Thursday, November 17, 2005

Expat Musings...

For nearly 15 years, I’ve been an expat living in Israel, absorbing the culture and doing my best to assimilate. It hasn’t always been easy, though overall, I think I’ve managed to do a pretty decent job. It’s taken some time, but I’ve managed to build myself a network of friends and acquaintances, many of whom are even Israeli; I live in a Hebrew-speaking community (as opposed to one of the English-speaking enclaves like Raanana, Jerusalem, or any one of a number of settlements); I speak and read nearly fluent Hebrew (though admittedly, my writing leaves something to be desired), and even dream in Hebrew on occasion. I can understand the news (as much as one can understand the news here, anyway), I can make people laugh (intentionally!), and I can argue with the best of ‘em. My life is here, and for the most part, I’m happy.

And yet, when it comes down to it, I am, and probably always will be, American. My formative years were spent in the US (I moved here after graduating from university), and as settled and as comfortable as I am here, I will probably always feel a little more comfortable there. Not for lack of trying, you understand. It’s simply a fact. There is a big difference between growing up in a culture and learning to adapt to a culture. What came naturally to me in the US is not necessarily par for the course in Israel, and vice versa (in a really big way!) with regard to the norms I’ve internalized in my adopted culture. And, with all that I have going for me here, there is always that pull to go back to the US, even if only for a few years. Since my first trip to Israel, I have never felt 100% in either place – always being drawn to one when I am in the other. Perhaps it would be different if I had opted for a country whose culture is more similar to American culture (I could certainly see myself living very happily in England, uber-Anglophile that I am…), but then again, perhaps not.

At times, I feel limited as a foreigner, a non-native speaker; limited in my work choices, limited in my study options, severely limited in my ability to understand Israel’s greatest comedic/cultural icons – Hagashash Hachiver (as fluent as I am, the nuances and cultural references simply escape me – Husband has given up trying to help me understand)… Granted, mother-tongue English is often quite desirable here, but usually only in very specific sectors like hi-tech. If my interests were in a different direction, I might not feel so restricted. However, I can’t help it. I want to write. My Hebrew writing will never reach the levels of my English writing, so essentially, I’m screwed. It’s the deal I accepted when deciding to move to a non-English speaking country, a decision that I’ve chosen to live with. All part of being an expat, I suppose.

Hands down, though, the hardest part of being an expat is the altered dynamic between yourself and those you’ve left behind. My whole family still lives in the US – I miss births, deaths, weddings, family reunions, etc, as do they (we postponed our son’s brit for two days after he was born a week early, so that my parents could be here for the big event). Visits are high-pressured affairs, as we try to cram as much as we can into two or three-week stints once or twice a year, generally invading each other’s personal space and getting on each other’s nerves with a degree of regularity that could compete with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Then, of course, there are the friends who are no longer physically a part of your daily life. People with whom you have actively chosen to forge emotional ties, who are suddenly forced into the periphery of your new, distant life. People who you’ve left behind, people who have left you behind. A natural part of the life cycle, for sure, but painful nonetheless, and with a greater degree of finality when you live in different countries. My best friend in the world is also an expat – an American living in Europe. We’ve been friends since high school, and have lived our lives on parallel tracks. She has enriched my life in so many ways, seen me at my best and gotten me through my worst, given of herself in ways that have touched me more than I could ever express in words. We are in touch on an almost daily basis, whether by phone, email, SMS (when I got my new cell phone last year, I opted for GSM so that we would be able to text each other, and I specifically inquired as to the cost of text messages to the country where she lives), etc. It’s not the same as being there, though. Knowing exactly what she’s doing on a given evening or weekend is not the same being an active participant in the activity, and though we are still very close, the fact that she is not physically present in my life leaves a gaping hole. I’ve made some very close friends here, but it’s just not the same.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on here much more than I ever intended to do, and as I read what I’ve just written, I realize that it’s actually quite depressing. I just want to make it clear – I am happy here, happy with the life I’ve chosen (or the life that’s chosen me, depending on how you look at it). It’s not always an easy life, but it’s certainly an exciting one. It’s exciting to live in a country that’s small enough to allow its regular citizens to have their say and make a difference. We’ve got the greatest reality show in the world – the world of Israeli politics (nobody could simply make up the stories that unfold here on a regular basis!). We have socialized medicine (for better or worse). We have amazing coffee. I can wear jeans to work everyday if I want. Yet despite all of that, I just want a little more sometimes. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

25 comments:

Seth said...

