Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The awkward immigrant

This morning, I had such a hard time getting the kids out of the house. And when their teacher had finally urged them, sobbing and sniffling, into the classroom and locked the door behind them all, I sat down on a sidewalk bench to rest and prepare for the day.

It was a breezy, overcast morning in the midst of a warm spring. I love a good cloudy sky, so I sat on the bench and reviewed my to-do list. I was getting over a bad cold, and when I sneezed loudly, a traffic cop stopped ticketing a parked car and responded in a comically loud voice, “BLESS YOU.”

I smiled and continued poking away at my phone. He went back to completing the ticket.

“Is this Lod Street?” he asked.

“No, Lod is over there. This is Shabazi.”

“Thank you.”

We both continued with our business.

“You’re going to get cold sitting there,” he fretted.

“Okay,” I said. It was 72 degrees out.

“Really get cold.”

I smiled and coughed.

“I’m really worried about you!”

“Okay, have a good day!”

* * *

I walked to the shuk, cheered by the exchange, composing a blog post in my head. Thinking about Israeli cultural norms versus American ones, about being an immigrant and trying my best to learn and assimilate. I worked it all out as I selected small fragrant cucumbers and pondered buying loquats. I was filled with joy at the cool morning and the privilege of living in Jerusalem.

I continued on and bought apples and bananas. The vendor named the total. It seemed like too much for apples and bananas at that particular stand, but I gave him 50 shekels and tried to work out the math in my head. He gave me more change than I was expecting, and I realized I must have misheard him and tried to think what he might have said instead. I took my produce and now my bag was too heavy to buy anything else, so I headed home.

I walked, smiling, through the shuk, wondering if I could manage picking up some flowers. A young man caught up with me.

“Excuse me, you didn’t pay.”

“What? No.”

“Did you buy apples?”

“Yes, but I paid! Okay, it’s a mistake.” I followed him back to the fruit stand.

I was sure that when the vendor saw me, he would remember taking my money and giving me change. But he just said, “You didn’t pay.”

“I gave you 50 shekels! You gave me change.”

“I didn’t get anything from you.”

I shop at that stand every week, and the owner is a serious and honest-seeming person. I was sure he was wrong, but I was too flustered trying to express myself in Hebrew to argue further. I took the apples out of my tote so he could weigh them again.

And then, overwhelmed with frustration and shame and, honestly, no small measure of hormones, I burst into tears.

And that was the worst part, because as embarrassing as it is to burst into tears in American society (I speak from experience), it’s even worse here. Getting emotionally involved in a commercial transaction just seems like the most ridiculously American thing to do. The Israeli way is to get all fired up and insist on one’s rights, and then move on. Crying? Ugh.

But I was crying, and so the vendor said, “No, no, you don’t have to cry. It’s fine. Never mind.”

But I didn’t want to win the argument because I was crying. I was right!

“I’m sure, I’m totally sure,” I said through sniffle-gasps. I opened my wallet ridiculously and pulled out coins. “You gave me this, and this.” As though that proved something. I wanted the floor of the market to swallow me, but instead I gathered my fruit and stamped through the market, sobbing quietly like a champion.

I stopped for flowers. There were no flowers I wanted. The lush winter season had passed, and everything good was gone from the shop. I stood there, still crying, settling on a huge bunch of green, shrubby stems. The store owner, who had been politely standing outside while I stood sobbing in his shop, wrapped up the flowers.

“What are you going to do with them?” He asked. I loved him, loved him for being curious what I had planned for the flowers, and not why I was whimpering like a moron.

“I’m going to put them in a ceramic pitcher on my table . . . When I was a bride, I brought flowers like this.”

He nodded as though that made sense. I was saying “bring” instead of “carry.”

I tried again. “I had a . . . ‘bouquet,’ how do you say ‘bouquet?’ A bridal bouquet of all green flowers. These and others. Huge.”

Zer. Zer kallah,” he told me. A bridal bouquet.

“Thank you.” I went home with my cucumbers and my flowers and my ill-gotten apples.

* * *

Before I moved to Israel, I was worried about living my life as an immigrant, a transplant. I was sad to give up the comfort of being at ease in society as an anonymous native. In the year and a half since we moved here, that fear hasn’t been realized.

Rather, I love living as a Jewish person in my homeland, my nation. I love the national celebration of spring and renewal and freedom at Pesach, and the feeling of being part of mainstream society as our family flocks to the park with everyone else on Independence Day.

And then there are days like today, when I feel so foreign. Amused at the older-brother concern of the traffic cop, powerless and infuriated at the way my Hebrew departs when I’m upset and I can’t articulate anything. And mostly just aware that people here respond in ways I’m not expecting, and that I don’t yet know what is required of me in so many social exchanges.

But the surprise is that I like it, on the balance. I like being an immigrant. I like learning a new culture and language, and I like the victory of not having to revert to English anymore. I like being here and adding my stupid crying American immigrant craziness to the mix. I know it won’t always be this awkward, but today I know I can survive even when it is. At least my Israeli children weren’t around to witness it.


Bayle said...

But thats just it. We are one big and tangled family. We make each other laugh and cry. This is a real country with real people.
Yesterday i met my friend rifka walking in Geula with 2 of her grandchildren. One is going to be 3 and getting a bike. His 4 year old sister was nit impressed with her gift of a book. I am just impressed that all of them exist. You see, their father, rivkas son, was that Breslav fellow killed last Pesach at kever Yosef.
All for one, m'dear. One for all and all for one. And may Hashem be with us all at all times

Anonymous said...

love this post, Chaya. Thanks for sharing your day with us- a little microcosm of the ups and downs we face on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis here in Israel. said...

LOVED THIS! thank you chaya for being you and writing like you write...

mother in israel said...

It would have been okay for your children to see you cry.
I'm so sorry that happened to you.

Anonymous said...

I love the way you write - you are very talented! I sent this post to a few friends and they all loved it. One friend just moved to Israel with her Israeli husband and infant son and she really thanked me for sharing this blog with her.
Keep writing!!!

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