Thursday, April 28, 2011

Am I an expat, really?

It took me over 35 years of living in Israel before I took on the name of expat. But can I really claim this title after having lived abroad for so many years?

If it weren't for this blog, I probably wouldn’t have adopted this title even now. In my online search for similar ramblings by Canadians living abroad, I discovered the term expat (expatriate). The dictionary definition of expat is "someone living in a country that is not their own country". But this definition leads to even more questions.

What do we mean by "their own country"? Is this defined simply by citizenship? I have dual citizenship: Canadian and Israeli. Am I now a Canadian expat when living in Israel, but  an Israeli expat when living in Canada? Or maybe it is defined by which citizenship came first. In my case it was Canadian, but my children were born both Israeli and Canadian –as they were born in Israel to a Canadian father. Can they then be called Canadian "expats", even though they have never lived in Canada? And what if we had moved half a year after their birth in Israel to live permanently in Canada - which country would they then call their own?

Confusing, eh?

So, who deserves the term "expat"? And when can you begin to call yourself an expat, and when should you stop? Perhaps this all comes down to "nationality". Can nationality really be imported or exported? Take me, for example. Why should I still be considered Canadian after living abroad for over 35 years? It appears that this is exactly the type of question that Canadian legislators have recently begun to ponder. In 2009, they passed new legislation by which individuals can now become Canadian citizens by descent only if one of their parents was either a native-born citizen of Canada or a foreign-born but naturalized citizen of Canada. This new law limits citizenship by descent to one generation born outside Canada, whereas before there was no such limit. And maybe they will soon go further than this. By law, you can become a naturalized Canadian citizen after living a certain number of years in Canada. Why then shouldn't there be a law where you become a denaturalized Canadian citizen after living a certain number of years abroad? I mean – fair is fair.

Personally, I am quite happy that my children are automatically recognized as Canadian citizens, because of me. I see this as one of my better gifts to them, even though they may never end up living in Canada, and their experience of Canadian culture may only be limited to their father's nostalgic ramblings and their short visits to the mother country. One might then ask – "Do they have a Canadian identity?"

Does identity come with citizenship? And do we lose identity when we lose citizenship?

In my expatriate searches, one of the most refreshing sites that I have come across, so far, is "I was an expat wife" - . Upon moving back with her family to Canada, Maria defines herself as a Canadian repatriate. This opens up a whole new Pandora's box of possibilities.

I don't know what I am. Call me what you will. In recent deliberations over a few pints of Guinness with fellow expats (not only Canadian expats), we came to the conclusion that the longer you are away, the lesser chance you have of ever finding your way back. Somewhere along the line, there is a cutoff point. The problem is: none of us ever read the fine print.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Just how English are you?

 Don’t you love ambiguous sentences? One of my favourites is “The peasants are revolting.” Interpretation often depends on your point of view. Sometimes we even miss the ambiguity. We can roll these linguistic creations around on our tongue and dissect them, right down to their deep structure. I used to love creating and labeling each structural node, drawing out of it a new branch, or a series of branches. Life made sense then, in first year Linguistics, until we were told that we were studying something which had already been discarded, Chomsky opting out for something much more abstract.

So, what does “English” mean for you? For some, it is just a language. For others, it has also historical and geographical connotations.

Watching the preparations for The Royal Wedding, I was reminded of the early years - my early years, that is. Canadians were just beginning to believe that they deserved a unique identity and culture. No attempt had been made to teach Canadian history before then. We learnt English (British) history and world history. Most of the few TV channels that we could receive were from the American side of the border, and what Canadian channels we did receive showed little Canadian content. Our exposure to literature was the English classics. A successful Canadian artist was regarded as an oddity (“Do you know that Lorne Green and William Shatner are Canadians?”) And even then, they could only reach stardom when they went to the States to live. We didn’t have our own flag, or anthem, and had to stand for the playing of “God Save the Queen” at public events. Which caused endless embarrassment for my parents, as I would slump back into my seat, grab a hold of the arm rests, and refuse to get up. “David, stand up!” my mother would urge in a hushed voice, giving me a gentle nudge with her foot. “She’s not my queen!” I’d mutter in return, sitting proud for Canadians everywhere. I believed, then, that I was a part of an invisible band of Canadian rebels, about to overthrow the monarchy on Canadian soil with such brave acts of defiance. And when, a few years later, our high school introduced an experimental scholastic literature program of “contemporary literature”, including not only Hemmingway and Steinbeck, but also contemporary Canadian authors, I credited this directly to my efforts.

