Keeping One Foot in Each World

In the three-and-a-half years since I’ve started this blog, I’ve written about issues from the Chinese, American, and Jewish perspective, but I’ve never yet written about what it’s like to be Chinese in a Jewish community.  I didn’t feel ready, since identity is an ever-changing phenomenon, but an article in this past Friday’s New York Timeson a summer camp for Jews of color as well as its on-going series on race in America, made me stop to reflect on my experiences.

While I’ve heard of incidences of prejudice both overt—  a family not wanting their daughter marrying into a family with a giyoret (female convert) or a Kallah teacher abusing a young bride with non-Jewish parents— and subtle, I’ve been incredibly fortunate.  Maybe, it’s because I am of Chinese heritage–  one generally regarded positively by the Jewish community— or that I was already an educated adult who could choose my own community and establish a network of friends.  One cherished comment came from one of my oldest friends in the Jewish world, who told me that it would be alright with her even if I didn’t go through with the conversion process (as the Orthodox bet din is more strict than others).  (As I’ve written earlier, I have a personal mission to eradicate the term, “Chinese auction,” but its usage stems not from outright racism, but rather from the insularity of some Jewish communities.)

Another important fact is that to the Orthodox, the only badge of membership that matters is one’s observance of the mitzvot (commandments).  A secular Jew might have other means of identification, including having Jewish grandparents, or sillier ones like understanding the kind of blended Yiddish (Yinglish) spoken by most American Jews.  The journalist, Samuel Freedman, wrote: “As the largest group of Jewish immigrants to the United States, those from Eastern Europe have set the cultural tone since the early 1900’s.  Their folkways— bagels, Yiddish, New Deal politics, Borsht Belt jokes—became a virtual religion.  Which meant that nobody from outside could ever get completely inside.”  Fortunately for me, my religion is Yahadut (Judaism), not cultural folkways.  Besides, I love the subtle spiciness of Sephardic cuisine over Ashkenazic gefilte fish and brisket, which I don’t eat anyway because I’m a vegetarian.

The children attending Camp Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) felt marginalized in their home communities.  For a while, I’d worried about how my children fared, in cultivating both of their dual heritages.  Recently, I was startled to learn that my college-graduate daughter does not think of herself as “white,” being as she’s been raised by Chinese and Jewish parents.   On the college campus, she experienced more quizzical looks and inquiries into her ancestry:  Mexican?  Filipina?  Puerto Rican?  She was more than pleased by the country having its first mixed-race President.  My conviction is that the only heritages that matter are the ones that you honor by your values and the customs you maintain.

So, just as the first wave of Korean adoptive children benefitted from the Korean culture camps created by their white American parents— this tradition is continued today amongst the Chinese adoptees— maybe these Jews of color do need a camp of their very own.  Maybe one day, they too will feel comfortable negotiating the dualities of their life.  The Torah has 70 faces, teaches my Rabbi, so no one Jew has to feel or do exactly as the next.  As the world gets smaller with world travel and Internet communication, a Jew should feel comfortable within her own skin.  We too can feel as if we’d stood at the foot of Har Sinai where Moshe delivered the Ten Commandments.

Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Ethnic Irony

By Hannah Lee

In our relatively enlightened times, it is the heedless individual who utters a blatant pejorative term, be it a racial, sexist, or any other challenging aspect of life.  We have sensitized ears and it is unseemly to appear prejudiced.  There is even an attempt to erase past grievances in the misguided campaign to replace the word, “nigger,” with “slave” in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, although the climax of the story would be lost on the reader when the character of the black man, Jim, realizes that he’s been free all along.  Good teaching requires putting history and culture into context with all its flawed and malignant chronicles.

There is a companion shadow world of indirect slurs, in which terms are coined with the negative traits attributed to a particular ethnic group.  Amongst linguists, this usage is called “ironyms,” a compound word representing “lexicalized irony.”  Researching this sordid aspect of language development, I came across the fairly unfamiliar terms of Dutch courage (bravado under intoxication), Welsh rabbit (a cheese dish made without meat), and Irish twins (siblings born within the same year).   The more familiar ones in contemporary usage are notably all about monetary use: to gyp (cheat) someone, to welsh (renege) on a bet, and to jew someone down (bargain hard).  The terms incorporating Chinese— Chinese ace, Chinese anthem, Chinese cigarette, Chinese fire drill, Chinese handball, Chinese landing, Chinese puzzle, and Chinese whispers— all connote items or events that are confused, disorganized, or difficult to understand, according to the British usage of the adjective during World War I.

