The first question teachers at my school asked me on Monday was about my weekend trip to the mountains of Pagaralam.
The second question they asked was about the school shooting in Connecticut.
“Did you hear the news in Cah-net-i-kah?” the technology teacher asked in broken English after shaking my hand before the start of the school’s weekly flag ceremony. He then pantomimed spraying bullets across the field with a large machine gun to better communicate his question.
I nodded, inwardly recoiling at his casual gesticulation, and offered the only words I could muster. “Yes, I heard. It is very sad.”
I knew I’d have to confront questions about the tragedy in Newtown that left 28 people dead, 20 of whom were first graders, but that didn’t make it any easier to answer them.
I had received a text message from one of the teachers the day before. “I’m so sad to hear insident in Connecticut, USA,” it read. Later, my school’s best English student also sent me his condolences in a text:
“I was so shocked to hear the news. The saddest thing is that the victims were children … What actually happened? Don’t know why but I feel deeply sad about it.”
What actually happened? Where could I begin.
How could I explain such an unfathomable atrocity to a 14-year-old Indonesian tenth grader for whom the concept of civilians equipped with firearms is as foreign as American football?
How could I explain the nature of American gun culture and that it is as complex and intractable as it is frustrating?
How could I explain that, as horrifying as the bloodshed was, it hadn’t come as a surprise to me but rather as a disappointing inevitability?
How could I explain to this incredibly bright child — who hopes to study international relations in America someday — that we’re not a land of violence and hate, even when our headlines daily suggest otherwise?
I was staying at an old villa in a rural mountain town with three other Americans when I heard the news. It was Saturday morning and I had just woken up to a typical breakfast of fried rice, fried egg and tempeh, compliments of the villa’s live-in chef.
Before coming to breakfast, my roommate had routinely checked in with the Internet on his phone. He delivered the news evenly as he took his seat across the small table before scooping some rice onto his plate.
“There was a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. At least 20 kids are dead.”
I rushed to check the news on my laptop, but by then the rampage appeared over, and the death toll was already being counted at 27. I scanned the wide breadth of coverage on the New York Times homepage and was overwhelmed. The journalist in me wanted to read every article and catch up on what was going on, but I couldn’t. There was too much to read and it would have only soured the mood of this rare getaway weekend further. I instead opted to take a quick pulse on my Facebook, but the back-and-forth bickering about gun control, mental illness and media sensationalism provided little respite.
I closed my laptop. I’d heard all of these things before: the prayers, the statistics, the call for action.
Maybe sentimentality was getting the best of me, but it seemed that the day’s adventures were a little more somber because of the news. We climbed up a beautiful mountain covered with tea and coffee gardens and waited out a passing rain storm at the top with some of the locals. We checked out a three-stream waterfall and found an unsuspecting street-side warung that served great pizza.
But even though we were half a world away, one man’s bloody rampage in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut profoundly touched us in South Sumatra, Indonesia.
We returned to the villa that afternoon and sat outside on a wooden deck facing the mountain and overlooking some of the quiet town below. It began raining as we drank our Bintang beers, chatting about our lives in Indonesia, our aspirations afterward and whatever else came to mind.
But as the sun descended, the conversation slowly, inevitably drifted back to the horror wrought in Connecticut. We passionately discussed gun-control policy, argued over the semantics of Obama’s “meaningful action” and restlessly bickered about what needed to be done.
When I first arrived at my school in early September, I frequently encountered questions from students and teachers about American culture, fashion, music and, of course, food.
“Semua orang Amerika tidak sama,” was the familiar refrain we were taught to issue when Indonesians asked about the America they knew from movies, music and television. All Americans are not the same.
In my first week I fielded questions that startled me but for which I was able to muster — in my mind, at least — sufficient answers. Why are all blacks aggressive and violent like in the movies? Why doesn’t America allow Muslims to wear jilbabs? Tell me more about all the “free sex” going on in your country.
But another more serious question was harder to answer.
“Why are people always shooting each other in America?” a portly, gregarious teacher asked me through my counterpart, who was acting as translator. “Why does everyone have a gun?”
It was only a couple months after the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and I had considered the same questions often before I had left the states.
“Shootings are very rare but when they happen they make big news,” I answered deliberately. The teacher seemed unsatisfied. “I think there are too many guns in America, and it is a problem we need to fix,” I offered.
The teacher nodded, seemingly content with my answer. I then asked him about Indonesia’s gun laws, which make it nearly impossible to legally own a firearm as a civilian. He was eager to share.
The rainy day quickly faded into a rainy night as we continued our drinking on the deck. We must be confirming that stereotype of boozing Americans for the Indonesians watching soccer on the TV inside, I thought.
My friends eased into a conversation about an adopted kitten named Struggles, laughing endlessly at the potential comedy of such a name. I grew withdrawn from the admittedly humorous banter, gripped by an inexplicable lethargy. I peered quietly into the darkness and listened to the steady rain continue, contemplating my purpose in this country. I wondered how much good I could accomplish here when my own country was still so broken.
It was a colonial thought, yes, but in that moment I never felt more homesick. I wanted to go home and, alongside everyone else, search for answers amid the tragedy.
After all, as President Obama reminded us at the Newtown vigil, it is at our worst that we are at our best.
About the author: Dustin Volz is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Palembang, South Sumatra. He is editor in chief of Indonesiaful and a publisher of Downtown Devil, a hyper-local news publication covering the downtown Phoenix community. Volz graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and history and a master’s degree in mass communication. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.