Speaking in all honesty, I never planned to study in Jerusalem, let alone visit the place. It was a place that has always been intellectually intriguing to me as a Religion major but never thought of as a place I would like to visit for sure. My original plan for the summer was to be in Jordan with a non-governmental humanitarian organization, but the logistical problem of getting visas, transports and deadlines hindered me from doing so. That is how I ended up in Jerusalem, a city from which I have learned a lot.
Cohesion and Tension
Jerusalem is a conservative city, with different religious and ethnic groups coexisting together but only with limited interaction on the surface. One can feel the divide between Jews and Arabs in the city even if it is not spoken of. The Light Rail that serves the residents of Jerusalem is a reminder of the subtle separation between East and West Jerusalem, dividing the people living there. With that said, I became more aware of my own identity; on top of being one of the few international- studying in North America but are not American- students in my summer program but I also stood out from the public because of my ethnicity.
Being a South East Asian and especially in a city like Jerusalem, it was rather obvious that I was an outsider. Other people of similar faces are either tourists, students like me or caregivers who work to take care of the elderly living in the city. Even these migrant caregivers from Asia- living and working in Jerusalem- are not considered by the residents to be a part of the city other than as liminal entities. With that in mind, I navigated my three weeks in Jerusalem which inevitably led me to understanding my own identity a little better.
It is easier to navigate new spaces when you speak the language or are familiar with the culture. Since I was not familiar with either, it made it rather difficult to learn about things such as asking the shopkeeper how much bread costs or the significance of different kippah (cap worn by Jewish men) sizes. Moreover, being in a new space also means you meet new people and as people are everywhere- some are not as nice as others. While my classmate and I were walking around downtown Jerusalem looking to interview, we were shooed out by some storekeepers. The worst interactions I have had with Jerusalemites are usually based on my lack of knowledge of the Hebrew language; my worst interactions have been mostly indifference towards my identity.
Although the indifference I received from the public was expected, I found myself trying to find my community in Jerusalem. There is the community I belong to at Rothberg in Hebrew University, along with my classmates and other students from the summer program. There were several students who were First Gen, but they still did not provide the certain sense of community I was looking for.
Taking it in Stride
I realized later that I was looking for a cultural and ethnic identity that I could relate to, something to make me feel at home. Being in South Tel Aviv and seeing the school for migrant children (see photo below), I felt more at ease because it reaffirmed the fact that I am not the only outsider here.
One of the most important things I learned in Jerusalem is that a sense of belonging is not just limited to one’s connection to a national, ethnic or cultural identity. While I was at the post office in Jerusalem trying to send a postcard, a Filipino migrant worker gave me the extra waiting number he had in hand. I am inclined to think that he helped me out because a) I was clearly lost and b) also because of my identity. Although we did not speak the same language, there is always a shared connection and an inclination for minorities to help one another out.
This was not the only time I received helped due to the kindness of a stranger while in Jerusalem. A Jerusalemite I met on my way to Tel Aviv offered to store my luggage for the day since I was leaving on a flight that night. Without her help, I would be lugging around my luggage all over Tel Aviv.
Finally Feeling Accepted
From my time in Jerusalem, I learned that keeping an open mind goes a long way. Always lend a helping hand to someone who might need it. Just because I am an outsider, that does not mean that there is no room for people like me; there will always be people you could connect to. I have learned that identity to me doesn’t just have one unchanging meaning but rather is an accumulation of different experiences that will shape me for who I am. This experience has taught me to be more comfortable in liminal spaces, and that anyone can find belonging even in the most foreign of land.
Htet Thadar Aung is a Government and Religion double major at Smith College and studied abroad with IFSA on the Summer in Jerusalem: Diversity & Coexistence program in Israel during Summer 2018.