But it was only after I had left Canada that Canadian culture came into its own. Wayne Gretzky, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Second City, the Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour has Sixty Minutes… Suddenly successful Canadian artists, both in Canada and abroad, weren’t such a rarity anymore. Actually, it was often the case that I left a better world behind me after leaving. My parents got their first colour TV and a new washer (and very first) dryer after I left the house. But this was not always the case. The kibbutz was privatized after I left – actually the whole kibbutz movement fell apart. And Toronto never did win the Stanley Cup again. But I already told you that (although it is worth repeating).

So, how does the emergence of a real Canadian culture affect the Canadian perception of The Royal Wedding? After the fairy tale wedding extravaganza of Charles and Diana, a marriage which turned into a disaster, can anyone look at the upcoming wedding without at least a touch of suspicion? And maybe we should even ask ourselves if  the English Monarchy still holds any relevance for Canadians, at all. It appears that the older generation, who watched Elizabeth change from a young, somewhat naive monarch into a stern, yet commanding Queen, feels that the monarchy has exerted a significant influence on Canada as a whole. But for those of us who know the Queen only as a somewhat humourless and dour personality, very similar to a high school English teacher I once had, we see no reason for the monarchy at all, at least not in Canada. And yes, we were among those who were amused by Trudeau’s famous pirouette.

A lot of it is about presentation. Maybe William and Kate can be cute enough as a couple to convince people, not only in Canada, but also in England, that there is a reason for the monarchy to continue: Kate with her fashionable, attractive look and William with his awkward boyish British charm, somewhat similar to Hugh Grant in any one of his many movies. But will any of this matter if Charles is still to become King after his mother’s death, unless she outlives him out of spite for what he put her through with Diana? Neither Charles nor Camilla are about to win anyone over, let alone a nation. Calls are already being heard to appoint William as next in the line of succession, instead of Charles. Follow up on the excitement of The Royal Wedding, they say, as well as the Oscar buzz around “The King’s Speech”.

Otherwise, the monarchy may finally be recognized for the dinosaur it is, and we may be left with only a democratically elected Parliament in England – a scary thought, indeed. Oh, but then we have the House of Lords. So all is not lost.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Last Supper or Let My People Go

Tradition. This is something a boy growing up in a waspish suburb in Toronto knows little about. We did have our family traditions - excellent roast beef and yorkshire pudding dinners served on mother's best china every Sunday evening, which were always served and consumed just in time to watch the Walt Disney hour and then Ed Sullivan - Christmas: listening for the sound of Santa's reindeer passing overhead, opening the first present early Christmas morning before our parents got up and an afternoon game of bridge with grandmother - Easter: chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies, mixed in with tales of crucifixion and resurrection.

But I always felt that something was missing. Something to do with age old tradition - a mixture of unique song, dance, culinary delights and stories. This may sound strange from such an anti-social cultural outcast, as myself. But I have always wanted the opportunity to reject something, once tasted, rather than have it denied me, unseen. 

So maybe Pesach (Passover) on the kibbutz was some sort of ironic justice. Picture this - the kibbutz dining hall overflowing with kibbutz members and their guests. A stage set up in the middle. The long tables decoratively covered with tablecloths and an assortment of plates and silverware. Matzah piling up on the tables. Rumblings from the kitchen promising more.

The festivities begin. 

The reading of the watered down kibbutz version of the Hagaddah. Performances by kibbutz children, kibbutz members, more kibbutz children... One hour passes, two hours pass. It is 10 p.m. and we still haven't eaten anything, except for small pieces of matzah which we have managed to stuff into our mouths, trying not to crunch down too noisily. Now and then we reach a point in the Hagaddah where another glass of wine is raised. This may have quietened the noisy grumbling of our stomachs, had it not been that it was more grape juice than wine. 

