a war we can't really win.
The US may have changed its definition of civilian so that the body count seems lower, but thousand still die as a direct result of the decisions made by the U.S. government. What will it take for the American populace to put this into perspective? When we will we learn to value all life equally as sacred and precious and not just those lives on domestic soil?
Hale said to me that in Pakistan America is portrayed as the country's "Frienemy," but when you meet an American it's a totally different story. I did not have the courage to ask which story I told -- I hope it was a friendly one.
*Apologies to my Pakistani friend, I have no idea how to spell the nickname you gave me.
**Apologies to previous readers, I heard about the aurora shootings while here in Belgium and I suppose I misunderstood the Dutch report. Facts have been corrected.