Dual Identity, Double the Questions: It’s Not Easy Being Jewish and Chinese
Chinese villagers found the baby, abandoned by her birth parents, in a basket on a riverbank. “Just like Moses,” the child’s adoptive mother, Terri Pollock, says. Today, Leah Hua Xia Pollock, 14, lives in Seattle and plays the flute in her temple’s klezmer band. Last year, Leah became a bat mitzvah. As she stood on the bimah, looking out at the crowd of white faces before her, “it just dawned on me,” she said, “that even if I do look in the mirror and see someone different from the people around me, it doesn’t matter, because I’m accepted.”
Leah is among the first in a tidal wave of Chinese-born girls who are growing up in Jewish families in the United States. When she was adopted in 1992, she was one of only 206 Chinese children brought to the United States that year. Last year, Americans adopted slightly more than 7,900 children from China, nearly all of them girls.
China only opened its doors in a big way to international adoption in 1991 to help mitigate its problem of abandoned children, brought on by China’s one-child policy. That policy, which the government enforces by imposing economic penalties for noncompliance, combined with the traditional culture that sons care for their parents in old age, had resulted in a sea of neglected children, particularly girls. These days, more American famlies are adopting from China than any other foreign country, and a large number of those families are Jewish. A wave of girls is now coming of age, starting to face challenging issues of identity.
There is the question of what it means to — look Jewish — for one — and the matter of who is a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish community and society at large. But just as important, there is the question of how to incorporate both Chinese culture and Judaism into these children’s lives — without sacrificing one for the other.
The experiences of Leah and her peers suggest that these cross-cultural clans can function as well as any other sort of family, but inevitably, there are moments of discomfort and confusion. And sooner or later, these children — like all Jews — must make their own decisions about identity and faith.
On a recent afternoon at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation in West Los Angeles, 13-year-old Lily Ling Goldstein, dressed in jean shorts and flip-flops, practiced her bat mitzvah Torah portion with a tutor. Lily Ling’s mother, Martha Goldstein, wiped away a tear as she watched her daughter. “I’m starting to cry, listening to her sing the Hebrew,” she said. Lily Ling’s portion comes from the first book of the Bible, Genesis, meaning “birth,” and this reminds Goldstein of her daughter’s “rebirth,” of “her coming here and becoming part of the Jewish community.” At home, Goldstein has hung three flags over the fireplace in the den, representing the United States, Israel and China. Goldstein is a single mother in her 50s, and she and her daughter celebrate three New Year holidays: American, Jewish and Chinese.
Lily Ling, who was adopted at age 4 in 1997, decided that for her bat mitzvah party she wanted a Chinese theme: a room decorated in red and gold, Chinese food, bamboo centerpieces and maybe some reference to the Year of the Monkey, in which she was born. For girls like Lily Ling, being Jewish and Chinese means integrating different but complementary identities. The two go together, like yin and yang. “I’m happy I’m Jewish, and I’m happy I’m Chinese,” Lily Ling said. Goldstein, who works in development for a college preparatory school, credits her daughter’s sense of belonging in the Jewish community to her synagogue’s openness. “Temple Isaiah believes that if your mother is Jewish, and you’re raised as a Jew, then you are a Jew,” she said.
Yet the question of whether a child adopted into a Jewish family will be universally accepted as Jewish frequently comes up in conversations with adoptive parents. Some see formal conversion as the answer. These parents immerse their adopted children in the mikvah, a ritual bath, immediately upon returning from China. They may see the ceremony as the culmination of the adoption process. Or they consider it a way to legitimize the Jewish identity of their child, so that no other Jew will question it. “I wanted to make them card-carrying Jews,” said one mother who took her adopted daughters to the mikvah.
Other parents say they plan to perform conversion ceremonies before their daughters’ bat mitzvahs, when the girls can actively participate in the ritual. Still others feel that no conversion is necessary.
Sari Steinberg, a 55-year-old social worker, “knew right away” that she would take her daughter to the mikvah after returning from China. At the ceremony, she passed out fortune cookies and mandel bread. “That’s how we started our whole process of being both Chinese and Jewish,” she said. Steinberg, a single mother, and her daughter, Molly, now 10, celebrate Jewish and Chinese holidays “equally.” But sometimes, something has got to give. Molly used to take Chinese lessons, but as her schedule grew busier, she stopped going. Still, twice a week, Molly goes to Hebrew school, where she sits beside another Molly, who was also adopted from China on the same day.
Jews have adopted a significant number of children from China, in the view of some professionals in the adoption community. “It would appear that a lot of Jewish families are adopting Asian children,” said Marcia Jindal, an intercountry adoption coordinator for Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in Los Angeles. Jindal estimated that two out of 10 adoptions of Chinese children, facilitated by her agency, involved Jewish families. Jews adopt children from China for the same reasons others do, experts say. Women might be single or older or unable to give birth. China has many infants available for adoption, and the wait time has remained relatively short, typically about a year. Some families choose to adopt a girl, and China allows families to specify gender, Jindal said. And Chinese children have a reputation for being healthy, she added.
