During my first year of college, I was asked to draw and divide a pie chart into five sections. From there, I was to label each section with an adjective or characteristic that I felt strongly defined me (and with which I voluntarily identified).
Immediately, I filled in four sections: Jewish, Asian American (born in China), adoptee, and traveler. Then I paused, contemplating what the last slice of my identity pie would be. Finally, I settled on cultural bridge builder.
I chose this last identifier for multiple reasons. First, it is everything I aspire to be. I aim to work in a field where I can help diverse communities connect. Second, all the activities and clubs I belonged to in high school and in which I participate at Davidson College revolve around initiatives for diversity, inclusiveness, and religious dialogue. Finally, in my view, my four other identifiers mark me as an individual who has been socialized and challenged to show the world that unique or unconventional backgrounds can lead to new perspectives.
I am not just an “other” in society that belongs nowhere. I refuse to accept such a label passively, yet it is a label so many try to pin on me when they do not understand my background. My Jewish and Asian American identities are not mutually exclusive. Rather, my understanding and connection to each group enriches my outlook on the world.
This semester, I challenged myself to study abroad in Kunming, China. Yunnan Province is known for its ethnic diversity. China has worked to incorporate these diverse minority groups into greater Chinese society, but there are still stark disparities. If anyone were to understand my struggles with fitting into Chinese society, would it not be these people?
Though Chinese by birth, I have identified myself as Jewish first for as long as I can remember. Judaism is the culture in which I was raised. Most of my role models, including close family friends and relatives, are Jewish. I never had Chinese American or Asian role models who taught me how to navigate society, deal with prejudice and discrimination, and assert myself as an Asian American woman. Rather, I consider myself a cultural and religious Jew because of the community of which I am a part and the relationships I’ve fostered since childhood. I practice certain holidays and ceremonies but also closely identify with the historic struggles of the Jewish people.
Yet the average person meets me and first identifies me as Asian, often distinguishing me as Chinese right away. He or she never assumes I am Jewish. This is a consequence of the way our society views identity—one’s race or ethnicity is defined by the viewer without ever conversing with the individual in question. Ethnicity and race become primary markers in categorizing people and subsequently applying stereotypes to that individual.
I had hoped that coming to China would help enhance my lifelong journey to define myself within a greater, international society. When I was eight years old, I remember a Hebrew school classmate asking me if it was even legal to be both Asian and Jewish. Though I’ve grown to understand that he meant no harm, these comments were painful and I reflect on them often, especially when I feel vulnerable or insecure about my identity in the context of a new place.
I have been fortunate to have spent the past three summers in Southeast Asia, engaged in both voluntary and paid experiences. As a result, I am fairly confident in my place there. To Southeast Asians I have met, I am American by culture and Asian by heritage and birth. They are curious yet respectful; no one in Southeast Asia has ever challenged my self identity or tried to suggest that how I view myself is incorrect.
I’ve had many long discussions with locals in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia about adoption—a foreign concept to many—and Abrahamic religions. I take pride in teaching these people about my identity and culture while learning about theirs. It is truly an educational dialogue. But in no way do I, or my views, represent an entire population.
In China, on the other hand, I feel out of my element completely. I have felt more insecure here in the past six weeks than I have in any other country I have ever visited. Being surrounded by native, authentic Chinese has made me struggle internally about my place in this society. While my face to them is authentically Chinese, the way in which my parents raised me is not. Since I do not consider my biological parents my family, my family is not Chinese. Yet explaining this is complex and often causes more pain than just nodding along with Chinese who inquire about my heritage and assume I am mixed race or just the child of Chinese immigrants.
Sure, on the outside I am Chinese. But, often, my clothes mark me as a Westerner. My lack of language and cultural skills also betray my physical characteristics and mark me as alien. When I explain that I was adopted, I get a multitude of reactions. Some turn to my Caucasian friends (who have better Mandarin skills than mine) and question, ”Really?” Others look at me like I am a spectacle but nod and resume the conversation. Others still just grunt and end the discussion.
Transnational, transracial adoption and the one child policy can be touchy subjects in China. Sometimes I feel that people resent the opportunities my family has given me outside of China. Many Chinese students my age aspire to learn English and subsequently work abroad, and see my situation as ideal. I believe others fear me and are worried about resentments I may hold against China. A few cannot hold a straight face when talking to me: they cannot believe that I am not Chinese. To them, I am simply one of them with a funny accent. It isn’t possible, in their minds, that I reject my Chinese facet of identity. Herein lies the gap in my and their understanding.