How much Hebrew did you know before you moved here?
I'm considering a similar decision, however, it should be a little easier for me because my parents and sister moved here 2 years ago. My main shortcoming is my Hebrew.

Anonymous said...

You wrote this for me, She. You're surely not alone in how you feel, never forget that.

The Oracle

Anonymous said...

You know, I lived in Israel for 10 years, I had a head start on Hebrew from an excellent jewish eductaion in the UK, I did/do still get Hagashash and could never ever write much above a third grade level. So I am now an ex Brit ex Israeli in the Southern US, and I have literally no mother land, my accent cries N. London my interest on the news front is almost entirely Israel and my kids are "real" Americans, culture habits etc. Yes its conflicting at times but I am so much more interesting then my neighbors here dont you think?

Montanus said...

Well, at least you do have the internet and your cell phone, so you can keep in touch. People move around a lot. While I was in the service, I moved every two to three years. I still keep up with a lot of my friends from that time, and it's been almost 20 years since I got out. It's natural to miss people, but if you are happy overall then you're grabbing the brass ring.

lisoosh said...

If you live with Israelis and integrate you are doing better than most expats. I never forget bumping into an Aussie in Jerusalem who had been in Ulpan Etzion with me - I was in aleph, she was in Hay. After 3 years she had lost her Hebrew and when she heard that my boyfriend (now husband) and roommates were Israeli told me that she could never imagine living with or dating "them". I never did understand. (You can live in J-sem by the way without being part of the Anglo enclave, although if you are secular it gets harder by the year).
I do sympathise with the limitations you face though. I gave up studying for my Masters at Hebrew U because I couldn't follow the classes properly and spent 6 hours a day just translating. I ended up in the hotel industry where yes, English is an asset. It was satisfying enough but hardly my dream job.
So - good on you for staying the distance and this is from a ex-Brit ex-Israeli living in the NE US - anon is some kind of clone.

timna said...

I've got about half/half in terms of time spent in Israel vs US. But I suspect the formative 18-38 in Israel means that I still think in Hebrew, understand the Gashosh and talk with mr. t. in Hebrew. It helped that I did all of my university studies there. and I do say there because I'm sitting on this uncomfortable (sometimes) fence here in the US. We've been here now 8 years -- the kids are more American than Israeli even though they were born in Beer Sheva. I, too, really miss family and friends -- there.
We'll see what happens. for now, like you, it seems, overall we're happy, but missing some of the nuances.

Savtadotty said...

After 17 years in Israel, I visualize my heart as made of swiss cheese, with holes where my nearest and dearest in the USA should be. Thank God for web cams, Skype, Internet, etc., but as you say, it's not the same. However, when I do go back on annual visits, I notice the changes there, and am reminded of Quebec. They exported France of the 15th (?) century and there it stayed, while the real France moved on. My USA is the one I left, not the one of today. Israel is our now and tomorrow (I hope).

Yael K said...

I think maybe us expats will always be strangers in a strange land to some extent, no matter how much we manage to integrate (I think this totally sucks but sometimes reality does :(. I had these wonderful visions of becoming completely Israeli til I got here but I think now, especially after hearing the experiences of folks like you who have been here so long, that I will always be at least a good proportion non-Israeli. I'm hoping to minimize that non_israeliness as much as I can but there you have it.

You are a real inspiration though because of how integrated you have become! You are not just hangin with the expats and you are fluent (thud). If I can be where you are in 15 years, I'll count my blessings double-time!

Liza said...

Seth: My Hebrew was pretty decent when I arrived, though nowhere near where it is now. I came here the first time when I was 15 (one of those three-week air-conditioned bus tours with my family), and decided that I wanted to live here. Everything that followed was geared towards that decision. I went to Hebrew school (at the synagogue, not day school) through 12th grade, studying Hebrew all the way through. Came on a year program after high school, came back to Israel for various trips during university, studied Hebrew while in university, active in the local Israeli community, etc. Came on another year program after university and ended up staying.

You have to want to learn Hebrew. You have to force yourself, even though it's hard. I forced myself to try to read the newspaper, took a Hebrew course at the Open University. It took time, but it definitely paid off.

