Voting at Gun Point: Moving from Tokyo to Charlotte amidst the count down toward Election Day

For almost a decade I had been living in Tokyo, Japan. With my wife Haruki and our seven-year-old daughter, Kantra we were on a 13-hour flight from Tokyo to JFK airport in New York City. It was the day before 9/11 and it was our first touchdown in the States. NYC was one of the global epicenters of COVID. At JFK we had to go through immigration and transfer to a connecting flight to Charlotte. Throughout the weeks leading up to our boarding the plane we’d say, “I can’t believe we’re moving to America.” It was a phrase that we’d often pass back and forth when the reoccurring thought got too intense to internalize. It was like we were going to live on an Afghani plain full of leftover Russian landmines, thinking it’d lead to a better life. “Well, it’s not like we’re moving to paradise,” Haruki had said after Trump announced the closing of U.S. borders at the peak of the pandemic. Most countries weren’t accepting American passports anyway.

Two weeks after we got to Charlotte, a campaign to support Kyle Rittenhouse’s defense had raised over $1,000,000 on a Christian crowdfunding site. At the Kenosha, Wisconsin protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man shot in back seven times by Officer Rusten Sheskey. At the Kenosha protests, footage of Rittenhouse, an armed white supremacist, running down the street, shooting and killing two people and injuring another, looked like a movie. Trump said that Rittenhouse was forced to defend himself. Japanese jazz pianist Tadataka Unno would get brutally beaten in New York City since his teenage attackers thought that he was Chinese. Derek Chauvin, the man charged with the murder of George Floyd would post a million-dollar bond and be set free. Months before leaving to the states my wife said, “I know that what we’re doing is crazy, but if we don’t go now we’ll never go. There will never be a good time.” Just last Monday in Philadelphia, Walter Wallace Jr. a Black father of three and a newlywed who suffered from a mental illness was shot and killed while brandishing a knife. Fire and riots erupted in Philadelphia streets. The National Guard was called in.

From Japan, I watched angry white men with guns storm Detroit’s city hall to protest the quarantine, calling the measure to stop COVID, “tyranny.” Incensed white shoppers in grocery stores refused to wear masks as if rebelling against The Union while challenging those that wore them, but in Japan, masks are a standard preventative form of spreading various kinds of infection. To my Japanese wife, refusing to wear a mask made as much sense as America’s overly complicated health care system. In Japan, patients pay a 30% deductible and the government compensates them for the rest. Your main doctor doesn’t have to give you a referral to see a specialist. The price of care is the same at every hospital. Haruki and I also wondered whether Americans would assume or suspect that my Japanese wife had the virus, but she was willing to take the chance of getting spit on if it meant giving our daughter a chance to be “an American girl.”

When I left the states, nine years ago, to live in Tokyo, Obama was president. White nationalist hate groups were swelling in membership and garnering support. They wanted us dead. Dylan Roof, an armed white supremacist, shot and killed nine African-Americans in their South Carolina church. Now, weeks after leaving Japan to live in Charlotte, a white nationalist is the incumbent commander-in-chief running for a second term. White supremacist groups have become “very fine people.” The list of names from cops disproportionately killing Black men and women continues to grow. In Japan my wife and I both had flip phones, but now we made sure to have smart phones in case we get pulled over or I have to interact with the police. “Do you know how to record video on your phone?” I asked Haruki. She barely knows how to pick up or end a call. “Yes,” she said.

At JFK as we were approaching the immigration gates, a patriotic song blurted over harsh broken speakers. Its shrieking guitars and crackling drums were goose-stepping soldiers, tanks and AR-15’s marching into the unknown. The song’s superlatives soared above its false sense of liberty and freedom. Its delicate pride declared America the greatest country on earth. The pomposity of this song, amplified and reverberated through the emptiness of the airport was like a poor man grandstanding on a poorer man’s back, the former lives beyond his means, deep in debt, not paying taxes, but still appearing as a mob boss in a cheap gaudy suite, trying to appear expensive and combative. America felt like it was setting the stage to become a theater of war. Enduring almost four years of 45 has traumatized this country. The flammable air was begging for fire. As of recent, Charlotte had it’s 100th murder, putting it on track to surpass last year’s total of 107, marking it the state’s deadliest year since 1993.

