Monday, March 19, 2007

How Not to Learn a Language

In the last post I mentioned that people should learn Hebrew. As any language, Hebrew has its challenges. One way to learn a language is to associate similar-sounding foreign words with those in one's native language. This technique can help in certain situations but it is not to be used exclusively.

For example, in Hebrew there are words that are the same in English:
The English word for "fax" is fax in Hebrew.
"bank" is bank
"student" is student
"telephone" is telephone
"pizza" is pizza
and "picnic" is picnic.

Some Hebrew words have a different sounding familiar English word, like the Hebrew word safari means "my book"
bat means "daughter"
key means "because"
ear means "city"
car means "cold"
and shalom means "peace". And "hello". And "goodbye".

If you think that's bad, it can get more confusing. The English word for "bear" in Hebrew is dove, and the Hebrew word for "dove" is yonah
"fish" is dog, but "dog" is kelev
par is "bull", but bull is a "stamp"
man is "address", but a "dress" is simlah
"gift" is shy, but "shy" is bayshan
and off is "chicken"... which reminds me of a joke:

An Israeli man moved to America but didn't bother himself to learn much English. He loved to eat baked chicken but could not understand how to get his American oven to work. Thinking it was broken he decided to call an oven repair man. Fortunately, he found one who spoke some Hebrew and invited him to come see if he could find the problem and fix it. The repair man checked the oven, but it was working fine. He then asked the Israeli to see if maybe he was doing something wrong. The Israeli said, "I just put the chicken in the oven and turn the knob to off.
Anyway, to make matters worse, when it comes to personal pronouns, well, "she" is he, "he" is who, "who" is me, "me" is a-knee, and "they" is him.

I do know a little Spanish, though: "Es oh see kay es" (but don't ask me what it means).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Culture Shock - Part 3 of 3

Anything worthwhile is going to be difficult, and living in Israelis no exception. The daily frustrations we may experience here are just part of life, lest we forget that living back in Tennessee also gave us daily frustrations of a different sort. One can sit around and dwell on what all is hard and tedious; or one can acknowledge some of the differences are really blessings that one couldn't experience back in the States.

Getting used to the food here can be difficult at times because we miss our familiar comforts. But let's face it, Middle Eastern food is very good. It is not without reason that probably billions of Middle Eastern people throughout history have eaten it on a daily basis. Some of the most famous people in the world preferred it to anything else: the Pharaohs, Abraham, Moses, King David, Nebuchadnezzar, Jesus, just to name a few. That's a pretty good endorsement.

Ok, there are beaches in America, but no matter where you are in Israel you are never more than an hour away from the nearest beach (unless you are in the middle of the desert, of course, where you are only about 2.5 hours away, at most). For us land-lubbers who had to travel a solid day to the nearest beach in America, it's pretty exciting to be only a few minutes walk to the ocean.

Some people consider Middle Easterners aggressive and very direct. This is true. It is not necessarily a bad thing, though. As with any culture one must adapt – “When in Rome…” Maybe Americans are just more reserved, in general. Neither is necessarily good or bad, and neither is better than the other. It is just the way people in different places live and express themselves within their shared culture.

When Rima came to live in America, she was shocked at how sometimes people (while trying to be nice and thoughtful of her feelings) did not do or mean what they said to her. On the other hand, some people were taken aback when she would be honest with them about something like, for example, a kind of food that she didn’t think was very good. One culture says that when given a food that doesn’t taste good, when asked, one should always say something complementary (even if nothing good can really be said of it). Another culture values frankness. There have been times that I have been “American” here and said I liked something when I really didn’t, and was later chided for not being honest (like, “Why did you say that you liked that when you didn’t??”). People really want to know what you think and will talk to you like you are their close friend, even if they hardly know you. That’s just a small aspect of this multi-dimensional culture, but, in short, it’s a very fun and interesting way to relate to people. And you can’t help but love it.

The Arab hospitality is legendary. When I read the stories in the Bible, the visual pictures that come to my mind are closest to the way Arabs act and live (don’t read too much into that statement than is intended because the differences are plainly obvious). Regardless, one of my personal observations is that, in Arab culture, food = love. If you have the privilege to experience Arab hospitality, you will see that no holds are barred at making you feel like royalty. You will be fed until you can eat no more. Then the main course is served. There have been times that I have felt like I wanted to cry because the food seems it will never stop.

I say that because it seems as if the greatest sin in Arab culture is that one might feel the slightest twinge of hunger at any moment. Ok, I admit that I’m, well, “skinny”. Some might even say that I have a “weight problem”, that I don’t “eat enough”, that I could use to “put on a few pounds”. For Arabs, they see me as a problem that is their mission in life to fix. Believe me, I can spot that look in their eye a mile away when they see me coming.

