"How do you celebrate Christmas?"

A Jew in China discovers the travails of life in a land where Westerner equals Christian.


Joshua Cohen
December 10, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

I crossed the border into Canton, China, to do a year-long stint teaching English at a college in Hunan at the beginning of September 1991, just three days before Yom Kippur. I had grown up in an observant Jewish home -- keeping kosher and not working on Saturdays, among other things -- so I was determined to observe the Yom Kippur fast, although there wasn't a synagogue within 200 miles.

Miss Liu, the college escort, a bespectacled young woman just a shade under 5 feet tall, met me at the train station. She told me it would take at least another three days to buy a train ticket to Hunan, so she hailed a cab and deposited me in a room at a hotel for foreigners.

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Each morning at 8 sharp we met for breakfast in the hotel's posh restaurant on the second floor, where slender waitresses in thigh-slit cheongsams pushed carts full of chickens' feet and spareribs, litchi nuts and sheep intestine oatmeal among the grand, grease-spotted tables. After breakfast we would take a cab to the train station and spend the rest of the morning arguing with hostile ticket bureaucrats who were determined we should never reach Hunan. Then we would walk out for a snack at a streetside noodle stall, do some sightseeing, buy some fruit, break for lunch, do a little more sightseeing, stop for a snack, run some errands, eat an overwhelming dinner at a fancy restaurant, buy some mooncakes for the upcoming mooncake festival, have tea, then part company in the hotel lobby. Of course, we bought plenty of walking-around food during the day to tide us through those between times.

On Yom Kippur morning, though, when Miss Liu arrived at the hotel dining room at 8:05, I told her I wouldn't be eating anything that day.

"Are you ill?" she cried. "Do you need to see a doctor?"

No, I answered calmly, it's just a religious observance. I tried to explain Yom Kippur briefly. She furrowed her brow. "You don't like the food?" she asked after I had finished explaining the meaning of the word "atonement." "We can go to another restaurant; I'm sure we can find one that serves Western food."

No, I explained, it was a holiday, a Jewish holiday -- I wanted to eat, but I was not allowed to.

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Miss Liu spoke excellent English, but this concept was utterly beyond her. The Chinese are the only people on earth more obsessed with food than the Jews. There is no such thing as a fast day in Chinese culture; a holiday means eating more. A fasting holiday is about as comprehensible to the Chinese as a St. Patrick's Day parade in London.

Miss Liu became frantic -- she had been charged with bringing the foreign teacher safely back to the college; if any trouble should befall me, she would be in terrible trouble. "Please tell me the problem," she begged. "You must eat something."

I mumbled a vague speech about God, sin and repentance, but finally I realized I couldn't make her understand. There are Jews in the United States who don't understand the purpose of the Yom Kippur fast. To be honest, I wasn't even sure I understood the full purpose of the fast.

Miss Liu's eyes teared up, and I considered my options: I could make her cry, or I could eat. "Moderation," Judaism advises. "Flexibility," China admonishes. "Never make a woman cry," my father avers. I went downstairs and broke the fast early for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. "Chinese food is very delicious," Miss Liu remarked knowingly as I picked uncomfortably at tiny dishes of dumplings and sesame chicken.

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What else could I do?

"Can I speak to you a moment in my office?" Mr. Li, a college
administrator, asked me one day after class. Things had seemed to be
going well at the school, though I'd been teaching for only a week; what
could I have done wrong already?

I nervously followed Mr. Li into his office and sat down in the
provided seat. He offered me a cup of tea and began by graciously
thanking
me for coming to his poor country to teach English to their students. He
praised the students' diligence, and asked me if I had any problems in
the
classroom or at home that he could help with, then went on to extol
mutually beneficial Sino-American relations. After 15 minutes he
finally got down to business in his stilted English.

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"Mr. Cohen, please we must ask you to not talk about religion in
class."

Though I didn't know it at the time, Americans had a well-deserved bad reputation in China, even among the other foreigners.
Whenever I met a group of Yanks -- whether on board a train or in a hostel
lounge -- it would take no longer than 10 minutes before the well-used
guitar made its appearance and the interminable Christian folk songs
began. Many Americans come to China expressly for the purpose of
proselytizing. This is illegal, as the Chinese see Christianity as a
threat to
their national sovereignty, so the missionaries must work covertly. Many
work under the pretense of being English teachers. Shortly before I
arrived
in Changsha, an American family had been expelled for baptizing their
students in the local river.

