On Being An Alien

By Hannah Lee 

            Animal species adapted to protect itself from the unknown: it’s always Us or the Other.  So, animals explore with their world warily with long-range vision, acute hearing, and a fine sense of taste (e.g., toxic substances taste bitter).  Human beings have devised more sophisticated ways to assess the foreign, the unfamiliar.  The rare pioneers are the ones who journey to a new land, try a new food, or welcome strangers.  I get that.

           In a recent issue of the New York Times [10/11/2016] on the front page, an editor wrote about a disagreeable incident when a woman yelled at his family, from the safety of her car, to “go back to China.”  Yes, Michael Luo is Chinese-born; he graduated from Harvard and probably speaks and writes English better than the provocateur. He leads a team of reporters focused on investigations and long-form narratives. In 2016, his reporters were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in three categories: investigative reporting, local reporting and feature writing. Luo posted an open letter on the Times’s website and it sparked a tremendous outpouring of responses, mostly from Asian-Americans with their own stories of racial prejudice, both overt and subtle.  As a Chinese-American immigrant from Hong Kong, I, too, have my stories. 

           People fear that this country is changing, but the ship has already left the port: among today’s young people, nearly one-half are members of racial minorities [New Republic, 11/2014].  The world is a large place and we cannot keep our borders closed— not from people, not from technology or ideas, not from viruses or pathogens.  All but the Native Americans are immigrants to this new land.

            I approach the world with curiosity and wonder.  Whenever I travel by taxi, I look at the name tags, and I ask if the driver was born abroad.  If so, I ask what they like about America, their favorite foods, and if there’s a restaurant that serves their cuisine.  It’s fun and I broaden my knowledge of other cultures, other peoples.   At my work, I routinely ask people with unusual names, what is their ethnicity? Sometimes, I’m rebuffed, but often times, it leads to a small conversation about themselves.

            Each year, Jews are reminded to remember that they were once strangers in a strange land, in the Hagadah reading on Passover [Exodus 23:9].   (Actually, to be a Jew is to be a stranger, writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.)  It seems that Americans, all of foreign ancestry, need to keep in focus the poem of Emma Lazarus (inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty) to develop the empathy for the foreigner:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Until we are all free, we are none of us free.






The Happiness Mystique, Redux

My mother has a simple recipe that works for her (and me): stop eating before you feel full. When I share this philosophy with Americans, I’m often rewarded with a puzzled look: how do you know you feel full before your tummy aches? In today’s New York Times, an article by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton coins the term, “underindulgence,” a concept that’s also novel for its abstemious approach to life. In their forthcoming book, “Happy Money: The Science of Spending,” they describe research into the relationship between personal revenue and happiness. In sum, their conclusion is that beyond a basic minimum— scientists set this amount to be $75,000 in the United States– one does not benefit from greater happiness proportional to the increments in wealth. This was not news to me.

A more interesting point made by the authors was that spending money on others does accrue greater happiness. For instance, if three people were to be given $1 million as from a lottery win, the person who chooses to spend it all on satisfying his or her every whim fares worse on the scientists’ happiness scale than do the remaining two participants, one of whom puts it all in savings and uses it sparingly or the other who gives it all to charity. This reminds me of the rabbinical teaching that giving tzedakah (righteousness, a Jewish concept more encompassing than charity) is a powerful reward in of itself, because you are choosing to do what is right by God.

Dunn and Norton further state that a decade of research has shown that spending on material possessions– stuff– is less rewarding than spending on experiences. Finally, they offered a crucial point about underindulgence— indulging less than one’s resources allow— “holds the key to getting more happiness for your money.” In a study by their student Jordi Quoidbach, a group of chocolate lovers were given one piece of the sweet treat and then pledged to abstain from chocolate for one week. Another group pledged to eat as much chocolate as desired and they were given a two-pound bag to help them towards this goal. When all the participants returned a week later, only those chocolate lovers who’d refrained from indulging during the week enjoyed the chocolate as much as during the initial session. Everyone who’s fasted for Yom Kippur (or starved for real) could understand the exquisite appreciation for our food afterwards.

So, the new word for us is “underindulgence. ” This means different things to different people— whether choosing against a second helping of a favorite food, staying up all night, or more stuff when our closets are full. Underindulgence– one day my spellchecker may stop highlighting this word!

A Hyphenated Identity

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 racial data.  In contrast, I’ll ask the question from the other end: what does it mean when college student Michelle López-Mullins (right) identifies herself as being of “Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee” descent.  How does she honor each of these heritages?

My Rabbi said that Philadelphia’s new National Museum of American Jewish History 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.