Oracle: I imagine that many expats feel this way at one time or another. I think it takes a lot of strength to do what we have done, and it is natural that we will sometimes question our actions, or feel that we have put ourselves in a position of being unable to reach what we perceive to be our fullest potential. Of course, this kind of questioning isn't the exclusive domain of expats, but we have the added burden of wondering if our decision to live in a different culture has hampered our self-fulfillment in more practical realms like professional choices, education for our children, etc.

anonymous: I bet you're fascinating! :-) I had a friend in university who was born in Israel, lived here until he was 9 or so, moved to England, lived there until he was about 15, then moved to the US. Aside from having the craziest accent I've ever heard, he had the funniest stories about his life. I'm sure he must have felt very conflicted though with regard to a homeland.

Frank: Your comment got me thinking. I've always thought it would be interesting to lead that sort of life (though admittedly, my leanings were in more diplomatic directions than military), seeing the world, meeting all sorts of people, etc. Now I can't help thinking what a frustrating life that must be at times, having to constantly uproot yourself, make new friends, etc. Very exciting, but it can't be easy.

It's more than just about missing people, though. See my comment above to Oracle. Sometimes the combination of all the challenges is overwhelming, and you can't help but wonder if it would have been better to stay where you were in the first place.

Lisoosh: Scary story about the Aussie. What's the point of being here if you have no plans to integrate? This is a hard enough country to be in even if you've successfully made the transition. I was amazed when working in an office in Raanana with other Anglos, how many of them couldn't speak Hebrew, indeed, how many people living in Raanana can't speak Hebrew! How removed they are from Israeli culture.

I think also that Anglos can be at a disadvantage here. Because nearly everybody does speak English to some degree, it is easy to get by. I've got two neighbors from Europe - one from Croatia and the other who was born in Poland and raised in Germany. They're both married to Israelis, and even though they've been here less than I have, their Hebrew is at least equal to if not better than mine, because they needed it from the beginning in order to make themselves understood. They're both very well integrated into Israeli society.

Timna: I'd be interested to hear about what you do to help your children retain their Israeli identity. My husband and I (and he is Israeli) both speak to our son in English. All of the books that we read to him are in English, songs and videos in English, etc. I know it will be harder as he gets older, but it's important to us that he maintain that connection to his American roots, given that my whole family still lives there.

Savtadotty: I like your Swiss cheese analogy - it's perfect (and I love Swiss cheese)! I know what you mean about your visits to the US. I go back and feel like a tourist, albeit a tourist who feels very comfortable. When Israelis ask me about current American trends, I have to tell them that I don't know, given that I've been here for so long. Of course, there are still certain household items that I would never know where to go to purchase them here (or even what they're called in Hebrew!), and I would know exactly where to go back in the US. While I feel very comfortable in Israel, I can't produce an Israeli version of my formative years spent in the US.

Yael: Please don't go completely Israeli on us! :-)

Seriously, though. If you work at it, you can integrate successfully, and I have to say that from the sound of things (love your blog!), you are off to an excellent start. It is so easy to get stuck in the comfort zone of the Anglo community, and so rewarding if you force yourself to reach beyond it. It takes time (an AACI counselor once told me that she tells all immigrants that they have to give it three years before making a decision to back, giving you a chance to get settled, make friends, find work, etc.), and you have to make your own opportunities. I could have stayed in my comfy Anglo working environment, but I decided I wanted to get out and work with Israelis. One of the best decisions I've ever made. Of course, I should mention that my best friend in Israel is also American, but she's also married to an Israeli and has chosen the same path of integration that I have (and it helps that our husbands get along very well!). Most of my Anglo friends here are well-integrated, speak Hebrew, have Israeli friends, appreciate Israeli culture, etc. I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you want to do it, you can. You will never lose your American roots, but it is up to you as far as how much you allow yourself to adopt Israeli culture. From what I've read of your blog, I think you'll succeed. Let's meet for coffee (and Israel has amazing coffee, as you've discovered!) sometime and we can talk some more.

Tamar said...

I have been obsessively reading any and everything I find about Americans living in Israel, and this post really hit a nerve. I was born in Israel, but raised in the states. My Hebrew is completely fluent, I have a ton of family in Israel, I do understand, up to a point, Israeli culture, yet now, when I am seriously considering moving back, I am scared as hell. I have lived here since I was 4. All of my friends and immediate family are here. My work is here, my life is here, but my feelings are there. It's strange, but I'm glad to know I'm not the only one.

Mia said...