My brother-in-law added his own touch of tradition by spiriting in a bottle of vodka each year to help us through the evening. We would try to get our pre-arranged seating by the window so that at some point, when his parents and others weren't watching, he could slip the bottle through the window to his sister, and she would then place it strategically on the floor. Their parents could never understand why our sour mood suddenly sweetened after that point. Although I do think that their mother - a tough sabra former officer in the Palmach - did know, as you couldn't get much past her without her knowing. But if so, she humoured us with her silence. She had rebelled against much more in her life than we could ever dream of doing.

One year the bottle broke on the floor under the table, and the strong smell of vodka swept through our corner. My brother-in-law slid open the window to its fullest and tried to divert attention with one of his funny stories, while we painfully held back our laughter in our already tipsy state.

I often envied those kibbutz members who went to celebrate the seder (Pesach dinner) with their families outside of the kibbutz, experiencing the more intimate Pesach celebration that I had only heard of. 

But those years of celebrating Pesach in the kibbutz dining room are behind us, not only because we left the kibbutz long ago, but because most kibbutzim have become privatized and there are no longer communal meals in the dining room, let alone holiday celebrations. We now gather together, immediate and extended family, perhaps somewhat ironically at my brother-in-law's house where he (an excellent cook) puts together an impressive Pesach celebration. And the grape juice is replaced with real wine and the food served before the singing of Had Gadya and the search for the afikoman. There are times, though, when I sense him searching, out of habit, for that bottle of vodka to help him through the reading of the Hagaddah.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

If Celine Dion only knew Hebrew

"How many languages do you speak?"
"Four. But only two when sober."
For some reason they never seem to like this answer.
"No, wait. Five," I added.
"Yes, I forgot Yiddish."
"You know Yiddish?"
"No. But German and Yiddish sound the same after three pints."
I don't know why people sigh so often when talking to me. Is it a sign of frustration, or pleasure?
"So, you speak French?"
"When sober?" they asked reluctantly.
"Definitely not when sober."
The sighs changed into a slight shaking of the head.
"Isn't French an official language in Canada?"
"Sure is. I even had about seven years of instruction in French when I went to school in Toronto."
"And you can't speak it… when sober?"
"Can't even order a cup of coffee."
Actually, in my individual case, this isn't quite true. During one Canadian summer I sat listening to French operas while following the words in the librettos. My mother would listen to the operas from the Met on the radio every Saturday afternoon and somehow it rubbed off on me. At the end of the summer I could even read a French newspaper, although I remained tongue-tied. Then, after high school, I worked for two months in a small hotel in the red light district of Rue Pigalle in Paris. This not only significantly improved my French, but managed the difficult task of stripping me of my Canadian naivety. Le petit Jesus, they called me, mainly because of my long hair and beard and the fact that I was essentially clueless.

A lot of people would have given up on me at this point, but they seemed to want to plod on for a bit more. I mean, how often do you a chance to talk with a Canadian in the middle of the Israeli desert.

"Do you add eh to the end of your sentences in French, as well?
"You know. Something like - 'Parley-vous francais, eh?'"
Luckily, at this point the Canadian sets in and not the Israeli.
"Sure," I lied, "all of the time."
I decided it was time to give them something they wanted to hear. People like that. Most people, that is. Not Israelis. They just want to argue. And if you do seem to agree with them, they will argue about that, too.

The truth is - I never started adding eh to the end of any sentences, in any language, until I had been living in Israel for over 10 years. I was getting tired of people telling me that I had lost any sign of a Canadian accent when speaking English.
"Say house."
"No, that's not it."
So, knowing that eh was a distinguishing point for Canadians, at least on the world stage, I started adding eh to the end of my sentences and that seemed to work.
But let me get back to why Canada and Israel have such a common language experience, albeit not a common language.

Arabic is an official language of Israel and French is an official language of Canada, but the vast majority of Jewish Israelis know almost no Arabic (except for cursing in Arabic as Hebrew just doesn't have the same effect), and the vast majority of English Canadians know almost no French. (They may vaguely know about half a verse of  O Canada in French, although they will totally mangle it if put to the test.) Mandatory exposure to the two languages in the school curriculum doesn't seem to help. People seem resigned to simply having the description of certain products written in both languages.

