Sure, I want to fit in, but being bicultural gives me the best of two worlds

I ate my first corn dog in the fourth grade. It was the first morning that — instead of the usual homemade lunch in a paper bag — my mother caved into my demands and handed me a few dollars to buy food in the school cafeteria.

I was new to America, recently arrived from Israel, and unfamiliar with American culture and cuisine. I spoke no English, and my greatest concern was to be like the “other kids.”

The “other kids” bought their lunch in the cafeteria. Their dads drank beer and watched football on Sunday afternoons (or so I thought). They spoke English at home with their families. In the winter, they celebrated Christmas — and, if they didn’t celebrate Christmas, then they certainly received presents for Chanukah (which, sadly enough, is not practiced in Israel).

My family did none of these things.

Although we had left the Holy Land for the Silicon Valley, we retained our Israeli traditions and disregarded most new American ones.

Each day after school, I returned home to a different language and a different culture.

On Sunday mornings, instead of church or Sunday school, my sisters and I donned our khakis and went to Palo Alto’s Albert L. Schultz JCC for “Israeli Scouts” — a half-Hebrew-, half-English-speaking group of preteens led by slightly more mature counselors through endless water balloon fights and other “team” games, and the occasional Israeli sing-along.

The Israeli Scouts were a ton of unadulterated fun. But back at school — where I instantly repelled anything that set me apart from what I perceived as the group norm — I rarely mentioned what I did on Sundays.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one at my school who didn’t quite know what to do with these differences. There were others who came from foreign countries.

There were three kids in my English as a Second Language classes: We were Israeli, Mexican and Korean. The teacher was Chinese-Italian-American.

Somehow, within six short months, all four of us could converse in English.

I soon found out, though, that learning the language was just a small part of learning to be an American.

At a recent party in San Francisco, I spoke with a friend, also an Israeli who moved to California at a young age, about the difficulties of growing up in a bicultural environment, and about the pulls and pressures to assimilate in American society.

“When I first came to the U.S. at the age of 8, I wanted to fit in, to belong, to not be singled out,” my friend confessed. “Later on in life, I began to see the importance of maintaining my original culture.”

According to my friend (who coincidentally is a psychologist) assimilation is giving up your original culture for the new culture, while acculturation is the incorporation of the new culture with the original one. The crux of the issue, he says, is preserving one’s Jewish and/or Israeli heritage in a society that encourages assimilation.

I imagine that the conflict between assimilation and acculturation touches many, many people in America, and definitely all Jews.

For a long time, my goal was to assimilate. Almost anything reminiscent of my Israeli/Jewish culture, I was willing to give up or hide in order to better camouflage myself into American culture.

However, at some point I began to realize that being bilingual is kind of cool and definitely useful, that being bicultural is an enriching experience, that — if I only let myself — I can have the best of two worlds.

Today, when people here ask me what country I’m from, I proudly reply “Israel.”

Finding a good balance between my two cultures has taken even longer than acquiring my American citizenship.

Although I don’t think I ever ate another corn dog after that day in the fourth grade (after I realized there was actually a hot dog inside!), there are some American customs — such as presents on Chanukah — that I’ve chosen to incorporate into my pre-existing Israeli traditions.

A little assimilation never hurt anyone, right?

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].