Columnist Jillian Stenzel recounts her experience with guns in Chinese culture after a semester abroad in Chengdu, China. She noticed that toy guns look more realistic than those made in America, as a result of the relationship citizens have with them. Photo by Kaitlin Oki/Nevada Sagebrush

by Jillian Stenzel

Spending last semester in Chengdu, China altered my perspectives on a lot of things. Things like MSG and how it really isn’t as bad as you think it is, how pushing a 90-year-old woman out of the way isn’t necessarily mean and, on a heavier note, how America’s sensitivity toward gun culture is a bit mortifying.

Recent events have me thinking about what a middle school classroom in China would have done two weeks ago if a kid walked to the front of a room with a handgun. Probably nothing at all; they’d have thought it was fake.

In my Far Eastern experiences, Chinese children love to run around with their finest toy guns in hand, firing away at whatever and whomever. Mind you, however, that these toy guns were not like ours — the orange-tipped, lime green and pink Western-looking pistol you know as either a child’s toy or a tequila-loaded prop to accompany your cowboy costume.

These toy guns were real looking. Really real looking. As real looking as the pistol my grandfather used to sleep with under his pillow every night. They were, without question, the best looking fake guns I had ever seen in my life — and they were everywhere.

Despite my knowledge that these guns were just another exemplary Chinese replica of something else, and that Chinese people couldn’t even own real guns, seeing children carry them around still scared the shit out of me.

Once, at a Chinese restaurant, a little girl pointed her fake yet ridiculously real-looking Glock at me, closing one eye and puffing air out of her mouth to mimic the gun shot you hear in old Westerns. I looked around awkwardly and saw that no one in the room batted an eye. Things like this happened all the time while kids played with their toy guns in China. At times I was appalled, but then I wasn’t sure who was more pathetic, the Chinese adults with no reaction, or me with too big of one.

It’s me who’s pathetic, I decided.

I grew up in the United States of America, a place with so much gun tension that my natural reaction to a kid with a realistic-seeming gun would of course be one of fear. A place where, last week, cops shot a 13-year-old boy carrying a pellet gun. What a tragic realization this was! Chinese people never reacted because the idea of a child having their hands on an actual gun was so far removed from their reality, they couldn’t imagine it.

Guns are things that cops and military personnel hold, and that’s about it. At least in the eyes of the Chinese people, they aren’t items that actually get used, just cumbersome objects that authority figures use to distinguish themselves from the other 1.7 billion people (or 1.3 billion, according to the Chinese government).

I once shared with a Chinese friend of mine how shocking it was to see China on top-notch security lockdown in its northernmost, politically tense province, Xinjiang. Cops constantly surrounded the highly populated areas, stoically standing in square formations holding the biggest machine guns I had ever seen.

“Were their guns even loaded?” my friend asked, laughing at my story.

“It’s Xinjiang, the guns must have been loaded!” I told her, vividly recounting how the weakest looking cop in the square of Chinese soldiers held the biggest gun — shaking.

I shuddered — how is she laughing about this? I then remembered the lack of deference people have for police officers in China as well as their lack of concern for shootings in general.

Quite simply, guns are a joke for most Chinese people. If anything at all, they’re a symbol for power, not a dangerous lethal weapon. For Chinese children, guns are seen in badass, action flicks or in the hands of Chinese cops, cops who they’re parents say have no bullets.

For American children, this is not so.

I don’t want to turn us all into communists or tear apart the Second Amendment. In fact, I think the Second Amendment is pretty badass, particularly when you compare it to the rest of the world. And after all, China’s harsh gun restrictions don’t do much in the way of removing remote gun factories that illegally operate in the most rural areas of China, selling weaponry to rich Chinese mob bosses on the black market.

But after time and time again of seeing kids with scary-looking gun replicas and watching no one feel anything but me, I had to ask myself: what point have we reached when growing up in the United States of America, one of the most “developed” countries in the world, means you’re embedded with an anti-get-shot instinct at the sight of a Chinese kid holding something that looks like a real gun?

Part of the reason the Chinese don’t share this instinct is because they have forever been so powerless that owning a gun or the idea of “standing up” to the government is nothing more than a sad pipe dream. China’s gun restrictions are just another symbol of how the oppressive Chinese government attempts to keep a handle on its people.

We have democratic freedoms that give us a voice in hopes of keeping this great nation of ours sane, yet our children bring guns to school. The way Chinese view guns juxtaposed with the way I view them made me think a lot about what guns have turned into in our society: less a symbol of freedom and power in the hands of people and more a fearsome, taboo weapon of senseless violence. Perhaps if we could alter our perspective somehow and people associated guns less with violence, something could change.

Many Chinese nuances stood in opposition to life in the United States. But my very own reaction to this one frightened me — on behalf of my own nation — the most.

Jillian Stenzel studies journalism and Spanish. She can be reached at