Beth Hall, co-author of “Inside Transracial Adoption” (Perspectives Press, 2000), said it takes a certain type of person to adopt a child of another ethnicity. “The kind of people who adopt transracially tend to be people who feel that they don’t have to keep up with the Joneses,” Hall said. “They can act outside the bounds of what might be ‘normal’ or ‘OK’ and get away with it, not have it ruin their ability to earn an income, to find happiness.” Jews may bring an extra sensitivity to the table, Hall added. “If they’ve experienced anti-Semitism, they may be able to understand what it’s like to experience racism in the way that a white gentile wouldn’t,” she said. Kirsten Hanson-Press, a 39-year-old adoption advocate in Los Angeles with a 2-year-old Chinese daughter, said she adopted from China after having adopted a Hispanic daughter. She wanted another child from a different culture. “Jews often feel an alliance with people of color,” Hanson-Press said. “We have an affinity for the ‘other.'”
Already, Hanson-Press has had to choose between sending her daughter to Chinese school or Hebrew school. She opted for Hebrew school. “My daughters would first identify as Jewish and secondly as Hispanic and Chinese,” she said.
Still, Hanson-Press acknowledged that she worries about the future. How will her children react, for example, when they learn that many, perhaps most, Jews follow the tradition of matrilineal descent — that is, they consider a person automatically Jewish only if their birth mother is Jewish. Hanson-Press recently requested a meeting with the religious school principal to talk about how to support her children should others question their Jewishness.
Leslie Carter, who has a 2-year-old Chinese daughter, also expects challenges. “Everybody is very welcoming now,” said Carter, a 46-year-old director of business development who attends a Chabad in San Diego. “How people would feel if she was older and their son wanted to marry her, I couldn’t say.” Carter recognizes that at some point, her daughter could “opt out of being Jewish, but she couldn’t opt out of being Chinese.”
Parents and children must reckon with this reality, said Jane Brown, an adoption expert who travels the country staging workshops for children. Brown has eight kids of her own, including five adopted from Asia. “Nobody in the world is going to look at that [adopted Asian] child and see her first as Jewish,” Brown said. “That’s the part they can shed if they want to. They can’t shed race.”
Ultimately, it may be adult adoptees from South Korea, which has long allowed international adoption, who offer the best glimpse into the future for Chinese children and their families. Julia Mendelson, a 23-year-old Korean adoptee, went to Jewish day school in New York from preschool through high school. She spent summers at Camp Young Judea. After high school, she lived in Israel for a year. But Mendelson remembers feeling different. When she would catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she dressed for synagogue, she recalls, her reflection would startle her. Surrounded by Caucasians, “you picture yourself as one of them,” she said. Her parents invested tremendous effort trying to persuade her that she should be Jewish first, Mendelson said. They reminded her that her adoptive father’s parents were Holocaust survivors. On a trip to Israel, her parents took her to an Ethiopian refugee camp to demonstrate that Jews were a diverse people.
But Mendelson had a hard time feeling “Jewish first,” because “in society, you’re Asian first.” Mendelson recalls the turning point, when she saw herself as others see her. It was the day of her bat mitzvah, after the service, when she overheard a cousin say, “It just looks so wrong to see an Asian kid reading Torah.” That moment “woke me up from denial,” Mendelson said. Before, Judaism had felt natural. Afterward, she said, “I remember thinking how weird this must be for everybody here.” After Mendelson started college, she began dating a Catholic Korean adoptee — a situation that has caused tension between her and her parents. She would ideally like to marry a Jewish Korean, she said. But if she had to choose between Jewish and Korean, she would probably pick Korean. “I feel strong enough in my Jewish identity … to pass it on to my children. I feel like I could handle that part,” she said. “But I feel like I can’t handle educating my kids about being Korean.”
Adoptive parents, like all parents, are often unaware of the struggles their children face. Cynthia Goldberg, a 53-year-old vocational counselor in Davis, only recently learned that her 18-year-old Korean daughter experienced racial taunting growing up. “We were talking about elementary school the other day,” Goldberg said, “and she told me about kids making fun of her face, saying that it was flat, that her glasses wouldn’t stay up because she had a funny nose.”
I said, “You never told me that.” And she said, ‘Why would I tell you? You wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.'” “It’s not about how you raise them,” Goldberg concluded. “It’s about how the world sees them.”
As for Leah, the coming-of-age Chinese teenager — the former baby by the riverbank — when the world tells her, as it often does, “You don’t look Jewish,” she has a ready answer. “It’s not about looking. It’s just something you are,” she says. A couple of years ago, Leah went back to China, to the riverbank where the villagers found her. Being there reminded her of Moses, whose mother set him adrift on the Nile River rather than drown him, as Pharaoh had commanded. “I thought, that’s kind of like me,” she said. Like Moses, Leah has a special connection to the Jewish people. Only “I’m hoping,” she added, “I won’t have to lead people across the Red Sea.”