In other parts of the world when I struggle with identity, I resort to the local Jewish community for support and a sense of extended family and belonging. While fitting into Judaism has also been a lifelong challenge, my adoptive family raised me in that culture and I understand those nuances more than Chinese cultural traditions. My grandfather in particular took great pride in belonging to a temple and volunteering through that network, and I hope to carry on his legacy. He and the rest of my family never made me doubt being Jewish. I find more commonalities with Jews around the world than with the pan-Asian American community.
Coming to China, I hoped to find at least a small Jewish community. Usually Jewish communities become more outwardly present during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I sought assistance from my program directors and RA, hoping they could steer me in the direction of a service or gathering for Rosh Hashanah. One told me of services on Rosh Hashanah that were open to Jews all over Kunming. Many, she said, belonged to the Israeli or American ex-pat communities.
Excited, I set out on the morning of the New Year. When the cab driver didn’t know the address I showed him, I walked. I was proud that I navigated the city by myself. Despite being anxious about meeting a new group of people (I am extremely shy around strangers, especially when there is a potential language barrier), I hoped that this service would lead to the opening of a new community and relationships. Obviously I wouldn’t be engaged in the same way as in New York where I grew up, or North Carolina where I go to school, or Europe where I’ve visited various synagogues. But a new service would be part of the adventure. Going beyond my comfort zone would not kill me.
To my surprise, the address was a Chinese language school in which ex-pats in Kunming came to study Mandarin intensively. Furthermore, none of the staff knew of the Rosh Hashanah programming. Hmmm. I looked at the company’s logo: it had two Stars of David. Why? One staff member explained that Chinese people like to do business with Jews and see many similarities between the groups. I chuckled, recalling New York Times articles that discussed Chinese peoples’ fascination with Jews.
I was about to leave, admitting defeat in my quest for a service, when another woman from the language school asked me to wait. Apparently, there was a man praying upstairs and I could speak to him when he finished. Hope inside me sparked anew. I’d come all this way—why not try talking with him? I returned to my seat.
An hour later, he emerged from upstairs and I introduced myself. He did the same. He had come from Singapore and had converted to Orthodox Judaism. He prided himself on being a practicing Jew and spoke of his leadership roles in Kunming. He said the Rabbi sometimes asked him to organize gatherings or lead prayers. This all sounded along the lines of what I wanted.
Then the man asked me about my affiliation to Judaism. This is never an easy question for me to answer. Not because I am uncomfortable, but the intricacies of my background sometimes lose people. I told him that I was born in Yangzhou and adopted at five months of age. I explained that my parents subsequently had a mikvah (conversion ceremony) for me. I said that I was a Reform Jew, and told him that while it is unique to the United States, our customs follow cultural and religious Judaism.
He then asked me how I was raised. I replied that I had a bat mitzvah, had attended religious school, and was even the president of Hillel (the Jewish student organization) at Davidson College. He frowned, and I felt myself recoiling. Why were we still talking about my background? Why was he not nodding or even smiling?
Then came the question: did I have proof of my conversion? Had I stood before rabbis and sworn my allegiance to Judaism? Sure, this man was strictly Orthodox, but did he not realize that there are different types of Judaism and that I was no less Jewish than he? While he did not distinguish between religious and cultural Judaism, I got the distinct impression that he was trying to prove he was more Jewish and more devoted.
Again and again, he told me I could not truly be Jewish because my birth mother was not. He said I would have to stand in front of Rabbis before I could be a real Jew. Wasn’t this hypocritical? Didn’t he understand that an infant who was immersed in a mikvah and experienced the ritual cleansing it provides was as Jewish as someone born to a Jewish woman? His conversion, as an adult, required study and supervision. Mine did not.
As I kept trying to explain my background and why I was Jewish, I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes. Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be about a sweet new year and the idea of a Jewish community or family. From my past experience, Orthodox Jews have always wanted to draw me into their stricter traditions and show me the way. Why was he excluding me?
Judaism had been the backbone of my upbringing and identity. Being told, bluntly, that I was not Jewish hurt me deeply. I was once again being excluded from a community. This time, though, it was a community in which I usually sought comfort after being detached from my Asian identity. If I am shut out of both my Asian and Jewish communities, to whom could I turn?
As a member of the Better Together interfaith movement, I had to remind myself that not everyone sees difference within and between religions as an asset. I call myself a cultural bridge builder, but not everyone supports my efforts. Some prefer to remain on islands, disconnected from those around them.
Living in China this semester has been difficult thus far. I look like an insider and feel like an outsider. I’ve been told again and again that I have an advantage because I look like the majority here, but if I don’t feel like the majority on the inside, does the color of my skin or my complexion matter? I know in a few years, I’ll value these experiences as important learning experiences. But now, the pain overrides the growth that I know will come from this.