Bureaucratic kerfuffle in Israel: My Trip

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There I am

As you may know from brief biographies published on occasion, I am American but I happened to be born in Israel. But what does that exactly mean? I moved when I was a baby and I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t even particularly care about Israel other than a general appreciation for the Western mythological tradition, and in fact if you speak to me in private I would express that I am quite critical of the intense political situation there. If you wanna get into religion then let me say I’m basically atheist at this point.

I identify myself as completely American and somewhat proud of that—not that America is perfect but there is an argument to be made that America’s contributions to the world do outnumber the negatives. And, America is just plain more interesting.

The short and long of it is that I left Israel at two-years old. I have no memory as “sabra”. My dad is from Chicago and my mom is from the former Soviet Union; they met there and me and my sister were born abroad but raised in the United States of America: the midwestern states of Indiana and Ohio to be specific. I consider my hometown to be Cincinnati. For the past decade I’ve had a California driver’s license. Even though I’ve lived in another interesting country for quite a while, China, I will always consider myself an American abroad.

I did visit Israel a few times in my adult life. When I was a teenager on one of those trips, a couple times to see family. What can I say? The food is good. It’s English-friendly and easy to get around. That’s about the main takeaway for me.

So, over the last several years my sister has chosen to live in Jerusalem and do the whole religious thing. Not for me, but to each their own. She has a family, a precocious hyper son whom I met at a wedding in Florida two years ago. Since then, her family has grown with the addition of two super-cute nieces I had yet to meet. Hence, the time came for one of those international trips to meet the family!

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Ridiculously super-cute

I had arranged to fly from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv for a brief, one-week trip. My mom was flying in as well. Right off the bat, unwelcoming Israeli security became an issue as I was personally escorted through the HK airport. It was better than the strip search last time. The real bureaucratic issue was when, after the grueling 11-hour flight, I was told off at the Ben-Gurion customs…

See, I have never even had an Israeli passport. I left as a baby under my parents’. I could claim dual citizenship, but I’ve never had any desire whatsoever. In 2011 I came for my sister’s wedding, and there wasn’t a problem with my U.S. passport until I left and a border guard yelled at me for not having an Israeli passport. I was told I would not be allowed in next time without it. In the years since I tried my best to forget about that. It was kind of offensive, being told what my identity is.

They must have remembered, because when I came in the guard knew I was warned already and gave me a very hard time for not getting the passport. Gotta give their record-keeping system credit. Apparently I had to go to the Ministry of the Interior to sort it out, or I would not be allowed to leave the country!

Bit scary to be told that. What, should I contact the American embassy and say Israel is trying to kidnap me? I do get it; Israel is very aggressive about getting more migration for their own reasons. However, I am not into it. Least I know I’m too old to get drafted.

I suppose it could come in handy if there was a world disaster and I needed a second country’s passport. Still, I try not to plan my life around paranoia.

So, they eventually let me through. I was nervous but ready to embrace the trip. My Dad—who happened to be in the area—picked me up along with my British brother-in-law. It was late, and already I preferred the cool, dry desert air to the humid jungle weather I had come from. We went to my dad’s accommodations to pass out, and the next day I saw my sister’s family!

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Me and Mom and Sis and boy

I had met her son/my nephew in 2014 but I never met my nieces until that day. They are ridiculously cute. And not only that, but we then returned to the airport to pick up my mom! A real family reunion of a trip. I doled out gifts of Chinese trinkets and we all caught up on life. It’s always nice to see one’s immediate family after years away.

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The dreaded Ministry of the Interior

Finally, on Day 3, I went to the dreaded Ministry of the Interior. My dad helped me out a lot. I brought my (American) passport and my printout of flight details, and that’s all I had. No Israeli documentation whatsoever. We took a number, waited, then were told to go somewhere else to take a number. It was early in the day and I can’t complain as it was rather fast for a government ministry. At last, a lady took us in her office. I had two choices revealed: I could pay to receive an Israeli passport and it would take a few days, or I could get an exit permission letter right then and there at no charge. I chose the latter. She highly recommended that I get the passport and I must eventually if I ever come to Israel again, seriously I really better not forget, but this would be allowed for the current trip.

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Model of ancient Jerusalem at Israel Museum

Now over with, I was free to enjoy the rest of my time! There were so many dinners with family. Playing with the kids. Taking photos. Eating delicious Middle Eastern food. Oh the hummus, the hummus!!! Lots of walking around the central district of Jerusalem, which is mostly an overly religious city, but touristy Jaffa Center at Ben-Yahuda street was tolerable. We went to malls, restaurants, and argued. It’s a family tradition. Arguing with my dad was the worst (we have a complex relationship), and there was a rather heavy disagreement with my sister as well over the settlements and alternative medicine. But don’t get me started, as this is supposed to be a mostly apolitical blog. The theological discussions were remarkably civil.

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Comics!

When asked about my favorite place on the trip, I have to admit it was going to the comic book store in the metropolitan city of Tel Aviv. I love checking out comic shops when going to a new place. The beach was also nice. The Israel Museum comes highly recommended; at the time they had an exhibition on ancient Egypt. They even have the Dead Sea Scrolls, an amazing sight to see (though they don’t let you take pictures there). I did enjoy the old city of Jerusalem, with the Western Wall and the Christian District, all those old churches and ancient structures.