I remember when I moved to Israel, it was very difficult for me. Being half Israeli and being fluent in the language I always felt very Israeli until I got there. All of the sudden my Swissness came out (I know you all love the comparisons with Switzerland... ) I would never have thought that this could happen. I fully integrated and besides some of my life long Swiss friends which made Alijah with me (and are married to Israeli´s and still living in Israel) I only had Israeli friends. But after 3 years I decided to go back to Switzerland for several different reasons and that´s when I discovered how Israeli I became! It took me about 2 year to loose the bad habits and I hope I kept some good one´s. What I am trying to say is that you probably changed a lot in the last 15 years and became much more Israeli than you´re aware off and yet will never loose your American roots. I am about to move again and leave my family and friends behind and probably will never return to Switzerland for living there again. So, I totally sympathize with what you´re saying and it made me a bit sad, as even though you are happy the Swiss-Cheese holes remain and that´s exactly what awaits me. And by the way the Israeli´s make so many writing mistakes themselves that you should not be afraid at all.... Good luck for the next 15 years in the holy land!!

Stephanie said...

My friend Jeff, an ex-South African now in Tel Aviv for some twenty+ years, coined a beautiful expression: Once you move away from your original home, it's as if you're looking through the window from the outside forever. You're essentially neither here nor there. On the other hand, you're both there and here!

timna said...

The kids are losing a lot of their Israeli identity. That is, they want to say they're Israeli, but when we get to Israel for the summer, they're not always fitting in. My daughter, who did kintergarten in Israel, remembers more and also has friends on the kibbutz we stay on. My son remembers very little, but does speak Hebrew with his sabba and safta. They'll have to choose at some point to spend enough time in Israel to feel comfortable there.

Liza said...

Tamar: Hey, moving across the world is scary as hell! It's exciting, to be sure, but it takes a lot of courage to leave a comfortable life for an unknown future in another country, even when you know the culture!

I also imagine that many adults who left Israel as children with their parents feel a conflict similar to yours. I've got a few friends here who grew up as you did, and despite having grown up elsewhere, they decided to take the leap. Others didn't, and opted to stay where they grew up.

You will have a number of advantages over other immigrants, in that you will come with the language and you will already have a support network made up of your family - two of the most important factors in success, I would think. Let us know what you decide!

Mia: You are right in that I've picked up a number of the usual Israel traits, and I can see them very well whenever I go back to the US for a visit. It's like I've got to switch my personality to a lower gear there, lower the tension levels, the impatience levels, etc.

I'm not sure if I'm so happy about the Swiss cheese holes, or if I've just learned to accept them as part of the life I've chosen.

As far as the writing, I know you're correct, but given how much I love to write in English, I get frustrated by not being able to write better in Hebrew, and knowing that even if my Hebrew writing improves, it won't be like my English writing.

BTW, checked out your blog - really great! Will be back...

Stephanie: I'd have to agree that your friend summed it up better than I ever could. That was a beautiful saying.

Timna: It sounds like your kids are experiencing the classic dilemma of "who am I". In the US, they feel Israeli, but when they come here, they are American. I've heard many Russians say that in Russia, they were Jews, but here, they are Russians. I imagine that anyone who spends their life culture-jumping deals with similar identity issues, and I don't think it's something that we can avoid. It is just part of who we are, or who we have become due to our choices.

nrg said...

Being an expat is a bizzare life choice. I remember telling my husband the year I moved here that I want to be cremated when I die and that half of the ashes need to be thrown into the sea by my family's Fire Island beach house and the other half from our cabin here in Norway...I figure they will meet somewhere in the middle and I will become one with the biggest enemy I've ever known... the Atlantic Ocean. It's always separated me from something I love...Yet I wouldn't change or choose differently, not for the world. I love my life here (Norway) and I make the effort to keep those relationships that really count as alive and active as possible. It's difficult, especially as my parents age, but it is a rich and diverse life as well. It also helps having others in the same boat. My expat friends here are a big part of my life and help me pass the American traditions that I love (like Thanksgiving) on to my children. And then there is She... someone who has known me for so long that I no longer need to explain myself. Our expat experiences are as different as they can be, yet we always find ways to compare and contrast, learn from one another, and gain strength from our friendship. Thank you for your post, my dear friend. Sometimes the worst part of being here is depriving our boys of the experience of being best friends...

Liza said...

NRG: And how did your husband react to such a morbid yet strangely poetic request? Interesting idea!