Sometimes my weight is seen as a poor reflection on Rima as an Arab wife. How many times have we visited relatives and Rima experienced Arab version the Spanish Inquisition about why her husband looks so bad? When Arabs get married, they put on weight. This is the external sign to everyone that the marriage is good and husband and wife are happy (whether that is true or not). Because I have not bloated up with 7+ years of “marital bliss” around my waist, in the eyes of the Arab Rima obviously must not be making her husband happy enough. After all, like I said, food = love. She tries to tell them we are happy and I’m just genetically skinny, but that doesn’t stop them from firing up a personal smorgasbord for me in order to try to fatten me up on the spot.

If my theory (food = love) is true, then I have another theory that this could be part of the problem here in the Middle East between the Jews and Arabs. Due to the fact that Jews keep kosher and can’t properly interact on the fundamental culinary level that Arabs require, the two sides just can’t make that vital connection. Hence, we have an ongoing war. Ok, I know it sounds a little far-fetched but there might be something to it. Who knows?

Again, I could go on and on about Arab culture but one has to experience it firsthand to understand what real hospitality is, which is truly humbling to realize how far short we fall in comparison with our best efforts.

Ok, it is dangerous here, but it also feels a lot safer in some ways. The fact that you see so many soldiers, police, and security guards gives a measure of peace of mind. Even some women are armed with automatic weapons. It is not uncommon to see couples strolling along the beach with a machine gun on one of their backs. Not exactly a romantic picture but, if you think about it, I'm glad someone has something like that where crowds of people are. It is as if anyone tries to start trouble, it will be dealt with quickly. In truth, not much happens, terror-wise, mainly because of the high security you see, and what you don't see.

The winters feel colder here because it is much colder indoors with the stone and concrete houses that are impossible to heat. And the summers are hotter because the same stone buildings are more difficult to cool in this near-desert environment. What is nice is that the rains come only in the winter months. When they do come, it is as if it is springtime. What seemed like a sparse, sandy and dry patch of ground will spring to life after a few showers and grass and all kinds of flowers will arise from what seems like nowhere. It is always a much prettier time of the year than summer, for sure.

But being the "skinny" type, I long for the heat and am ready for the sun to fry everything. Summers are generally pretty hot, but nice. No rain at all to mess up any plans you make. No grass to mow (unless you water it). Everyone is out and about and with all of the numerous parks and nature spots where there are so many interesting things to see and do, instead of hunkered down around their heaters (like I am right now).

Semitic languages are not easy to learn, but they give you a glimpse into the mindset of people who speak them. Although modern Hebrew is quite different than Biblical Hebrew, hearing it spoken and thinking of how to speak it really gives a fuller dimension to reading the Hebrew Bible in a way that it seems more alive, as opposed to just foreign words on a page. There are no secrets to the Hebrew language - anyone can learn it if they are patient and put in a lot of work. What you get for your effort is useful in more ways than you can imagine. So hit the books, everyone!

Admittedly, I never did get into the whole “Walk where Jesus walked” thing, partly because so many of the biblical locations are disputed, uncertain, and/or just unknown. I’m not one that believes that seeing a biblical location helps to understand the biblical text better (in some cases it can actually obscure it). Nevertheless, there are many places that are known and are very interesting to see what they were like. Some places are interesting for historical reasons, while some places are interesting because they are just nice to see and enjoy. This is just a beautiful place to live. Now if only this fighting would stop...


(Walls of the Old City in Jerusalem)

(Elah Valley, where David fought Goliath)

(Golden Menorah, Jewish Quarter of the Old City)

Well, that’s my two cents, I mean, two shekels on the subject of culture shock. Hopefully you can understand in some way how our bout of culture shock has been and what the ups and downs of making life in a new place are. Most of all, I hope it was enjoyable. If not, maybe you’d like one of these across your lip.
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist that)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Culture Shock - Part 2 of 3

One of the most annoying aspects of culture shock is the safety issue (and since I have mentioned it previously, I won’t talk about the rockets). One result of the ongoing conflict here is the never-ending presence of security guards at nearly every public building. Imagine going through airport security just to buy a light bulb. It’s not always that bad but one needs to look at it as a small price to pay for a little “peace of mind” to know that not just anyone can walk into the grocery store unchecked.

(Bank security guard during Purim)

What is most disturbing to me is that all of the schools here look like prisons with their high metal gates surrounding the perimeter and armed guards patrolling the premises. It is because of past terror attacks on Israeli children in their schools that such security is mandatory. Unfortunately, terrorists have no shame to stoop to this.

So, as a result of said terrorists, people here in Israel will often give you the "stare". No matter where you are or what you may be doing, you can count on people looking at you as if their eyes are burning a hole through you. At first you feel self-conscious like something must be wrong with the way you look, like your appearance so unusual that they try to gaze inside your soul to figure out what your deal is. For a while I would just look back at people and shrug like saying “What?” until they stopped. Then one day I was at a coffee shop with some friends and realized that I was staring at people who passed by in the same way. Why? Just trying to be vigilant and careful, I guess, ahem…

One of the most potentially traumatizing and intense cultural experiences in the Middle East is going to the market, or shuk.
Not all are the same, but just go to one and you’ll get the idea.
With all of the sights, smells, and sounds of the busy outdoor shopping area, you can feel like all of your senses are being physically assaulted.
After a while, though, you get used to it and actually look forward to seeing what delectable delights are for sale this time around, like radishes the size of your fist and artichokes that could choke a horse.
For me, it helps to go with my Middle Eastern wife, whom I believe has the genetic disposition to bargain more effectively than I could ever dream to be able to do. However, the master Jedi has to be her mother who should strike fear into any poor merchant victim whose shop or stall she might decide to grace).