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Beach

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Taking the Western Wall very seriously

One project I was working on while there was an interview series with my mother. She’s had a crazy life immigrating from one country to the next three times over, and I wanted to learn more about it. I treated the interview like journalism, recorded several hours of footage, and that’s all I’ll say about that until I create something to share next year.

The days went by too fast and before I knew it was over. After a funny episode of almost being late because I needed a new belt, I was driven back to the airport. I said my goodbyes, and the exit paper was no problem. All that was left was memories and souvenirs. I was headed back to that other controversial country of China, back to what had since become familiar to me, my life in Shenzhen. Not that life is stable here, the scenery is ever-changing no matter where…

Whether one likes it or not, family is where ya come from and they are important. I hope I’m on good terms with them. I’m not happy about everything when it comes to where I am from and my past, but then again perhaps I should get over those issues and appreciate all that’s been done for me. My mom and dad did their best, they are good people, and I thank my sister so much for helping me organize this trip. I wish her the best of luck with her new family, and I am sure she will do great.

That said, perhaps next time we should all visit in another country. Somewhere chill, I wouldn’t want to get in trouble over passport customs issues or anything.

 

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A rare photo of almost the entire family in one place. Note the food

 

South Africa Part II: Kruger Park and Cape Town

In the last installment, I arrive in South Africa which is the home nation of my lovely girlfriend. I explore Joburg, meet her dad, and experience the chill South African lifestyle of braais.

Now, the real part of the trip was to begin.

All the while, I should mention, Trevor Noah loomed in the background. Yes, by coincidence it was the same week that Trevor started at the Daily Show! I’ve always been a big fan of Jon Stewart and I was really looking forward to it. It was a big deal, his face was everywhere. South Africa seems to be pretty proud of their native son taking over my countries best political comedy show. His face was on every newspaper. Especially after the now legendary Trump-as-African-dictator bit.

(Although the place we mostly stayed at had cable, soon I would be without it, without even Wi-Fi on my laptop to catch up with TV. I’d eventually catch up, I always do, but to tell the truth being off the grid was hard on me. More on that in a moment. )

Also, people paid attention to the Rugby World Cup. Not only am I an American, I am an American who doesn’t follow sports. I didn’t really care. People seem to care a lot still. Something or other happened, Japan, Samoa, Wales, New Zealand. I don’t know.

Okay, on with the story.

 

Days Five to Nine

Day Five was a busy day. In the morning we went to downtown Pretoria and saw the capital Union Buildings. Then, transferred to another parent and in the evening we were to spend time with the mother. Again, I was anxious. Again, it was no big deal and everyone was totally welcoming.

I suppose being in one’s thirties, parents would have to accept whomever their daughter chooses to be with. Even me.

An uneventful evening, and then the next day the trip to the Kruger Park began!

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Oh no, I knew it would partake of some driving, I knew it would be a challenge, but I didn’t know it would be that much driving.

My girlfriend’s mother’s husband drove, and we sat in the back. For days on end, we were driven around sitting in the back. Felt as if I was twelve-years old again.

Luckily I had my iPod. Got a lot of audiobook listening done: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis. I recommend it, a good listen.

First day out, a slow drive north with many stops at sleepy little towns where there’s nothing to do but buy postcards and trinkets from locals. Finally we arrived at Grasskop to stay at log cabin guesthouses on the night before the Kruger Park camping started. A nice town, an interesting art hotel nearby, and we ate decent Portuguese food.

Another thing about these old people I was hanging out with, they are serious morning people. Nice people, absolutely generous people who are kind enough to support and show me around their country on this tour. But seriously morning people. And I happen to be not. Had to get used to that.

At dawn left for the Kruger Park. Finally made it!

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The way the Kruger Park conservation park works, is that it’s not some zoo with animals on display for you. It’s an enormous area the size of a city or province. The animals simply go about their life. There is a fence around the edges, and I’m sure the rangers control the animal populations to some degree. Yet for the most part the animals are living exactly as they would in the wild, and any visitor can certainly get the sense that this is no zoo. No zoo pretensions here, it’s totally authentic nature, the way South Africans like it.

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One just drives around, on dirt roads, following a map if one likes or only wandering, and see what animals turn up. If there’s a lion, roll up the window. If an elephant is standing on the road, no choice but to wait until he decides to walk on (please don’t antagonize the elephants).

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Right off the bat I saw a lot. Giraffes chewing on the leaves of trees. Zebras hanging around. Families of elephants enjoying the day and spraying themselves with water to cool down. Endless herds of impala. With my binoculars, I sat in the backseat and we parked around various locations and took it all in. I got some good pictures.

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The campsites don’t open until the afternoon, so we really took it easy. Like, hours and hours of taking it easy. After a certain point, I was listening to my iPod and reading my thick George R.R. Martin (Storm of Swords, best book of the song).

