Friday, May 20, 2011

Advice for Israelis coming to the US

Congratulations, you've received an offer from a US academic institution, and now you're going to spend a year or two abroad. I have prepared some advice for you to help you adjust to the cultural differences between our two countries. My observations are by no means exhaustive, but hopefully provide enough guidance to get you through your year with minimal discomfort, awkwardness, and embarrassment. Here is a top ten list, in the spirit of David Letterman (Don't worry, you'll know who he is pretty soon.).

Top 10 Cultural Differences

10. Dress code
On my first day of work at Tel Aviv University, I arrived at the office wearing dress slacks and a button down shirt, what I would call business casual. I got the casual part right. Needless to say, on the second day, I showed up in shorts and a T-shirt. The US is a lot more formal than Israel, so don't throw out those flip flops or sandals, but before you wear them to work, see how the others dress.
If you are invited to dinner at someone's house, I would not recommend jeans or shorts, especially if it's Shabbat dinner. In a fancy restaurant, you may need a coat and tie. I have been in Israel for almost a year, and I have not worn a tie once despite experiencing Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, a Bar Mitzvah, and an upcoming wedding, to which I will not wear a tie. We easily spotted the American students in shul on Yom Kippur - the only ones wearing ties except the Rabbi (and he's American). Every one of those occasions in the US requires a suit. This advice is geared towards men, as the complexities of the female dress code are well beyond me. For expert advice on this topic, I refer you to my 9 and 12 year old daughters.
9. Respect for advisor
Even if you do not respect your advisor or mentor in the US, you should pretend you do. In Israel, it is not uncommon to tell your advisor that he is wrong to his face. A proper Israeli advisor will respect your candor before yelling at you and explaining why he is never wrong. The correct way to express the same sentiment to an American advisor is to hesitantly ask if he might have considered another way of looking at the issue. Then wait for him to ask what you mean. You will then have an opportunity to give your opinion, after which a proper American advisor will thank you and politely explain to you that he is never wrong.
In lab meetings in the US, it is customary to let people finish what they are saying in a discussion. The more people in the meeting, the more formal the behavior. It is not uncommon to have brief intervals of silence as the participants look towards those higher in the pecking order to see if they want to speak, and only then, if the opportunity presents itself, make their contribution to the discourse. Of course, I'm exaggerating, but if you are used to the way lab meetings run in Israel, this is a close approximation of what it will look like.
8. Driving
Lay off the horn. In most American cities, you will hear cars honk their horns fewer times in a year than in one afternoon in Tel Aviv. Drivers in the US are much calmer and more laid back than the ones you are used to. However, as you approach bigger cities, especially in the Northeast, you will start to feel more at home on the roads.
You will not have painted sidewalks encoding the parking rules, so you will have to observe signs to figure out where you can and cannot park. Also, while you are used to pulling up onto the sidewalk when street parking runs out, this is not advisable in the US, as your car will get towed.
Slow down. Speeding tickets are much more common in the US, and speed limit signs are not there only to provide humor and irony. If you see a car has the right of way, do not try to avoid eye contact with the driver to see if you can sneak in ahead of him. Americans will not look upon that as favorably as Israelis (although they are less likely to honk at you). Whatever you do, make sure you do not drink alcohol and drive. In many states you will go to jail, and in some states you will lose your license and possibly even your car. In many cities there will be checkpoints at night, especially on the weekend. The checkpoints are not there to check for legal documents as they are in Israel. Rather, someone may administer a breath test or ask you to walk in a straight line. It is not advised to joke around with these people under these circumstances. More on that later.
If you have no experience driving on snow or ice, do not attempt to do so. No matter how much confidence you have, and no matter how pressing the trip, you are better off hanging out at home in front of the fire. (Most houses have fireplaces in cities that get cold in the winter.)