Best of all, you get to meet some of the most interesting people that you normally don’t get the chance to meet otherwise.
It’s always an adventure and you can’t beat the prices.

Another thing I find myself missing is the show "Sanford and Son". As in Fred Sanford. That's S-A-N-F-O-R-D period.
For the nearly two months we had to wait for Rima's passport before we came, I got into a routine of watching Sanford and Son with her after we put the kids to bed (we didn't want the kids to learn bad words from it like "you big dummy"). They say that humor doesn't translate from language to language and I'll say there is some truth to it after seeing some of the popular shows that are on here. Then again, what can compare to Fred about to have the "big one"?
We don't have cable so I don't get to watch much TV anymore. Even if we had it I wouldn't be able to change channels on account of my artha-ritis.
Anyway, watching TV is bad for you - it can give you a heart attack, you know, a BIG one. As in, “I’m coming to join you, honey” big.

-Enough on the difficulties because we’ll just “count it all joy.” Part 3 will be about the GOOD things that we have to get used to in this new place.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Culture Shock - Part 1 of 3

When one is in a new country for a period of time, one experiences the jolt of "culture shock". Even though I have lived here before, there is always some form/degree of culture shock to be experienced upon returning. That is what I have been told and I can confirm that all of the research is true because we all have been experiencing a bit of good old culture shock this time around.

This current bout of culture shock hasn't been as bad as I expected and I think (and hope) that the deepest ebb has already passed and the light at the end of the tunnel I see is not an oncoming train. Hopefully, we're on the path to getting adjusted and settling into our new life here. We'll see, though.

Having one's family alongside while having culture shock is a mixed blessing because they can help you when you are feeling down, as well as help bring you down when you are doing ok. An interesting phenomenon is when your spouse is having a spot of culture shock, you can be sure that their frustration is almost always over something rather trivial and, oftentimes, their predicament can be slightly amusing to you. However, just wait until you yourself are feeling culture shock and you’ll notice how your spouse can't seem to grasp the gravity of whatever it is you're dealing with, and their amusement at your dilemma is quite annoying!

Overall, for us as a family, going through culture shock together has been a positive thing since we probably feel a closer bond with each other as a result. I’m not talking about “misery loves company,” but rather going through the ups and downs of life together helps everyone to understand each other better. Like they say, "That which does not kill you makes you stronger" (or something like that).

One surefire way to know you are experiencing culture shock is to miss things from home, the little comforts. Things like ice cream.Or more precisely, American ice cream. Israel has a lot of ice cream everywhere. Cartons of ice cream, ice cream bars, ice cream cakes, and so on. The selection is surprising, but it is surprisingly bad. I heard somewhere that they substitute a certain percentage of the milk fat with a kind of aerated vegetable oil. It is close, but no cigar. No big deal though, right? Well, if you have culture shock, it is a very big deal! They do have Ben and Jerry’s in the pint-sized mini cartons, but at nearly $7 a shot (!!). No siree. I’ll manage without it, thank you very much. However it is good to know it's there, you know, just in case...

Another thing that one deals with while in culture shock is the annoying differences found in the new culture. Everything, it seems, is done in a different and seemingly infinitely more frustrating way that I am used to. Like, for example, calling to get information from some office, any office. One time Rima had to call to get information about our children’s vaccinations to see if they were up to date. Instead of the receptionist telling her over the phone, she made her come to the office. It had nothing to do with privacy of the information, but rather the receptionist just didn't want to go find the file. Often, the attitude of receptionists here is, "If they really want the information, they will come here and ask for it in person. Why should I go to the trouble if I’m not sure it is really important?" It would actually be funny if it weren't so incredibly frustrating. This is the case in most countries around the world, so I guess we are just spoiled in America. And blessed.

There are also other little things that will annoy you when you have culture shock that you probably wouldn't give much thought to, normally. Little things like sand, which is EVERYWHERE. This is a picture of what typically comes out of my son's shoes after an average day at school.That's right. Now just imagine what else is in his pockets and hair. Imagine it in the sheets and all over the house. Every day. The reason is that where there isn't grass, there is sand. And all of the school yards and playgrounds have no grass.Sand, sand, everywhere. Everywhere. We finally decided that if everyone else here has to live with sand, so must we. Now it doesn't bother us so much that sand is part of our lives. We still fight it, but we try not to let it win (otherwise one would surely go crazy). Toto, we're not in Tennessee anymore.

-Stay tuned for Part 2 where we'll take a look at a rare form of art not found here.