Seamlessly Chinese and Jewish
Recently at work, one of my co-workers, who is a Chinese originally from Taiwan, stopped by my desk to ask me a question. He spotted the calendar on my desk.
“You have a Jewish calendar,” he said.
“Yes?” I replied.
“A Jewish calendar?” he asked again.
“I am Jewish,” I said.
He looked at me and smiled, “You are? Really?”
“Yes, I am Jewish”
“Really? You are Jewish?”
“Really?” he asked again.
This has been my normal experience, people Jews and non-Jews alike would ask me exactly three times if I am really Jewish when I tell them that I am Jewish.
I am a Hong Kong-born Chinese immigrant, I came to the United States with my family in 1971. I embraced the covenant and became Jewish in 1997. I am also a lesbian. At times I am too Chinese to fit in with my American friends, or I am too American to fit in with my Chinese friends, now I’m just too gay to the Chinese, and too Chinese to the Jews! One way to look at this is that I don’t fit in anywhere. The other way to see it is that I belong to multiple communities and can serve as a connector to the differences.
I love studying Jewish texts, and have been doing so almost every week for the past 18 years at the Torah study class at my shul. Because I am a visual person, I see images as I read these texts. I also love to create art, and along the way I began to create art from Torah texts. I started out just sketching and doodling scenes from the Torah, but when my synagogue Beth Chayim Chadashim decided to create stained glass windows for the sanctuary, my illustrated design based on the parting of the sea (and other Jewish symbols) was chosen. More recently, I was honored and excited to be accepted into theWomen of the Book project – a visual, midrashic Torah scroll created by 54 Jewish women artists around the world. My piece is from the Torah portion Pekudei where the glory of God fills the Mishkan in the form of clouds. Inspired by my Hong Kong childhood superhero and images of Chinese clouds, I created this piece.
Recently, one of the esteemed artists of the Women of the Book project, Judith Margolis, nominated me to participate in a Facebook Art Challenge…to post five pieces of art in five days.
My first post was a piece from my portfolio, a Hamsa (the ancient “open hand” symbol of peace and protection) that I had created using Chinese bamboo brush The “Likes” on my Facebook page inspired me to continue with the bamboo brush and ink as my medium, and to stay on the Chinese and Jewish theme.
On my second post, I thought of the ram and the shofar (ram horn), because we had just celebrated the Chinese Year of the Ram and it reminded me of the shofar since I love sounding the shofar during the Days of Awe. So I wrote the Chinese character “ram” (羊), drew the head of a ram and a shofar, and noted the three New Years that I celebrate — Jewish, secular, and Chinese.
I’ve long had a fascination with calligraphy, especially Chinese characters, its strokes and meanings, and the calligraphy I used for the ram inspired me to continue in that vein for my other posts. Many of the Chinese characters derive from pictographs; to me they are such amazing images. Maybe because Passover was coming up, I thought about Moses and the burning bush, and thought it would be interesting to put the actual Chinese character for “fire” or “flame” (火) on some branches, and I used the colors of the flame instead of black ink.
From the burning bush I thought of the Israelites traveling in the desert, and how God came in a column of cloud by day and column of fire by night — hence my fourth piece. Sun (日), moon (月) clouds (雲) fire (火).
Lastly, I did the parting of the sea from Exodus (which is at the top of this post.) Again using the characters as my images, I included the characters human (人), male (男), Female (女), Child (孩), goat (羊), cow (牛) and gold (金). The shimmering gold ink can only be seen if one views the original piece from a different angle. It made me think about how often what shimmers (the gold within each of us) remains hidden to ourselves or others until we look from a different angle.
The positive reactions from my Facebook friends to these art pieces amazed me; and made me reflect on my inner being: I was merely expressing who I am through art, and how the many pieces of me — the Jew, the Chinese, the lesbian — come together and become one.