7. Food and drink
In the States, social events tend to center more around alcohol than food (with the exception of Jewish events, which more closely resemble what you are used to). The typical home BBQ in Israel tends to resemble a gourmet 7 course meal. However, if you are invited over for a BBQ in the US, you can expect lots of beer and soda, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato chips, and if you are lucky, maybe potato salad or coleslaw. (Unless the people are Jewish, in which case you will get a huge spread that will always include 7 different flavors of cream cheese and a wide variety of bagels.)
While it is safe to try a random, unknown restaurant in Israel even if it is not very crowded, the typical, average restaurant in the US is quite bad. Unless you have a recommendation, the likelihood that you will get fresh ingredients and a chef with more training than at McDonalds is pretty low. The flip side is that the best restaurants in the top cities in the US are quite a bit better than in Israel, but they are very expensive. In any restaurant, you will also have to almost double your tip because you are expected to tip about 18%, give or take, depending on the service. (For that matter, tips are much more common in the US and are expected by taxi drivers, by the hairdresser, by the car valet, and by pretty much anyone in a hotel who makes eye contact with you.). 
Here are some other aspects of eating in a US restaurant that you may find unusual. You can leave the tip on your credit card, and in fact it is expected. When you reserve a table for 7 pm, they will not tell you that you will have to clear out by 9. The waiter will not give you a hard time if you request a substitution of mashed potatoes for fries. In general, restaurants in the US are much more accommodating of substitutions, and they will actually put the dressing on the side when they say they will. If you ask if the chicken dish contains white meat, they only say yes if it is in fact white meat, whereas in Israel they always say yes, and it never is.
When I asked my wife for input on this blog posting, she said to make sure to mention that the desserts in restaurants are much better in the States (except for crepes, which are served widely in the land of milk and honey). When I asked an Israeli living in the US to comment on the differences between restaurants in the US and Israel, she said to be sure to mention that desserts in Israel are much better. So, we'll call this one a draw.
The following foods are better in the US: Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Mexican. Be sure to eat these often, as you will miss them when you return home.
The following foods are better in Israel, so be sure to have your fill before you depart: Hummus, pita, hummus, falafel, shawarma, eggplant, and hummus.
Americans eat earlier in the day than Israelis, perhaps due to the time difference. Lunch is at noon, and dinner is usually around 6. You are probably accustomed to eating a large lunch around 2 or 3 pm and then a light dinner. In the States, lunch is typically a sandwich or a salad, and dinner is the big meal. (Since I'm a dual citizen, I split the difference by eating a large lunch and a big dinner.) If you want to have dinner in a restaurant at 10 pm, make sure that it is open that late, and good luck finding someone to go with you. I suggest seeking out a European, a South American, or another Israeli as your dinner companion. Most Americans do not like to eat that late.
If you want shakshuka for breakfast, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, you will typically find cereal, eggs, french toast, pancakes, or waffles. When you get back to Israel, you will miss skim milk, low fat yogurt that tastes good, the variety of cereals, and having any fruit you want any time of the year (but not nearly as fresh as in Israel). Did I mention that the Chinese food is very good in the States?
6. Guns and security
When you start living in the US, you will wonder how Americans survive. It will seem that there is no security anywhere, and you will not see any guns (If you do, run for cover.). At the shopping mall, no security guard will go through the trunk of your car, and there will not be a security check at every external doorway. College campuses do not have walls and gates around them. Nobody will look through your purse as you enter a building - if someone tries, alarm bells should go off in your head. The only places where you will feel at home are in government buildings and at the airport. Speaking of the airport, when you fly, you will have to take your shoes off at the security line. This accomplishes nothing, but please make sure to wear clean socks that day.
When you do see a security guard or a policeman, do not try to joke with them, as humor is not their strong suit, especially when they are dealing with Middle Easterners. Don't think that your Israeli accent will protect you, as most Americans cannot tell the differences among accents from the Middle East, and anyway, given the average education level of a security guard, he might not know that Israel is an ally.
