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Cultural Immersion: Moving OCONUS without a Military Base

My husband was in Afghanistan when we found out we had the opportunity to be stationed in Israel together. Instead of reporting at a regular military base, we would be signing in at an embassy. The same day he landed back in the states, we went straight to work and started the chaotic race to get ready to move overseas in two months. It’s too long of a story to narrate our big move there, but suffice it to say that the logistics were a nightmare, and there was paperwork out the wazoo!

We were traveling in the middle of Israeli holidays, so trying to coordinate things with the embassy was challenging to say the least. With no knowledge of the area (except for Google!) or Hebrew, we plunged into a foreign country with very little idea of what we were getting ourselves into.

So the thing about moving outside of the continental U.S. (OCONUS) is that you have a steep learning curve in all regards, but this time, we didn’t even have the safety net of a military base.

Our particular challenges began with the uncertainty of our safety. Long ago, I lived in Washington, D.C., and I’ve traveled a fair amount, but living in the Middle East felt very different than anywhere I’d ever lived or traveled. It was all very new. I’ll never forget walking back from dinner to our hotel (a 10 minute walk in one of the safest areas in the country) with tears streaming down my face. My eyes jolted back and forth examining the signs of local businesses (no English to be seen). Everything was unfamiliar. We didn’t have a working cell phone, and I felt very alone. The headlines of that day’s news were flashing in my mind – a stabbing in Jaffa and a car ramming in Jerusalem. All I could see, hear, and think of was uncertainty — even though, in reality, everything was OK.

My husband still laughs at me from the memory of that night. And while I shouldn’t have been afraid, all I knew was what I heard on the news – stabbings, terrorists, all real threats – but I later learned that there was no need for fear. My friends now ask me as I reflect on that year, “were you afraid?”

I respond by saying, yes, I was afraid for a short time, but the fear taught me a lot about myself and humanity. It was a healthy fear that I allowed to grow and stretch me.

Lesson #1: It doesn’t matter what country you are in – sure, some are definitely more dangerous than others — there is evil everywhere. There is a reason to live in fear no matter where you live, but living in fear is a choice. The uncertainty you may feel has the opportunity to defeat you or grow you – I encourage the latter.

On a lighter note, the next learning curve for me was grocery shopping. Now, I love to cook and feeding my family well is important to me. I also have Celiac Disease and therefore am on a very restricted diet. The stores in Israel were very different and everything was in Hebrew. My data didn’t work on my phone in most stores, so Google Translate was no help. It was very difficult to find gluten-free products and even harder to find gluten in the listed ingredients due to the language barrier. But thankfully, many people knew English.

Sometimes, I dug deep for some courage and often asked strangers for help – “Is this heavy cream or buttermilk?” But often I didn’t ask for help. Often, a result of not asking for help was me buying the wrong item, i.e. buttermilk. One night I was making pesto chicken pasta for my brother-in-law who was visiting. As I went to test the finished meal before handing it to him, I was quite surprised to find that my pesto sauce was actually cilantro sauce …who knew there was such a thing?!

I felt like I had to learn how to cook all over again in Israel. Different ingredients, ingredients in Hebrew, and more expensive ingredients all provided for my very own Top Chef challenge every meal during our year abroad.

Lesson #2: Ask for help. Just do it! And if the ingredients are drastically different, cook simple – don’t try to master your latest Pin quite yet!

The next noteworthy cultural challenge for me was the tone and chutzpah of the Israeli people. Now before you go thinking that I’m negatively describing the Israeli people, you’re wrong. I greatly admire their strength and resiliency. However, I was not used to it and didn’t exactly enjoy many of my gruff, abrupt encounters with strangers! I simply wasn’t used to their culture; my preferred method of communication with strangers is much more of the “bless her heart” or southern hospitality.  I wouldn’t call the encounters rude, but in Israel, I was lucky to get acknowledged with even a quick glance. I was helped by many strangers when I asked for it but that just isn’t the norm there. Jumping in front of you in lines, brushing past you on a busy street, not asking “How are you?” at a checkout counter, having to beg the waiter to bring your check at the end of a meal, etc. – these are the experiences you eventually come to expect. Maybe this sounds petty but, day in and day out, it gets really exhausting to be thrown into a new culture – my senses were in overdrive, and I was just trying to keep up with everyone around me!

Lesson #3: Show yourself and the people around you grace. Being immersed in a new culture isn’t supposed to be easy. If you find yourself run down from cultural differences, take a time out and remind yourself that it isn’t personal!

I strongly believe that living abroad is a huge opportunity – not just to travel but to be stretched. Be prepared (or not) for the time of your life!  

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