Three Take­aways from Inter­view­ing 110 ​“Jew­Asian” Cou­ples and Kids

Helen Kiy­ong Kim and Noah Samuel Leav­itt are the coau­thors of Jew­Asian: Race, Reli­gion, and Iden­ti­ty for America’s Newest Jews. With the release of their book ear­li­er this month, the cou­ple is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The Prosen Peo­ple.

We have always acknowl­edged that what drew us to the research that would become the foun­da­tion of our book, Jew­Asian: Race, Reli­gion, and Iden­ti­ty for Amer­i­ca’s Newest Jews, start­ed from per­son­al ques­tions based on our own expe­ri­ences and rela­tion­ship. When we began our project in 2008, Helen was preg­nant with our first child. We were in the throes of try­ing to fig­ure out not only dia­per­ing, sleep­ing, and feed­ing a new­born but also how we would raise our child to nav­i­gate and con­tribute to a very com­plex world. We were curi­ous how oth­er cou­ples— Jew­Asian because of racial, eth­nic, and some­times reli­gious dif­fer­ence — were fig­ur­ing out, in light of these types of dif­fer­ences, how to sus­tain and nur­ture a mar­riage and family.

Fast for­ward to the present: our son Ari (almost 8) and daugh­ter Talia (almost 5) chal­lenge us every day with their end­less curios­i­ty and argu­men­ta­tive demeanor. We often find our­selves at a loss for words in their midst, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to in-the-moment ques­tions and state­ments about iden­ti­ty, whether racial, eth­nic, reli­gious, or all three. But then we remem­ber that we talked to rough­ly one hun­dred and ten indi­vid­u­als whose own expe­ri­ences have taught us a great deal about how to think about the chal­lenges we expe­ri­ence every day in our own family.

What have we learned about our own fam­i­ly by writ­ing a book about fam­i­lies like ours? Here are a few takeaways:

1. We talk, a lot, and the talk­ing will prob­a­bly pay off in the long run. Con­ver­sa­tion top­ics run the gamut, but they often focus on issues of racial, eth­nic, and reli­gious iden­ti­ty. Some­times these dis­cus­sions are dif­fi­cult and fraught with emo­tion, but they are a nec­es­sary start­ing point. Our inter­vie­wees told us of the impor­tance of hav­ing these issues out on the table as part of reg­u­lar fam­i­ly life that stress­es inten­tion­al­i­ty and oppor­tu­ni­ty rather than limitation.

2. We don’t have all the answers, but we try to find them. Adult Jew­Asian chil­dren acknowl­edged that at mul­ti­ple times in their lives when they were try­ing to fig­ure out who they are and where they belonged, what mat­tered the most was hav­ing infor­ma­tion and doors open to them that allowed for explo­ration. In turn they stressed the impor­tance of encour­ag­ing chil­dren to seek out infor­ma­tion on their own rather than resign­ing one­self to feel­ing constrained.

3. We are a full-fledged and proud Jew­ish, Asian Amer­i­can, Kore­an Amer­i­can, mul­tira­cial, mul­ti­eth­nic and mul­ti­lin­gual fam­i­ly – but it’s com­pli­cat­ed! The indi­vid­u­als we talked to empha­sized shifts and evo­lu­tions in all aspects of their iden­ti­ty. Strong con­nec­tions at some points in time, weak­er bonds at oth­er times. Yet they nev­er shied away or denied these aspects of who they were, and car­ried this com­plex and chang­ing way of think­ing with them every day.

Per­haps, it is this last point that res­onates the most with us and reminds us of what we have learned about our own fam­i­ly by study­ing fam­i­lies like ours. In ​Trans­gres­sions of a Mod­el Minor­i­ty” (Sho­far, Sum­mer 2005), schol­ar Jonathan Freed­man wrote of a new way of see­ing the con­nec­tions between Jew­ish Amer­i­cans and Asian Amer­i­cans, “…as peo­ples strug­gling at dif­fer­ent times with dif­fer­ent means to sur­mount process­es larg­er than them­selves; as fel­low wan­der­ers, fel­low exiles, fel­low swim­mers bare­ly brav­ing the waves of his­to­ry.” His sug­ges­tions remind us, as indi­vid­u­als and a fam­i­ly, of the impor­tance of embrac­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties unknown.

Helen Kiy­ong Kim is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Soci­ol­o­gy at Whit­man Col­lege. Noah Samuel Leav­itt is an asso­ciate dean of stu­dents at Whit­man Col­lege and has served as the advo­ca­cy direc­tor for the Jew­ish Coun­cil on Urban Affairs. Both authors are cur­rent­ly tour­ing for the 2016 – 2017sea­son through the JBC Net­work on their book Jew­Asian: Race, Reli­gion, and Iden­ti­ty for America’s Newest Jews.

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