In America nobody really thinks about terrorism. The culture shock is in the other direction, when Americans go to Israel. So, be prepared to have to re-adjust to security when you return to Israel. It is easy to get used to complacency, an unappreciated luxury in the States.
5. Grocery shopping
Grocery shopping is much less stressful in America. First of all, you will not be subjected to a security screening when you enter. Furthermore, the store will not hold 5 shekels hostage to provide you with a cart. People at the checkout line will be civil and will wait their turn. It is a lot less likely that there will be a mix-up at the checkout scanner than in Israel. In the rare instance where such a complication occurs, you do not need to worry about the people in line behind you starting to yell and complain that you are holding everything up. In fact, in many grocery stores, you will simply check yourself out at a self service station.
At the deli counter, most often, you will take a number and wait for your turn. If there is no number dispenser, then you can count on the customers keeping track of whose turn it is. When you return to Israel, you will have to re-acquire your pushing and shoving skills so that you are not shut out entirely at the deli counter.
The bread will never be as fresh as back home, but you will have many more choices of almost every product. For example, there are at least 40 different dry cereals to choose from, and any large supermarket is likely to stock all of them. So many options are available because unlike in your homeland, there is no boycott against companies that sell to the United States, and thus no spineless corporations conceding to the pressure not to sell to you.
In many states, supermarkets are not allowed to sell alcohol, so you will have to go to a liquor store for wine or beer. Some states, such as my home state of Maryland, do not allow stores to sell any alcohol on Sundays. So, make sure to stock up before then. Of course, since you are Israeli, you probably don't drink that much, and you are used to working on Sundays, so this is not really a big deal.
The express line operates differently in American grocery stores, and might take some getting used to. The 10 item limit is strictly enforced. It would not be considered normal for you to haggle and argue with the sales clerk and to raise your voice because you only have 11 items. It is even less likely that as you stood your ground, the people in line behind you would start to call you names and to yell at the clerk for not moving on. And do not expect six people to simultaneously yell at each other at the top of their lungs as a result of this unlikely confrontation. As you can see, the express line requires an adjustment period for any Israeli, and is perhaps the place where you will first start to feel homesick.
4. Smoking
If you smoke, you might want to skip this section. Not only because you might find it offensive, but also given that you do not have as long to live as the rest of us, you should probably do something more fun than reading my blog in your remaining time on Earth.
In the US, there are many more non-smoking places than in Israel, despite the fact that smoking is no longer allowed in most buildings there. Americans take their non-smoking rules very seriously, and they get very annoyed if people smoke where they are not supposed to. Most buildings are not only non-smoking, but require those partaking in this practice to stand a fixed distance from the entrances.
Among native Americans (not to be confused with Native American Indians), you will find very few smokers in the educated, academic community, and in fact, there is a social stigma associated with the practice of inhaling nicotine in many circles. It is highly unlikely that you will find a house where smoking is permitted, and most people will not let you even smoke in their yard, and definitely not around their children.
I might add that smoking is not good for you.
3. Sports
If you do not play any sports then you can safely skip this section. Also, you should really try tennis. It's so much fun.
I used to play soccer in Baltimore with a group of Israelis. There was always a lot of yelling, cursing and blaming throughout the game, after which everyone parted best of friends. Any American who plays soccer with Israelis for the first time is in for a culture shock. This cuts both ways. If you have the opportunity to play soccer, basketball, tennis, or any other sport with Americans, you will have to contain yourself. If someone makes a mistake, try "better luck next time" rather than, "what kind of pass was that, you idiot!" If someone doesn't pass you the ball, try "by the way, I was open" instead of "your mother is a billy goat!"
Ironically, I am now living in Israel and playing soccer in Tel Aviv with a group of Americans from the US embassy. The game is polite and civil as one would expect from your typical group of American adults. In most cases, friendly sports games played by grown ups in the US are cooperative, supportive and sportsmanlike. So, leave the yelling at home. If you are loud and confrontational, you will be very unpopular, and you will not be invited back, even though you are probably better at soccer than any of them (another reason they may not want to invite you back).
