English as a second foreign language
Is everyone looking for something? Are there things that can only be found in some places and not others? And what exactly am I looking for?
Aside from taking part in several courses on literature and cinema, I was asked to speak at an event that was open to an audience from outside the university. Invitations had been sent to various departments that deal with Middle East studies, but it was obvious that the real target audience was the Syracuse Jewish community.
"The community in the city is very conservative," a nice young Israeli lecturer told me. He and his wife, also a professor, had been debating for many years as to where it was best to raise their family. "The community here is a little right-wing," the friendly couple warned me in a Hebrew softly tinged with an American accent. "Most people can't even conceive of the possibility that Israel could ever do something wrong." They were very comfortable in Syracuse, they admitted, life was a lot easier here, but there were also times when they felt that they really had nothing to look for in a place like this.
On the way from Syracuse to Manhattan, I pondered just what it is that people are looking for. What was the real meaning of what the two professors had said? Is everyone looking for something? Are there things that can only be found in some places and not others? And what exactly am I looking for, if anything? Of course I'm looking, I'm constantly looking, but for what? And this thing that I'm looking for, should I happen to figure out what it is, could I find it in Syracuse? Am I finding it in Jerusalem? How would I do in Syracuse? Would my children be happier there? I wonder if after a few years, I would learn how to ice skate ...
Manhattan is a whole other story. Even the weather here is 10 times better. Still, what is it that's keeping me from wanting to go out, see the city, do some sightseeing and try, even if I have to force myself, to enjoy it?
Granted, my acquaintances will always say I'm a whiner, and my wife will say, as usual, that I deliberately try to paint a gloomy picture of the moods that accompany my not-infrequent travels, lest she get the idea that I enjoy traveling around the world, and be so bold as to demand to come along with me to faraway places. But still, I can't think of many things as dispiriting as that feeling that always comes over me at the end of the day, when I've finished with my responsibilities and returned to an empty hotel room, no matter how grand it may be. I find that the best thing to do is go to bed as early as possible. I've learned from experience that the mornings have a way of tempering, at least a little, the loneliness of being in a foreign place.
What am I looking for, I asked myself after a screening and discussion (in Hebrew ) with members of the New Israel Fund in New York. "We came here just for two years," said a kind woman who came over with her husband to speak to me after the discussion, "and how long has it been now?" And the husband replied, nodding sadly, "Seventeen years already."
How would I get along in Manhattan, or maybe even in Brooklyn? How would the children get along?
"With our kids," this same woman told me, "no matter what we do, they only speak English to each other."
"It's easier for them," the husband added.
And what's so bad about that, I tried to tell myself - Maybe I'd actually prefer for my kids to speak English to each other, rather than Hebrew.
I don't know how a move to a new country would affect the kids. Nor am I sure how it would affect me. I'm not sure I could learn a new language again, I'm not sure I have the patience to learn another culture. I did it once, and I have no desire to repeat the experience.
Sometimes I feel like I become completely indifferent when I go to a foreign country. I don't really want to know what's happening there, I don't really want to learn the language. I don't even want to know how to say "water" or "thank you," whether I'm in Germany, France or Italy. I have no choice but to speak the English I learned at school, but I absolutely refuse to read a book in English or, worse, try to write an article. I've learned my second language already, and I'm done as far as that's concerned. And I'm not talking about knowing a language in the sense of letters, syntax and grammar, but in the sense that you're able to use it to look straight into the eyes of its biological owners.
And what about the cab driver who drove me back to the hotel? He, too, is looking for something, this foreigner who wears an earpiece and speaks softly into a phone in a language that seemed to me to be Albanian or Serbian, I couldn't decide which. What is he looking for? Can the Albanian also say things like "I have nothing to look for here?" Does the Albanian, Bosnian or Palestinian living in New York have any cause to debate the question at all? Would he really want to go back? Maybe this is the way to get ahead in a foreign country?
It's quite possible, I thought to myself on the way back to the hotel, that it's easier to come from a country that isn't beset by hunger, unemployment and dictatorship, from an ostensibly modern and enlightened country. A country where the locals know you could have stayed there, that you could return whenever you felt like it. It might be much easier to dispel the feeling of inferiority that comes with foreignness by showing nostalgia for the motherland, by musing aloud about the difficulty and the depth of the self-imposed sacrifice entailed in the choice to move to a foreign country. To make it clear that we are not beggars here, or slaves who had no choice, but that we are here for the sake of professional advancement that also contributes substantially to the destination country. No way around it, it seems - You have to be highly educated, well-off and successful if you want to be a successful immigrant.