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Japan is easier than Israel

October 16, 2010

All evidence to the contrary, Japan is easier than Israel.

Take the languages, for example. Hebrew is logical with a system that is different but not completely unmanageable for native English speakers to pick up on intuitively once the patterns make sense. There are exceptions, but plenty of Israelis don’t know them either, so it’s no problem. There are so many people in Israel speaking Hebrew as a second or third language that most everyone is pretty tolerant of accents, mistakes, and using the wrong tense or switching syllables around. As long as you get your point across and manage to do so quickly enough for people not to lose patience, you’re all set.

Japanese, on the other hand, while logical in it’s own way, is pretty complicated and completely backwards for native English speakers. It goes beyond the obviously hard writing system, which is no more than a matter of rote memorization that, with enough time and energy, isn’t that big of a deal to master. It’s the nuance and cultural connotation of each word that makes it impossible to memorize a list of vocab and be able to use it properly in context. It’s knowing how to interpret what isn’t said just as clearly as the things people say out loud. It’s being able to flip the way you look at the world completely inside out in order to make most grammatical structures anything but confusing so you can speak without having to painstakingly translate in your head first. It’s being able to overcome a giant cultural barrier that prevents some Japanese people from connecting a foreign face to Japanese sentences, which can cause massive communication failure and unfortunate panic in your conversation partner.

Despite all that, I ran off to Japan when I was twenty, alone, having never been there before and knowing not a soul in the country, steadfastly determined to tackle this impossible linguistic maze. And it was fantastic — things were hard at times, and it’s impossible not to get occasionally lonely when things become overwhelmingly weird, but I would go back in a heartbeat.

But as a 26-year-old married adult moving to Israel, where the culture is different but transparent and the language is old but much easier on many levels and where I have a network of family and friends, I am not picking up Hebrew as fast as I learned Japanese or adjusting to the culture as smoothly. Not even close. In fact, I feel like I’m resisting it at times, avoiding it, and giving up so quickly sometimes that my 20-year-old self doesn’t recognize me.

For anyone who has ever moved for a significant other to a place far from anywhere you’d ever seen yourself going on your own, it’s a big adjustment and often tough to roll with the endless cultural and linguistic punches. In Japan, a place that inspired and interested me, nothing got me down except the elusive 下着泥棒 (shitagidoroubo, underwear thieves) and men assuming I was a Russian call girl. As annoying as they were, these things were easily offset by wonderful stuff like 花見 (hanami, eating and drinking with friends under cherry blossom trees for hours) and a train and subway system that is literally the most amazing thing in the universe for someone with a severe punctuality habit. Little things like being propositioned in the street on your way home from the office can’t get to you when you’re where you want to be.

This might be why I thought living in Israel would be a piece of cake. Most people speak English, are honest and blunt to a fault without the need for interpretation and analysis, and I was moving here to be with my favorite person in the whole world. But while that’s something — a big something, in fact — it’s not everything, even if literature and the movies try to guilt women into believing it should be. And it’s definitely not everything for someone independent and driven enough to run off to a new city, new country, or new continent to follow her dreams. Moving for a spouse is the exact opposite of that; it’s putting my individual dreams on hold and letting commitment and love for another person dictate my geographic location and career. This is by far the most foreign and most challenging thing I’ve ever done.

As such, while tough, perhaps moving to Israel for my significant other is only proportionately more difficult than each successive life decision I’ve made so far and is just the latest step in this perpetual process of extreme character building that I seem to have voluntarily embarked on from a young age.

And while a small comfort, at least I’m still mistaken for Russian in Israel. Some things never change.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Ryuji Kanie permalink
    October 16, 2010 8:49 pm

    Hello Katie-san,

    Watashi ha Kanie-san desu.

    I just stumbled upon your blog.
    I am glad to know that we have something in common.
    I am also struggling with Hebrew. But thanks to the 4yrs in Israel, I finally feel like I can say something in Hebrew.

    We have this meeting of those who are interested in Japan and its lang.
    It is held once a month in Tel Aviv. Hope we get to meet each other there.
    In any case, hope you will write something back to me.


    • October 17, 2010 9:01 pm

      Ryujiさん、thanks a lot for the comment. It’s really good to hear there are more people in Israel who know, love, or are from Japan. So far I have only met two! Where and when is this meeting you mentioned?

  2. Claire permalink
    October 17, 2010 3:05 pm

    Good post, good post, and I want to say, oh-so-elegantly, “ditto.” I don’t understand why the Hebrew that I do know and understand refuses to convey the messages I want to give to people.

    • October 17, 2010 9:03 pm

      As long as the messages you end up conveying don’t make you the butt of jokes that never die, I say you’re on the right track! You made it through more ulpan than I did, so I’m proud of you.

  3. October 17, 2010 6:47 pm

    I totally hear you Katie. Although moving to Israel for my significant other was one of the biggest leaps I’ve taken in my whole life, it was very different from the past independent leaps I’ve taken too. You put it in to words perfectly what I’ve been feeling at times too, almost resisting it and avoiding it and giving up way too quickly. Everyone thought I was so brave but perhaps the bravery applies the most to the sacrifice part, giving up A LOT of my life for this decision.

    Thank you for this post!

    • October 17, 2010 9:15 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Kaori. It makes me feel dishonest if I don’t protest when others say I’m brave too, but I guess different people have different criteria that they believe warrant such a label. Getting on a plane is no big deal in my mind, so I hardly look at living far away in a strange place to be a brave thing to do. But like you said, maybe we are brave for doing something that doesn’t come easily to us, such as making all these sacrifices, with the geography part being more of a side effect. That’s kind of comforting.

  4. Ryuji permalink
    May 21, 2013 10:30 am

    Hi Katie-san!

    It took me a while to come back to this post but I did.
    It is so interesting to read again your post and my own comment. I feel that time has passed.
    The meeting that I mentioned is still going on. In TA, once a month on Thursdays. If you are interested let’s get connected via Facebook. I will include you in the list. On the second thought, let’s just get connected in any case 🙂 My family name is Kanie-san and I have One Piece Luffy as my profile picture.


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