2. Gatherings and meetings
Two situations. Very similar, yet so different. Both true stories.
It was 2010 and the day before the children started school in Ramat Aviv Gimel, and the teacher held a meeting with the parents in the classroom. Most of the parents were wearing sandals, shorts and T-shirts. I felt overly dressed up in my jeans. The teacher managed to get through the first 3 minutes of her prepared remarks unscathed. 
The first outburst came from the back of the room, "You are absolutely wrong! This is what's wrong with our school and with our educational system and with our government. This is why our children cannot learn anything!" The second outburst came from the other side of the room. "Shut up, she's trying to talk". Another parent offered up, "Can you guys stop arguing so that I can hear what the teacher has to say?" At that point, the teacher attempted to recover, but she did not get another chance to speak, as I remained the only person in the room who was not yelling. This went on for almost an hour, after which I went home and took some Advil.
It was 2009 and the day before the children started school in Stevenson, Maryland, and the teacher held a meeting with the parents in the classroom. The parents were dressed nicely. Some of them came from work in their suits, while others wore slacks or skirts and dressy shirts. I felt a bit under dressed in my jeans. The teacher went over the curriculum for the year. The parents all sat in attentive silence, most of them taking notes. The teacher then explained what the children needed to bring on the first day and what the parents needed to buy for them. The parents scribbled. After 45 minutes, the teacher asked if there were any questions. One of the parents stated, "I just wanted to tell you how excited we are that you will be teaching our children. We have heard such great things about you." There were nods of agreement. Another parent asked a question about the dress code for gym. After the teacher answered, she said that if there were no more questions then she thanks us for coming, and looks forward to a great year. 
When you go to a gathering or a meeting in the US, you will need to act more like the parents in the Maryland school than in Ramat Aviv Gimel. Most meetings at the university in Israel degenerate to shouting matches at some point. This rarely, if ever happens in the US, and when it does, relationships are broken for life. In Israel, you can yell and scream at your friend or colleague, and then pick up where you left off the next day. In the States, if you yell and scream at someone, they will think you are a lunatic, they will be offended, and they might not consider you their friend anymore.
You might get cut some slack for being an Israeli, but I recommend, before arguing too enthusiastically with someone, that you see how others are behaving and follow suit.
1. Bureaucracy
In a previous blog posting, I wrote about bureaucracy in Israel and our nightmare story with the ministry of the interior. While it is true that the amount of red tape in Israel is overwhelming, the US has its own brand of institutionalized insanity. 
Take the department of motor vehicles.
In Israel, the clerk will not necessarily be nice or polite (and in most cases rude), and might automatically say "no", but will bend the rules wherever possible (and impossible) to help you, once you go through the requisite arguing, lose your temper and start yelling.
In the US, the clerk will greet you nicely. So nicely, in fact that you will feel he is an old friend, and that you are likely to get whatever you want. But, still smiling, the clerk will tell you that he can't fulfill your request. No amount of pleading will sway him, and in fact, raising your voice will get you thrown out, and he might call the police (with whom you must remember not to crack jokes). Any increase in effort on your part to get your way will strengthen his resolve. You will be denied. In Israel, raising your voice is not only acceptable, it is somewhat expected. In the US, it is counter productive.
In the States, when you encounter resistance from a service representative on the phone, never raise your voice, but rather politely ask to speak with his supervisor. This may at times immediately result in getting what you want. Or, if the higher up gets involved, you may or may not get your way, but you will probably be treated with great respect, and that's got to be worth something.
Bureaucracy is not fun anywhere, and anyone who travels feels that the system is worse in the new country than back home. So let me assure you of this. Yours is worse. 
I hope that my top ten list has provided you with some guidance and a rough idea of the major cultural differences between Israelis and Americans. Have a wonderful trip, and I assure you that you will return to Israel as a more well rounded person who can poke as much fun at the American culture as I have at the Israeli one.