The thing is, Israelis know English much better than Arabic. Most of this, I suppose, is due to the infiltration of American culture. Israeli kids have long been exposed to English through songs on the radio, movies and programs on t.v. Celine Dion once said that she could sing songs in English as a small child, although she didn't know a word of English. And now, when the Internet has broken down geographical borders and we can easily communicate with anyone in the world, the language of global communication is now English. Celine Dion may have never learnt English, had it not been for her desire to be a growing star on the international scene.

It appears, then, that the key to successfully learning another language is motivation. And it has to be a real motivation, one that reaches into us daily. Israelis must have a certain command of English in order to enter Israeli universities. But this requirement doesn't strongly motivate young kids. They are motivated by the fact that they need English to play games on the Internet, strike up new friendships, sound cool by singing American songs, etc. And then, when they do reach university, they put in long hours improving their reading and writing skills, because this is what they need now, day to day, to reach their goals.

Without such motivation, our command of a foreign language can not make it past the drunken factor. And although we must have acquired something of the foreign language in our studies, if sufficient liquor can connect all of the dots in a way that our language teacher never could, we wouldn't want to suggest that excessive drinking is the best solution to becoming a successful language learner.

You will have probably gathered, by now, that Hebrew is my other 'sober' language, in addition to English, of course. I was strongly motivated to learn Hebrew upon arriving in this country. It was my only key of entry. Unlike many others, where being in Israel was simply a continuation of their Jewish upbringing, for me it was a totally new experience. And I felt that I had to continually prove myself. It was only when I had become fluent in Hebrew - both in speaking, reading and writing - that I no longer felt the need to prove myself. Of course, many other things were involved. But language was a major factor. 

I keep telling myself that I need to go back to learning French so that it will pass through the drunken barrier into sobriety. Not that I really need French over here. Although a French tourist does wander by now and then. Why then should I make the effort? Would a good command of French make me feel more Canadian? Everything I have said until now suggests that it wouldn't. Although I feel that it should. What do you think? Looking forward to your comments.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

My hockey cup runneth over

They say that hockey is in every Canadian’s blood. Don’t know about that. But it is certainly a part of my beginnings. I have proof of that in the small trophy sitting on my living room shelf, down here in the desert.

“David Lloyd – Mite Champion” I won’t include the year. 

Not that I have anything to hide, but… *sigh – let’s just say that I was eight years old at the time. Now this trophy, in addition to the rust, has undergone a traumatic past, revealed by the broken handle on one side - not a mean feat for something made out of some sort of metal - and the cup itself, bent forward. I am not going to lay any blame for its present appearance on anyone, although I will mention that one of my best friends was seen leaving the room shortly before the damage was reported. My friend, who will presently remain nameless, maintains – until this day - that his team should have won the cup. The thing is - we didn’t know each other at the time of the championship game, which my team won 1-0, but we were both under this massive pile of skates, hockey sticks and hockey gloves, right in front of his team’s goal. And somehow the puck managed to make its way into their net. He calls it a hand goal, but has no physical evidence to present. I maintain that I saw a stick poke it in. But even if I am mistaken, I will freely borrow from Maradona in claiming that it was the hand of God. (I have often wondered what position God would play – attacking centre forward or saviour in goal. I guess this very much depends on whether this is a Jewish God or a Christian God.)

I played a few more years after that, but stopped when my mother thought that hockey was getting too violent. Actually, and this is just between me and all of you out there - I was grateful for the out, for I was becoming increasingly bruised through the wear and tear of spending most of my time squeezed against the boards. I have never done too well with physical contact (and stop that snickering), although my closest thing to a real physical fight came on the hockey rink. I was playing on defence at the time and the opposing player first took offense to my sticking the stick up between his legs and pulling back hard when he was on a breakaway. Especially since I got away with it. So, at the first opportunity, he hit me hard. Then I found an opportunity to hit him and so we continued until the final buzzer signaling the end of the game. At this point, like real pros, we threw off our gloves and squared up for a real fight. But the referee, towering over us, stepped in to stop all of this nonsense. You may think I had it planned that way, but I admit nothing. The thing is, a Canadian puts on skates and immediately thinks he is Rambo. But it is good if you have something to back it up. So, for my own good, I left playing hockey early and depended only on watching the sport from the safety of the living room. The Toronto Maple Leafs won their last Stanley Cup shortly after that. I have vehemently maintained throughout the years that there was no connection between the two, almost parallel, developments. But not long after that I set out on a self-exile. I have vague memories of saying, at the time, that I would be back when the Maple Leafs next won the Stanley Cup. You can see how well that worked out for me.