An “unprecedented surge in number of people” are applying for gun permits. Nationwide, guns sales have rapidly gone up and African-Americans are the majority of the increase in purchasing firearms in every demographic. The audio signals at Charlotte crosswalks telling the blind to go mimic a machine gun. In the afternoon and at night the police and ambulance sirens are like lightening in the sky. By their intensity I measure their distance not by sight, but sound. At the top of October the releasing of the video showing the death of Charlotte resident Harold Easter while in police custody is a death threat and a reminder to stamp down on those flames rising inside of your eyes. As we drove through Charlotte neighborhoods, Trump, Black Lives Matter, and Biden yard signs were dueling pistols pointed at each other. Houses hanging American flags appeared as outliers, a call to national unity, but the history of that flag and its false attempts at multiculturalism was founded in white supremacy.

Taking my family to Freedom Park, I realized that I’d gotten less uncomfortable around Japanese people than I was around whites. At first, the Japanese flat out reject foreigners, especially Blacks. On the subway they won’t sit next to you. Shocked by your presence, they may look at you like a foreign out-of-place object, but on a personal level and over time your neighbors get used to you. The radius of fear that they use to keep a safe proximity away from you, shrinks. Though they will never accept you, some of them adjust their outward opinion to varying degrees. They may appear falsely pleasant, but they are decent at best. A stabbing in Japan is like a mass shooting in America, people talk about it for years. A Japanese person attacking a Black man is almost unheard of, but in America, white violence on Black bodies is like a code written in the nation’s DNA. I don’t know what they’re thinking when they see us, but I know what they’re capable of. They are watching, judging, and waiting for you to reveal whatever it is that needs to be attacked and put down.

While my daughter was skateboarding at Freedom Park, I noticed a sign there, saying that the park was founded as a dedication to the U.S. veterans of World War II. America fought the Nazi’s to free the Jews and stop Hitler and Japan from taking over the world. The irony of that story is that the Nazi’s failed genocide of the Jews was in part inspired by America’s systemic way of subjugating African-Americans. In order for the Nazis to implement racism within The Third Reich, the scholars of that regime studied the ways in which American laws enforced segregation, banned interracial marriage, and restricted immigration (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson). Jews, just as African-Americans, were never supposed to be in the future and if we did then we are to remain at the bottom, immobile, and disposable.

“You’re daughter is beautiful,” a woman said to us. Our seven-year-old says thank you barely over a whisper. Seeing Black people everywhere was disorienting at first, compared to coming from a country where 99% of the people are Japanese. It’s an awkward adjustment, but it’s warm and affirming to have people be glad to see you and your brown skin as opposed to watching someone denounce your humanity with their divisive glare. Though we are alive in our animated glory, the obvious wealth gap between whites and Blacks is violent. And this democratic charade where “There is but one evil party with two names” (W.E.B. DuBois) is the personification of America. Since the presidential election is days away Wal Mart pulled its guns off of its shelves (after huge sells) in anticipation of massive upheaval. Under the threat of the bullet and the virus, most of us choose the ballot, but the infectious Trump, also referred to as the super-spreader, would be a dubious metaphor if it wasn’t acutely accurate (700 COVID-19 deaths have been linked to his rallies). America is sick and watching it struggle to breath is a confusing sight. I don’t know if I ought to cry or dance. “You should wait to move until after the election because if Trump wins, things are going to get ugly,” a friend said. It’s too late for that now. If our mere existence is a form of protest then whatever happens on Tuesday, we live to fight on. What other choice do we have?

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