I have long known that Chinese checkers were not really Chinese, but I have since learned that it is a game developed in Germany, whose original name referred to its star-shaped game board.  When the Pressman company introduced it in the United States in 1928, they initially called it Hop-Ching checkers, later settling on Chinese checkers, presumably to refer to the erratic hopping allowed of the gaming pieces.  Other usages of ethnic terminology are maybe less benign, but you could be sure no Frenchman would call his fried potatoes, French fries, (derived from the presumed custom of poor French-speaking Belgians who served fried potatoes instead of fried fish when the rivers were frozen) nor would a Dane refer to the breakfast pastry as a Danish (in actuality, of Austrian origin).

As an immigrant to the United States, I did not encounter Chinese auctions until I came into the Orthodox Jewish community.  It seems to be a popular low-cost fundraiser amongst churches and synagogues.  Not Chinese and not even an auction, it is a lottery in which the bidder purchases tickets for specific prizes within different categories.  It has become my campaign to lobby against its usage, but by the time I hear of such events, the organizers have already spent money on the publicity and are loathe to change the wording.  It’s inconceivable to me that any organization would allow itself to be perceived as prejudiced these days.  Prejudice when it becomes commonplace is even more insidious, because well-meaning people become complicit.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/533/ethnic-irony

 

A Hyphenated Identity

Schoolchildren of the early 19thcentury were punished for speaking any language other than English. We’ve come a long way in our tolerance of differences. (My mother-in-law says that someone who speaks English with an accent knows at least one other language, a dig at the monolingual Americans.) We’ve changed our perspective in cultural assimilation and the iconic image is no longer of the melting pot, but the salad bowl, in which the ingredients are separate and distinct.

A running series in the New York Times on racial identity in America highlights the growing comfort that young Americans have in declaring a multiracial background. According to the Pew Research Center, one in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities. The latest installment in the series looked at how different institutions tally these racial data. In contrast, I’ll ask the question from the other end: what does it mean to the person when she identifies herself as being of “Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee” descent (a college student in the 2/10/2011 article). How does she honor each of these heritages?

My Rabbi said in passing in class this week that the fancy new Jewish museum in Philadelphia is very good at depicting how successful Jews have become in America, but it fails at telling how Jews in America are Jewish. A critic from the New York Times asked at the time of its opening, if this country needed another monument touting the success of Jews (which is better, I say, than another monument about the death of Jews). So, my friend asked me, are there any U.S. museums that does what my Rabbi thinks the one in Philly should? Well, the Yeshiva University Museum puts on exhibits that highlight aspects of Jewish history, but it’s an institution that’s not well-known outside of the Orthodox Jewish community.

At least once a year, I love to visit the Museum of the Chinese in America (MoCA) in a tenement building re-designed by Maya Lin, the Chinese-American architect who established her reputation while still at Yale with her design of the Vietnam War Memorial. It has an extensive permanent display of notable Chinese-Americans, with more details and more personages than in any other setting or book. There are other informative displays from American history, which are unsettling because of the prejudice the Chinese have faced. There is also a replica of the historical Chinese store, which once served as a community center for its compatriots. The current traveling exhibit is on Chinese puzzles—tangrams, linked rings, sliding block puzzles, and Burr puzzles (see www.ChinesePuzzles.org). The museum succeeds in educating visitors regardless of their background. The books available for purchase in the gift shop are of particular value to me, as these titles are not promoted in the mainstream media.

The difference between MoCA and the National Museum of American Jewish History— or rather the difference between what the latter museum is and what it could be– may lie in the difference between ethnicity and religion. The donors and board of trustees of the Jewish Museum chose to depict Jewishness as a cultural trait. My Rabbi defines Jewishness as Yahadut, a religion. Ergo, it’s a difficult balance to reach out to a wider audience. My husband noted that the donor list of MoCA included corporate and government sponsors, who were comfortable with the idea of a cultural museum about the Chinese. Similarly, it seems the sponsors of the new Jewish museum wanted to tell the cultural story of the Jews in America.

Finally, what is the difference between a Jewish American and an American Jew? It lies in the value the person places on the relative labels. Someone who declares herself an American Jew says that being Jewish is more transcendent than being American. And such as person identifies as a religious Jew. So, the National Museum of American Jewish History needs to live up to its chosen name. It needs to also educate the public about the religious history of Jews in America.