What does all this have to do with the Israeli experience? Actually, I think that hockey is the perfect sport for Israelis. Fast, non-stopping, people getting thrills by hitting each other, shouting and swearing – much like a Sunday drive down a street in Tel Aviv. The only problem is a lack of ice. A small setback. There is only one “official” ice rink in Israel, up by the Lebanese border. There is something poetic about putting a hockey rink close to a border where missiles are frequently fired down upon us. Adds flavour to the game, perhaps. But, despite all this, an Israeli team managed to win the Division B trophy in an International Peewee Ice Hockey Tournament in Quebec City. Not having access to ice most of the year, they practiced most of the time on roller skates. I bet the Russians never thought of that. Maybe the Maple Leafs should come over here for a few pointers. Perhaps their problem is that they keep insisting on playing on ice.

And while we are talking about ice, there is one more thing that the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Middle East have in common: the Leafs will win the Stanley Cup and there will be peace in the Middle East probably only when hell freezes over.

Where Ketchup will travel

This morning I found myself putting ketchup on my omelette. Something apparently to be frowned upon, here in the Negev desert, or anywhere else in Israel, for that matter. The last time people looked at me like that was when I put my salt on my watermelon. "Enhances the taste!" I said, to their shocked and disapproving stares. It doesn't take much to reaffirm that you haven't yet quite landed, despite spending the last 35 years of your life in this adopted country (who actually was doing the adoption?)

At times like this I always blame my Canadian side, or use it as an excuse, at least. Unlike our American cousins to the south (or across the seas, in my case), our under belly hasn't been exposed in countless sitcoms detailing all of the trivial and gruesome details of American life. (I do ask all South and Central American residents to excuse me for borrowing a part of your identity to identify the United States of America population, but it is just easier this way - call me lazy.) A few Canadian sitcoms do make it all the way here, and some are well received on Israeli soil, but at the most they are considered "quaint". Actually, Canadians on the whole are considered "quaint" here. So I can basically blame almost anything on my Canadian heritage and get away with it.

Perhaps the biggest advantage, or disadvantage (depends on the day of the week, snow storms and whether the Leafs will make the playoffs) of being a mishmash of Israeli experience and Canadian roots, is that nobody will take responsibility for you. "You're not really Israeli, are you?" "How can you still call yourself Canadian?" Actually, this sits quite well with me, unless I am taking it standing up. Being naturally a social misfit (apparently this goes back to my young elementary school days, possibly even kindergarten, but there were no podcasts back then to document any of this) I will use anything offered to explain the unexplainable.

And don't even get me going as to whether a Canadian pronounces it ketchup or catsup. The last time I was in Canada there was a discussion about this (I'd use argument, but Canadians are not often wont to argue, unlike Israelis, who just wait for an excuse to argue). Even Canadians couldn't agree on one pronunciation. It possibly is connected to different generations. Do I still get a generation being away this long?

And corn on the cob. When I first saw corn on the cob in Israel, it wasn't even fit for Mavis the cow. They claim it has gotten better over the years, but Israelis still don't realize that you should only eat corn on the cob when it is hand-picked the same day on a farm and sold at a roadside booth, somewhere like Finch and McCowan. Although the last time I was at Finch and McCowan all I saw was building development. Is nothing sacred?

So, for all of you Canadians still out there in the mother country, and you Israelis who are still wondering how all of these immigrants made it in here, I offer you a slightly different look at identity mislaid, sometimes lost, and occasionally gained - here, and in further entries to come. How about it, eh?