On being Chinese and Jewish

I grew up with a bit of anti-Semitism. I knew a handful of Jews in my youth and my first experience was a negative one. Yet inexplicably I’d been drawn to Jews.

Here is my history of Jewish acquaintances:
1. The lawyer who helped my family immigrate to the US from Taiwan when I was eight years old. (He was wealthy — he owned a farm and horses — and came across as being better than we were. Perhaps my dad didn’t like feeling indebted to him).
2. Daniel, a high school classmate who did not want to take me to prom.
3. A Delta Gamma sorority sister (I chose her to be my “big sister”).
4. Gail, a friend at my first job post-college (Her family had great connections to dressmakers in New York).
5. Many classmates at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. I married one of them.

I went to Stanford, in part, so I could meet a Chinese mate. Instead, I fell in love with Stephen, whom I didn’t think was Jewish because he didn’t look it to me and his last name was Brown.

Sixteen years after we were married, my children and I converted to Judaism with Rabbi Jill Borodin of Congregation Beth Shalom and the Conservative Beit Din. When my daughter Nora and I emerged from the mikvah we were greeted with such joy my face still lights up reflecting back on that day. Coincidentally, the Shabbat immediately following the Jewish Federation shooting in July 2006 was when we chose to celebrate the occasion with our community. We didn’t know if people would show up for fear of other shooters. Three hundred people came — affiliated and unaffiliated Jews along with invited friends — to demonstrate solidarity for the Jewish people. I was reminded of the gifts and burdens of joining this religion and this people.

Rabbi Borodin invited me to speak about my journey to conversion for Rosh Hashanah that year. While my son Asher’s developmental disabilities provided my initial spark to seek God, many other people, events and miracles led me to recognize and honor my Jewish soul.

One of the people was Denis Walsh, an amazing educator at the Leadership Institute of Seattle who helped me broaden my definition of diversity and deepen my appreciation of identity development.

During a facilitated exercise in my Master’s program, Denis brought me to my “point of intolerance” with Kevin, a Caucasian classmate who grew up in China as a missionary’s son. Kevin felt he was part Chinese. I thought his claim was ridiculous. You are a privileged white male in America, I righteously thought to myself. Kevin was not Chinese in the only way I recognized, which was ethnically Chinese, so I rejected his self-definition. I knew I was being doctrinaire, but I was helpless to rescind my decree.
I dream I had in which I saw my own death gave me a sense of clarity, as I realized that my struggle with Kevin was really a manifestation of my own internal struggle around my identity. I had not been able to reconcile the idea of being Chinese and Jewish. Proud of my Chinese heritage, I knew I could not be Jewish in the way ethnic Jews are Jewish.

Unlike other religions, Judaism is complicated because it is both a religion and a people. Some identify as Jewish culturally but not religiously; others are converts like me, drawn to the religion but who come from a different cultural background. And there are Jews who identity both culturally and religiously. In light of these dichotomies, I can understand how JTNews might have made that reporting error and identified me as a non-Jew in the article “Beth Shalom shows up for STP bike ride.” Neither my looks nor my name announce my Jewishness. What troubles me was why it was necessary to draw that distinction between our team members.

Identity development for an individual and in groups is fundamental to who we are as human beings. For survival purposes, tribal affinity was necessary to determine who was friend or foe. Yet the process is often taken for granted and evolves at an unconscious level. By taking a closer look at how we decide who we are, we have the possibility of transcending some of the historical biases and prejudices that keep us from welcoming the stranger.

If Jews are asking others for their tolerance and acceptance, how are we extending that same hospitality to non-Jews as graciously as our forefather Abraham? How do we include and exclude others in ways that contribute to tikkun olam? As the High Holidays approach, I am reminded of the remarkable life I’ve been given and my gratitude that I can finally accept myself as being both Jewish and Chinese — and Kevin as my Chinese brother.

Shana tova.


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