The campsite parts of the day were more chill. You aren’t even allowed to go for a drive when it gets dark, unless it’s a guided tour, so we stayed in. Read in the cabin, relaxed. Swam if there’s a pool. Listened to the noisy frogs at the nighttime pool. Read some comic files on my computer, unitizing my laptop best I could though there wasn’t even any Wi-Fi! Used up the airtime on my phone fast.

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Every day we went to a different campsite, each with its own stylized bungalows. “Round hovel” or something it’s called in Dutch/Afrikaans. The first had these silly-looking blue-headed guineafowl birds that walked about.

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The second included a rhinoceros exhibit with a fenced trail, and we happened to even see a rhino walk right up (sadly no camera on me so no rhino selfie). Poor endangered creatures, least they have their horns here.

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The final was near Crocodile Bridge and filled with baboons and vervet monkeys walking around the site chill as can be – do not ever feed the monkeys.

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Every night, of course this being South Africa, we drank wine and had a braai. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but it’s not my scene to be so into nature. I could have used a little bit more technology to pass the time. I mean, the stars were beautiful. The animals were indeed beautiful. Like that scary late part of the night when the leaves were rustling and the flashlight revealed a baby elephant came right up to edge of the camp to munch on greens. I was so nervous upon approaching. That was some moment. Even the hyena was beautiful.

Yet, I sometimes feel worried that there is something wrong with me. I cannot appreciate it the way other people can appreciate. I need something to read. I need some interactive media to comfortably remind me that the rest of the world exists, some distractions. I like that. Unlike locals that are ever content listening to the winds on a slight buzz. All the while, I partly felt like there was this underlying conflict because I wasn’t having some spiritual epiphany out there in the African wilderness.

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Dad is coming to visit me

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Me and Dad, in Florida 2014

 

This blog is a prelude of sorts. Not much in life to report as yet, but soon I hope to have some interesting autobiographical content to share.

Tomorrow I will go to the Hong Kong airport and pick up my dad. He will stay in South China for about ten days. His first time in the region. Finally, get to show off my expat life. He has no idea how epic it will be.

I saw him — as well as my mom and brother and sisters — last year in Florida at a family wedding. For me, about once a year is a good pace to meet family members.

We have a complicated relationship. Although I’m not very pleased with where I come from, at this age shouldn’t everything be fine? It’s not like I have some great trauma in my life to fret over. I’m simply not terribly proud of my mediocre background. Nevermind, moving on. Hopefully, in the near future, I can make something of my life to be proud of and get over that.

In truth, it’s rare to have visitors in China and I appreciate it. My sister came the second year I was here. My best friend visited the year after. That’s about it. If you know Americans and their typical lack of passports, it’s not easy to get them to fly across the world just to hang out. Wish more would.

 

My dad and I will be staying in Hong Kong the first few nights, planning to go to the Peak and the Star Walk and the Heritage Museum. Then we will cross over into Shenzhen, and I haven’t thought up all the details as yet. I often like to make it up as I go along with trips. Perhaps Dafeng art village and some crazy shopping markets. I do look forward to showing off the tremendous scale of mega-metropolitan modern China. We will also spend at least one day in nearby Guangzhou; I’m thinking of checking out the traditional buildings in Yuexiu park. Unfortunately no time for Beijing and the Great Wall & Forbidden Palace etc. Next trip I promise.

 

That would be the tentative plan. Gimme some time to blog more after the fact…

Dating – an American intermission

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On an LA train. Note my long hair

After two years in China, two years of travel and adventure and yes dating, I was ready for my triumphant return to America. Some people like to go back to the home country often; every summer, every Christmas, every Chinese New Year. But with so many places to see in the world, and only so much free time as well as funds, I prefer an every-other-year approach towards seeing old friends and family. There’s not all that much for me in the States anyhow, to be perfectly honest.

I left my burgeoning/declining relationship and flew home. It worked out so that I was in between apartments, with boxes of clothes and stuffs strewn about various friends’ apartments back in Shenzhen. I was to live out of my suitcase for the whole month of August. Best month, for sure, to get out of the South China heat.

The trip proved to be rather epic. With a chill start, my good buddy who also happened to be my old roommate picked me up from LAX, that familiar Los Angeles airport I’ve been to so many times. Funny story how we became roommates; he’s a very old friend from Cincinnati (all the way back to youthful high school days), and after I’d already been in California a while one day I was surprised with a call and told me he suddenly decided to drive over to visit and move in with me. I said sure! I’ve since been long-gone, and he still lives in Long Beach to this day.

I even got to stay in my old apartment, in the center of the LBC. There wasn’t much nostalgia, no reverse-culture shock. At this age in my development, it’s quite easy to just pick up where I left off. I enjoyed relaxing for a few days. Went to the beach. Took the infamously shitty LA public transpot and met up with L.A. friends up in Echo Park and Hollywood. Went through various bureaucratic procedures at the California DMV and Chinese consulate. Nerd that I am, my favorite part was simply going to the big bookstores and sitting down and catching up on graphic novels. And, a bit of flirting with girls at bars, regaling of tales in China, and nothing at all came of that.

The high point was actually when I flew to the Midwest, believe it or not.

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