The first time I immigrated, 34 years ago, I was a toddler brought to the United States by my parents from our native El Salvador. A year ago, I immigrated again, becoming a Salvadoran American living in the State of Israel.
This is my second time learning a new culture, language, and rules. And it’s been entirely different.
As a child, I quickly integrated, took part in the school system, and made friends. Joining English-speaking society didn’t feel like work. It was my environment, my home, my life.
Today, as an adult, it’s taken me some time to get my bearings, and to adjust to the culture and norms in Israel. I also have a new perspective on my parent’s journey into American culture. I have started to embrace lessons from their American acculturation to help me overcome the challenges I am experiencing today.
My husband and I decided to emigrate from Los Angeles to the state of Israel, his birthplace, because we wanted to give our boys independence to roam free without typical city concerns. Despite the heavy L.A. traffic, a typical concern was getting to scheduled activities on time. We had to drive both boys everywhere. Today, our kids ride their bikes to get to activities independently. It’s a small, yet life-changing action that teaches them responsibility and accountability, two things my husband and I value. We also wanted quality time with my husband’s parents.
We moved to a kibbutz, a rural communal settlement, near the Golan Heights. At first, in the summer months, Israel felt carefree and exciting. The fall gave way to bountiful colors. This visually striking scenery encouraged fresh adventures and sparked motivation to enjoy every bit of the experience. Then winter rolled in, and the cold weather, gloomy days, and frustration robbed the happy feelings of summer and fall. Disorientation and uneasiness followed me.
At first, I didn’t understand why. Soon, I realized it was because the initial excitement of the move had faded away. Eventually, I understood that the feelings were the beginning signs of culture shock, and a typical trajectory of cultural adaptation for people subjected to an unfamiliar culture, set of attitudes, and a way of life.
For the first time in my life, I was experiencing immigration as my parents had when they journeyed to the U.S. in 1989. When they arrived, being in a new country, with a new set of rules, created an emotional rollercoaster for them. My parents faced similar emotions because of two significant challenges. First, they did not have legal documentation to work. Second, finding work took longer than they anticipated, which caused our family to go through a financial crisis. Throughout those early years, our family struggled financially. My travails weren’t exactly the same, but the challenges somehow felt familiar. It was surreal.
For example, in Israel, little things became hard for me—such as driving. Israel’s two-lane country roads take you through beautiful nature with views of farms and free-range livestock, but they require patience. Getting stuck behind one slow-moving vehicle or semi-trailer truck can quickly turn your hour-long drive into a dreadful slog. Unlike the States, where roads have passing lanes to let slow-moving vehicles give way to others, here, the only option when you’re stuck behind someone is to speed up, cross into the oncoming lane, and pass them. Locals execute this maneuver at almost unimaginable speed, putting themselves and everyone near them in danger. Israel’s cities have a lively European-like vibe, but their roads can be tight, and their aggressive drivers make even the most confident American driver feel unsafe and anxious. At times, it seems like disregarding rules is the rule.
Customer service is not a priority in Israel, or at least not in my area. There have been times when I feel like I am both a customer and an employee. For instance, if I want to purchase an item, but it doesn’t have a scan code, I need to make sure I find it, because it’s not the cashier’s responsibility to find it for a customer, and there isn’t a system yet in place to facilitate that aspect of the shopping experience. Experiencing this scenario a few times while waiting in line can easily become frustrating. Navigating the school system has been tough, too. It has its own norms that I didn’t quite understand when I tried to engage with my children’s learning. I had been an involved parent at our Los Angeles school, and I felt left out of matters at my kids’ new school in Israel. I was further agitated by a wide range of unreasonable and inconvenient rules. For example, Israel limits mail-order purchases to $75 U.S., subjecting anything more valuable to a hefty fee to cover the expense of a mandated security inspection. This inflexible measure is supposed to assure safety, as Israel prioritizes and values security above anything else. I found it too annoying to accept.
There are days when I wonder why I moved. Why did I choose to replace comfort with the uncomfortable? Then I remember that travel, new experiences, and being comfortable with the uncomfortable have always been part of my personality, my true persona. I see my boys happily integrating into a community that has accepted them and embraced them wholeheartedly. In these moments, I recall the ease I felt when I moved from El Salvador to the U.S.—and I remind myself how much effort my parents exerted, over a long period of time, to feel at home in the U.S.
My parents chose to overcome their personal frustrations. They took action. They attended an English class at the local community college, and they started to use English as they looked for work that would help them integrate into the culture of Los Angeles. They became solid English speakers and established career goals. Today, my dad works for the city of Los Angeles, and my mother is currently caring for her health.
I’ve decided to follow my parents’ example and take action. I started to practice Hebrew with locals and have committed to learning the language daily. I am joining community events to connect with others who have had to adapt and have had similar experiences. I am volunteering at the kibbutz’s cultural events, La Leche League Israel, and participated in a cool archaeological project this summer to connect with native Israelis and kibbutz members. I am choosing to drive without looking in the rear-view mirror, focusing on my driving and safety rather than the behavior of others. I choose to stay calm despite the passive-aggressive drivers surrounding me.
The emotions of cultural adaptation are intense. My parents managed it reasonably well. I aspire to do the same. Overcoming challenges to become part of a new culture is a choice, every day.
In the end, Israel is a melting pot, a multicultural country, just like the United States—and becoming aware of similarities between the two places is helping me move in the right direction.
I’ve been asked about safety in Israel, especially considering all the bad news about internal struggles and violence here. I lived in Watts, Compton, East Los Angeles, and Lincoln Heights for most of my Southern California childhood and teenage years. To afford rent, we moved a lot—and we didn’t have much choice but to live in areas with shootings, domestic violence, and gang-related activity. At night, I often felt scared and unsafe. However, during the day I was carefree, out and about with friends riding bikes or rollerblading. As I grew up, I started noticing the dangers around me, realized my neighborhood was not a place to thrive, and found motivation to get ahead and not look back. This chapter in my American life came with its own obstacles to overcome to move toward a sense of safety.
Living in Israel, there is always the potential for a neighboring country or internal conflict to wreak havoc. The difference is that here, a common threat brings unity and a shared goal: to keep Israel alive and thriving. This purpose has led to years of security planning and disaster preparedness. There is always a plan, and we all know about it. We all have a Mamad, a protected space in our homes, if the time calls for its usage. This brings me a feeling of safety I have never felt before. I’m not naïve—I know the potential risks that come with living here at the kibbutz—but still feel safer than I ever did growing up. The current political situation in Israel may concern many people, but I choose not to take either side and generally don’t participate in political matters. Regardless of the problems that surround me, I still feel safe.
Repeat experiences of moving between cultures and absorbing the surroundings—my own, and my parents’—have prepared me to find home wherever I am. Making a happy life here as a Salvadoran-American-turned-Israeli is a balancing act between cultures, but it’s possible. This summer, I celebrate a year of full immersion into a culture that is showing me how to be a better citizen of the world, no matter where I go.