The author, center, with her family. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hoi Yi Leong.

Jew-ish

My Chinese surname does not make me any less Jewish.

9 years old. “How are you even Jewish if you have such a different surname?” 13 years old. “Since when do people serve potstickers at a Bat Mitzvah?” 16 years old. “How should I have known you don’t eat pork? It’s not like you look Jewish.”

After visiting Israel for the first time this year, the one thing that really struck me was how few people believed that I was Jewish. It was as if everyone had a mental checklist of how to identify a Jewish person, and this 5-foot 6-inch Chinese girl with straight hair and black eyes didn’t quite cut it. Even with other Jews, it was as if my existence alone challenged their image of what a Jewish person can look like. It was difficult for them to accept the reality of someone existing out of their sphere of preconceptions. Despite living in Hong Kong, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence for me. People look at me and see a girl that could be, yes, Chinese, maybe even mixed, but never Jewish. Looking at and comparing myself to other people at the synagogue, there is the constant unspoken question – “Am I Jewish enough?”

First, it should be noted that by no means am I the first Chinese Jew. Jews have lived in China since the Han Dynasty. A notable example: the Kaifeng Jews who incorporated Chinese culture into their Jewish practices, as both cultures emphasize the importance of learning and respecting one’s ancestors. While the term “Chinese Jews” mostly refers to the Kaifeng Jews, other, more secluded Jewish communities developed throughout the Tang and Song Dynasty. While they eventually assimilated into the rest of the Chinese population, Chinese Jews were still identifiable by their dietary restrictions. Despite these dietary differences and their usage as “identifiers,” there still remained the question “what does a Jewish person look like?”

Judaism, being an “ethno-religion,” is defined as both a heritage as well as a religious affiliation, meaning that while it can be passed through consanguinity, people can also convert into Judaism. Therefore, there is no definitive way of classifying people as Jewish or not Jewish purely by appearance. In many cases, what people assume to be a “Jewish appearance” is deeply rooted in anti-Semitic stereotypes or caricatured images. “Characteristic traits” are often used in animation or propaganda to vilify stereotypical Jewish features and project anti-Semitism. Since the diaspora, and with the modern diversity among Jewish identities, it is truly impossible to rely on such outdated, prejudiced stereotypes to validate who is or isn’t Jewish. To quote columnist Katie Grant, “there are as many Jewish faces as there are Jewish people in the world.”

Being one of the only Chinese people at our synagogue, I’ve gotten used to feeling that I am inherently different from my peers. Being of both Chinese and Jewish heritage has always been a confusing thing to come to terms with, as there has always been little crossover between these two key components of my identity. Of course, now I know that it doesn’t have to be that way. As atheists, my extended family may not understand or celebrate Chanukah, but they’re still happy to provide a steady supply of fried Chinese food. While I always enjoy latkes and sufganiyot, these additions from my Chinese heritage ultimately enhance, not damage, the festival by making it more accessible to the non-Jewish people in my life. While it is a daunting task at first, subtly integrating these parts of my identity has allowed both cultures to expand together. This is so crucial to me, as I see Judaism not only as a religion but also as a way of living that does not have all that many cultural boundaries.

In the melting pot of cultural diversity that is today’s society, the lines between what makes a person of a certain culture have been blurred, reflecting how barely anyone strictly belongs to one culture or category of people anymore. Trying to classify ethnicities and religion as mutually exclusive facets of a person’s identity is redundant and prevents the evolution of culture. So, to answer my initial question of “am I Jewish enough,” I most certainly am. I am not obliged to choose between being Chinese and being Jewish, and as long as I have confidence in my Jewish faith, I shouldn’t have to defend my identity to anyone else.

Charlotte Hoi Yi Leong is a junior at German Swiss International School in Hong Kong. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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