The aging parent issue is a difficult one. My parents, even under the best of circumstances, have never been thrilled by the prospect of coming here so frequently, and as they age (not that they are so old), the visits become even more infrequent, though there's added pull now that there's a grandchild involved. I definitely wonder what will happen as they get even older though, when it will become physically impossible for them to visit.

Your comment about passing on the American traditions to your children made me think as well. I've never really celebrated Thanksgiving here, but maybe now would be a good time to start, so that the Little One will learn about his American roots. Of course, will have to find some like-minded Americans...

With regard to our expat experiences being different, I think that in the little details, they are, but overall, there have been many overlapping experiences -language issues, acclimatization issues. Marrying "locals" also comes with a unique set of issues, such as having to fit one's self into an already established network of friends, etc. It's different then when you're two people forging a new path in an unfamiliar country together, I think.

The boys will be friends, because we won't give them any other choice! Along with family, they will be each other's best excuse for keeping up their English! :-)

I thought the worst part of being there was the Winters that seem to last forever... Short-sleeves again today... Did yesterday's light dusting of snow stick? :-)

lisoosh said...

I have an "English" personality - reasonable, polite, and a "Hebrew" personality - much pushier, more argumentative, less willing to put up with B.S.

Liza said...

Lisoosh: I am exactly the same! Sometimes I use my American politeness/manners (saying "good morning" to the security guards at the train station while they check my bag, then thanking them and telling them to have a nice day - sometimes they actually look startled, but it often elicits a pleasant smile and a return of the pleasantry!). On the other hand, I'm sure there are quite a few sherut (shared taxi) drivers in the Netanya area who would rather have root canal with no painkillers than allow me to board... :-)

Cathy said...

Thanks for such an interesting and thought-provoking post and comments. As an expat born in the US via world travel and Israel who has chosen to live her dream in London rather than Tel Aviv I can identify with the general points and the specific challenges of integrating into Israel society. I just can't at the moment express my thoughts coherently. I will try to blog about it in the near future.

Udge said...

As a Canadian living in Germany, I too feel much of what you describe. I miss Canada terribly, particularly the wide open empty spaces of the Prairies; but when I'm there I miss the variety and culture of Europe. I doubt that I could live happily in Saskatchewan now.

It tears at my heart to hear friends say "I'm going to see my sister this weekend", I'd love to do that as well but in our case it's a little more complicated - and a lot more expensive.

Liza said...

Cathy: What an interesting background! I had no idea! I look forward to reading anything you have to say on the subject.

Udge: I've been wondering what your background is - your English is far too good for it to be a second language.

I know exactly what you mean about that whole family visit issue. I get jealous when I hear my colleagues on the phone to their parents/siblings/etc, just having a chat during the work day. My father and I have online chats on a pretty regular basis, but it's not the same. Whenever I've interviewed for a job and we'd reach an advanced stage of the process, I'd always be sure to bring up the issue of vacation days, making sure they realize that my whole family is abroad, and as such, I'd be using most of my days in one block to go for visits. If this wasn't okay, then I'd pass on the company. With my latest job, I successfully negotiated for a lot of vacation days (not a lot for Europe, but a lot for Israel and the US),so that I could take that vacation to the US and still have other days left over to do stuff.

nrg said...

I know the feeling with family in another country, especially if you are close. I have two sisters and until now, one has been in VT and one in WI, so they usually got together when I was in town. But, now the WI sister is moving to VT to the next town over from my oldest sister and they will have kids who grow up knowing each other, maybe attending the same school (they are only a month apart, so maybe the same class). My kids will be the "far away cousins" and I wish I could just drive over on a saturday afternoon and have a coffee and a chat...

Cathy said...

I have written the occasional snippets re. this broad topic in the past but feel an update coming on (note no time commitment!). Feel free to browse the Neither Here Nor There blog archive in your copious free time (not :-) )

lisoosh said...

I get really jealous when friends have their parents babysit the kids.

Liza said...

nrg: I know exactly what you mean! I get so depressed on Thanksgiving, just knowing that everyone is together celebrating without me. I know how close you are to your family, so I can imagine how painful it must be for you knowing that your children won't be able to share in their cousins' experience.

Lisoosh: I can totally relate to that! My brother and his wife are very fortunate in that her parents live close by and are always prepared to babysit, whether it be for an evening, overnight, etc. It's wonderful for the kids and for my brother and his wife (and for the grandparents, of course, who love spending time with the kids!). Not that I'm looking to go away a lot, but it would be nice to have the option, without having to work hard making arrangements.