Writer’s Desk: My Two Diasporas On being Jewish and Chinese – Issue 10

Writer’s Desk
My Two Diasporas
On being Jewish and Chinese
by So-Han Fan

Diasporas

Diaspora. A fine word, a Greek word, full of grandeurand romance. It sounds desperate and aspirational.“I am the product of… diaspora.” In my particularcase, two diasporas: Jewish and Chinese. Myfather, a Chinese immigrant, met my mother, the descendantof Ashkenazi Jews, in the United States, a place that neitherwas native to but, that both had been dispersed to, by varioushistorical forces, both political and economic.

Growing up I had limited contact with both cultures, learned languages of neither, and, in a rather peculiar turn of events, was unaware that I had Jewish heritage at all until the age of 21. How and why this part of my ancestry was hidden from me is an entire story unto itself, one that I’m not entirely clear on. For the purposes of this tale, what is relevant is that my mother is descended from Galizian Jews, but I spent most of my life thinking that she was a curious blend of Cajun, Welsh, Irish, and German.

After I found out the truth, I considered my Jewish roots a curious foible of family history, but didn’t quite understand that this particular foible makes me a Jew. It took me some time to come to the realization that I was now part of some sort of ancient, global, proto-tribal brotherhood that accepts me as one of their own unconditionally – I didn’t have to convert or pray or even believe in God. No matter what I do, I am and always will be a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish people – becauseit’s my mother who is a Jew. That’s the catch – apparently it’skind of an all-or-nothing situation.

Some people will tilt their heads and squint and tell me they can see the Jew in me – usually in profile – but it’s not what people think when they first see me. They mostly only see someone Chinese. I remember being teased for being Chinese, but at least I was always accepted as Chinese by Chinese people because of the Chinese surname I inherit from my father. This makes me “Chinese” in a way that a half-Chinese person with a foreign surname is not.

I was interested in my Chinese heritage from a young age but never had any friends who were Chinese or even Asian. I was interested in kung fu and Chinese art and Taoism, but I didn’t learn the language growing up and, besides eating a lot of Chinese food, I didn’t have a very traditional Chinese upbringing

The Middle Kingdom

In 2009 I received my economic stimulus money and two taxreturns at the same time, amounting to about $1100. I usedthe money to buy a one-way ticket to China and 8 months later,armed with half a Rosetta Stone’s worth of Mandarin, moved toChengdu, hometown of the Giant Panda and capital of Sichuanprovince. I lived there for two and a half years, learned to speakChinese, and did research for an environmental NGO among aslew of other odd jobs. I visited my relatives in Hong Kong andtraveled all over the Southwest. As intended, I learned lotsof neat things about China and my heritage along the way. Ilearned that most Chinese people don’t actually eat dog butthat donkey is incredibly delicious. I learned that you can makea lot of money in China if you’re foreign, even if you have notalent, provided you also have no self-respect. I learned thatI, as the oldest male child in the family, am to inherit a book ofnames of all the family patriarchs going back through historyfor dozens of generations.

Hebreween

Less predictably, it was also in China that I became interestedin Judaism. This is another story for another time, but sufficeto say that it involved my much more, shall we say, Jewy cousin visiting and taking me to a Purim party held at the local Chabadhouse. I went dressed as Communist Mario – all I knew aboutthe holiday is that it is kind of like Jewish Halloween. Weread the Megillah Esther and ate hamantaschen; I shared myunusual story, everyone found it very interesting indeed, andthen we all drank- heavily.

Without getting too bogged down in the details of my past,it is important to note that I was raised Christian, in Texas. Irejected that religion when I was 16, long before I knew I wasa Jew, and ever since I have had a deep suspicion of anythingI perceive as proselytizing. If someone comes up to me andstarts telling me about the “good news,” it had better not besomething that happened 2,000 years ago.

So Purim was a nice, gentle introduction to Judaism for mebecause it first and foremost satisfied my “animal soul” withthe three C’s – Costumes, cookies, and the consumption ofalcohol. I became fast friends with the young rabbi, Dovi,and his wife Sarale, who had just moved to Chengdu a weekor two prior. He was the first person to drive home to methe idea that I AM a Jew, completely a Jew, without havingto do anything religious. It was a fact before I even had theknowledge of it. Had he been preachy or tried to immediatelydraw me into an observant Jewish lifestyle, I probably wouldnot have gone back. But he didn’t; he was more interested indrinking and dancing and singing songs, which are all thingsI can get behind.

