It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: The Jew and the Muslim were organizing a Christmas party in rural China. But that year was anything but a joke. The experiences I had as one of two foreigners—and the only Jew—teaching at a boarding school in rural Hunan, China were tough, crazy, occasionally hilarious, and always exciting.
When I first arrived in town with the other American teacher, the school administrators took us out to lunch. It was a nice gesture; as exhausted as we were from the overnight train, we wouldn’t have to navigate a new town with our limited Chinese and try to order food we would recognize. When we arrived at the restaurant, we found that the principal had already ordered an extensive menu made up mostly of pork: shredded pork, baked pork, cubes of pork fat, and the occasional donkey or vegetable dish for variety. The other foreign teacher was Muslim, and spoke up right away to let them know that she could not eat many of the dishes. They took in this new information in shocked silence. Not eating dog, they understood. Past foreigners had taken issue with dog. But pork? That was crazy talk.
They turned worried eyes on me, next. “Is there anything you don’t eat?” they asked. I told them about not drinking milk with a meat dish. That got a sigh of relief. Tea and beer would be acceptable substitutes for the unrefrigerated fruit-juice-flavored milk that was common in the area. When I told them why, however, news of my religion got raised eyebrows and shocked noises all around. A Jew in China? Now that’s worth talking about.
My inability to drink the weird milk didn’t create many problems, but it did let the other teachers in for a world of entertainment at holiday lunches. Every once in a while the school would have a half-day of classes and the teachers would all get a free “banquet” in the teachers’ dining hall. The principal would walk around to each of the tables and make toasts to the school, the teachers, and whatever else he could think of. Since I wasn’t drinking milk, beer was my only beverage. The traditional Chinese toast – “ganbei” – brings with it a certain insinuation that all people toasting are going to drain their glasses; with me, the principal took full, laughing advantage of that fact. And since the beer was barely alcoholic, the other teachers also took pleasure in the spectacle. “It’s because she’s Jewish,” they told each other. “The Jews don’t drink milk with pork.”
While most Chinese people don’t know a lot about Judaism, China does have some highly positive stereotypes about Jews. Actually, they have very similar stereotypes to the rest of the world, but take them in a positive light. For example, Jews are all rich? They must work very hard. Jews run the economy? It’s because they’re so smart. In fact, in the line of busts of famous Chinese thinkers on campus, there was a single non-Chinese figure: Einstein. He was the only well-known Jewish figure they could reliably name, and the standard against which they based all their assumptions about Jews.
My students did not know I was Jewish until the holidays came around. Since Christmas is the only well-known foreign holiday, they generally assume that all people around the world celebrate it. As such, not only were the other foreign teacher and I in charge of arranging and running the Christmas party and talent show, we were also pretty much required to teach a class on the holiday. But I was not about to teach a Christmas lesson without teaching one on Hanukkah. Of course, to do this, I had to explain that I don’t celebrate Christmas, because it’s a Christian holiday and I’m Jewish, not Christian. Whispers began to circulate. “Did Teacher just say she’s Jewish?” They asked each other in Chinese. “Yes,” I answered. I waited nervously for their response. I needn’t have worried. An outspoken student in the back of the class spoke up: “Like Einstein, Teacher? Are you smart like Einstein?”
I began the lesson with an introduction to Hebrew, “the language spoken in the story I’m about to tell.” As I wrote the names of volunteers on the blackboard in Hebrew letters, the students spoke up to tell me that I was writing in the wrong direction, and that “teacher, you’re lying. Those aren’t real words.” In the end, most students understood that Hebrew is a language that looks and sounds unique, and that I wasn’t playing a trick on them by making up random symbols.
The cautious curiosity of the mini-Hebrew lesson intensified during the animated Hanukkah story video I had found to show them. The finale of the film was the discovery of the still-burning golden menorah; it was at this point that I, attempting to make a point about tradition and history, pulled my own tiny golden chanukiah out of my bag. Whispered “ooh”s and “ah”s ran through the classroom. “Teacher has the thing from the movie!” they exclaimed, as though I had just leveled up from The Jew Who Knows Everything, to The Jew Who Carries Ancient Artifacts in Her Purse.
I would like to be able to tell you that announcing my religion made the students respect me more, and contributed to a quieter, more learning-focused classroom environment, but that would be lying. Kids are kids, and news of my Jewishness was only the biggest thing to ever happen on campus for about a day. I prefer it that way, though; I would rather my students focus on my lessons than on my religion.
As the only Jew for miles, celebrating most holidays was difficult. I took school breaks as an opportunity to travel to Beijing and attend Friday night services with a little Jewish group called Kehillat Beijing—the “sinogogue.” With such a small community, it was comforting to hear the tunes I know so well from the US, and it was always exciting to welcome new attendees and hear about how they ended up in the city. Travelers from Australia, exchange students from California, Israelis on post-army service trips, and Foreign Service officers from Tennessee met during “new member introduction time” in the middle of services, and gathered at round tables afterwards for the kosher-style community meal. With so many different stories, there was never a dearth of conversation.
While in Beijing I also took the chance to satisfy some of my Jewish food cravings. Finding kugel wasn’t possible (and nothing could ever replace my mom’s sweet kugel anyway), but schawarma and bagels are readily available, if you know where to look. Perched above a bar in one of Beijing’s nightclub districts sits Biteapitta; “bite of pita” in English, and “Beit HaPita,” or “House of Pita” in Hebrew. Run by an Israeli, it’s the most authentic Israeli schawarma I found within driving distance, and I took shameless opportunity of it to introduce all my new Chinese and foreign friends to the dish.
But the strangest food phenomena, to me, was my introducing them to the New York bagel. Tavalin Bagel is nestled between tailors and fruit stands around the corner from one of the famous clothing markets in Beijing, and was owned and operated by a Chinese couple who learned how to make bagels in New York City, and then returned to China to spread the deliciousness. One trip there and I was hooked on the lox and the homesickness. A second trip with friends and an Indian young professional was planning future outings to satisfy his bagel fix, a Chinese worker from Sichuan Province was contemplating the merits of a non-spicy meal option, and a British student was exclaiming over the difference in fresh versus store-bought bread.
For most of the holidays during the school year, I was unable to make it to a Jewish community. But for Passover, my last holiday of the year, I made an exception and took two days off to travel to Hong Kong. At only four hours away by high-speed rail, it was the closest city with Jews. I stayed with a family who makes a practice of welcoming travelers into their home: the ultimate mitzvah for weary Jews like myself. Some aspects of the holiday were comfortingly familiar, while others, like listening to the stories of the two Philippine women helping to cook the holiday meal, were exciting and new. And at the second night seder, as I sat on a rooftop deck staring out at the city lights and eating the tropical mango charoset, I thought “next time in Jerusalem, perhaps. But China’s not so bad, either.”
Shaina Lipsy received her BA in International Studies from American University before going abroad for a year to teach English in rural Hunan Province, China. She now works at her alma mater, tutoring students in all forms of professional and academic writing, as well as for the fledgeling literary website Booknista.