The Accident of Birth

I went back to the Chabad house every day that week, not outof a newfound sense of religious zeal but because I wantedto hang out with my friend Dovi. We drank and smokedcigarettes. I talked to him about my life and he talked to meabout his, which, because he is a rabbi who was raised in aHasidic household, ended up being mostly about Judaism.He never tried to tell me what I “should” do as a Jew, butrather made me aware of what he “should” do as a Jewand also reinforced to me that that world, his world, is fullyaccessible to me, should I choose to embrace it, simplybecause of the accident of birth. Having lived my whole life ina world of halves – half Chinese, half American, never havinga distinct cultural identity or peer network – it was nice to befully included in something.

Over the next few weeks I spent a lot of time at the Chabadhouse. I learned a little bit of Hebrew, learned to say ShemaIsrael, learned to lay tefillin, and even got Bar Mitzvah’ed(nearly 30 and a man at last!).

A few months later, I was in Israel.

The Land

My decision to travel to the Holy Land had little to do with mynascent Jewish identity and more to do with my innate loveof travel, and my desire to visit my family. I say little, but notnothing – as much as 5% of my motivation had to do withbeing a Jew who had never been to Israel. I felt like I hadgiven a fair shake to discovering my Chinese roots and that Iowed my Jewish half at least a few weeks on my way back toAmerica. My long-held fondness for Israeli women may havealso played a small role. Mostly, however, I wanted to visit myrelatives, most of whom I had never met or even heard of, andone of whom is an octogenarian Holocaust survivor.

My time in Israel was brief – two and a half weeks to my twoand a half years in the Middle Kingdom – but what it lackedin duration it made up for in intensity. I spent the entire timetraveling with my young cousin Eli, who speaks Hebrew andspent his high school years in Israel. We visited his friendsand our mutual relatives all over the country, beginning in theWest Bank and backpacking to Jerusalem, Haifa, Tzfat, andeverywhere in between. We spent a lot of time hitch-hiking,sleeping on sofas, floors, and occasionally outside. We spenttwo nights in the empty dormitory of a Yeshiva. I met relativeswho were frum and relatives who were settlers in the West Bankand those that were human rights lawyers providing pro bonocounsel for Palestinians – first cousins from the same branchof the family. We went hiking in the Golan, mikveh’ed in everybody of water we could find, and attended a Hasidic weddingin Bnei Brak. We went to the only mixed supermarket in theWest Bank, where groups of curious Palestinians shoppedside by side with settlers in a modern American-style grocerywith air conditioning and frozen dinners. Over the course ofmy visit, I acquired a kippah, tzitzit, a siddur, and was givena beautiful set of tefillin by my rabbi at his brother’s wedding,which my visit just happened to coincide with.

I can’t say I’ve seen all of Israel, but I’ve seen a lot of differentsides of Israel, and as many different expressions of Judaism.Understanding my diasporic roots is a journey that I am still on,both literally and figuratively. At the moment I’m in New York– I’m writing this article in a McDonald’s, huddled away on thesecond floor with my luggage. I am literally across the streetfrom the Empire State Building. New York is a beautiful city andthe whole world is here, including both my ancient, inscrutablediasporas. On this leg of the trip I have stayed in Crown Heights,just down the street from 770, and visited the LubavitcherRebbe’s tomb. I’ve spent as much time at tea shops andtemples in Chinatown as I have at shul, I’ve eaten fried chow funand I’ve eaten chopped liver and pastrami on rye. Rather thanhaving one foot in either culture, I have both feet in both, and atthe same time I’m completely an American. In that sense, I havesix feet, like an insect. And as I continue to crawl the surface ofthis earth I learn more about what it means to be all of the above.The main thing that I know now, that I didn’t know before, is thatJewishness and Chineseness aren’t things that you can go andsimply pick up and put on, like a hat – you have to create them,and it’s a process that never ends.

Special thanks to my cousin Nathana and my rabbi DoviHenig of Chabad Chengdu, without both of whom thisstory wouldn’t exist, and Mazal Tov to Dovi and Saralewho have just been blessed with their first child, adaughter.

 

COPYRIGHT Asian Jewish Life is the sole title published by Asian Jewish Life Ltd. © Copyright 2015. Written material and photographs in the magazine or on the website may not be used or reproduced in any form or in any way without express permission from the editor. • Click to contact us