I informed Mr. Li that I was Jewish and did not care to discuss it
with my students.

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"I see," Mr. Li nodded. "But you must not try to teach students
about Christianity. This is not permitted."

"Don't worry," I repeated, "I'm Jewish."

He nodded again. "But you must not discuss Christ, or Jesus, with
your students."

I'm Jewish, I repeated patiently; we do not believe in Jesus, and in
any case we do not proselytize.

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Mr. Li nodded politely and continued: "Also you cannot talk
about Jesus to students even in your own room, even if they ask you.
That
is also not permitted."

I repeated that I was Jewish, and went on to
explain
at length the difference between Christians and Jews. It would be
impossible for me to "convert" students to Judaism because it is
forbidden,
I said. He smiled patiently.

"It is against the law to do these things," he continued. "If you
discuss Jesus the police will ask you to leave China. Do you
understand?"

I sighed. Yes, I understood. Yes, I promised not to convert my
students. No, I would not discuss Jesus. Mr. Li smiled, satisfied at
last.

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"Thank you. I know you understand."

Jewish communities existed in the past in China. There was a
Jewish community in Shanghai for nearly 200 years prior to the
Second World War, and as far back as the 13th century an
influential
Jewish population existed in the eastern city of Kaifeng, though it had
disappeared by the end of the 19th century. At present there is no
permanent Jewish community in China, though a handful of Chinese claim
ancestry to these old communities -- a largely academic claim, as none can
prove maternal lineage or even practice the religion. Until recently all
religions were outlawed in communist China, and in any case the Western
concept of "religion" has never taken root. To the Chinese, "Western
religion" is merely a synonym for "Christianity," which is basically a
club
with a lot of members that meets every Sunday.

As far as I knew, the only other Jew in Hunan, a province nearly
twice the size of New York state, was Mark Stone, an English teacher at
the Yale University-sponsored elementary school in downtown Changsha.
Mark was a short, loud, balding guy in his early 20s, always quick
to
voice an opinion -- the type Annie Hall's grandmother would refer to as "a
real New York Jew," except that he was from Seattle and was going to law
school to become a public advocate for California's migrant farm workers,
whom he felt were being screwed by the big farm conglomerates.

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One night at a dance club, while we watched listless dancers
shuffle to a Cantonese waltz, we discussed how it felt to live in a
vacuum
of Jewish culture. Both of us had grown up in places with marked Jewish
influence -- he in a Jewish section of Seattle, I in a New Jersey suburb. I
had not mentioned my religion to anyone since I arrived -- not because of
Mr. Li's warning, or because I was embarrassed, but out of the common
Jewish desire to blend in, as well as my American belief that my religion
was my own damn business. Though I did not deny being Jewish, I did not
volunteer it.

Mark, though, told me he went out of his way to tell people he
was Jewish. He considered it his duty to dispel bizarre myths about Jews
that often were spread through ignorance. Most Chinese had never met a Jew, he said, and many had crazy ideas about us.

I understood his point. An
intelligent, college-educated Australian teacher I worked with had been
astonished when I told her I was Jewish. She had never met a Jew before.
"But you don't have dark skin or curly hair," she had said dubiously. "And
your nose is the wrong shape -- not curly." I explained that I was of
Eastern European ancestry. "But Jews come from the Middle East," she
said. "How can you be European?"

"I don't know," I admitted.

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The day after I spoke with Mark, I decided to come out of the
closet with my students. Near the end of class I announced pointblank
that I was Jewish, and asked them what they knew about Jews. "Very
clever," one girl said. "Don't eat pork," said another. "Red hair,"
added a
boy. There was a long pause. I asked if anyone had any questions they
wanted to ask me. After another long pause, a boy in the back of the
room
raised his hand: "Is this going to be on the exam?"

As Christmas approached, my two foreign coworkers suggested
we have a Christmas concert for the students. The college didn't object,
probably because they believed, as did my students, that Christmas is an
American, not a Christian, holiday. I didn't feel offended, or want
equal
time, as long as there wasn't any blatant mention of God or Jesus. I
enjoy a
party, and besides, I absolutely refused to teach a classroom full of
Chinese
students to sing "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel."

The three of us spent several evenings laboriously recalling and
transcribing Christmas carols. I handed out mimeographed lyric sheets to
my students around Thanksgiving, and practiced for half an hour at the
end of each class. The students were thrilled and began exchanging
Christmas cards and telling their classmates. Soon all talk centered on
the upcoming concert.

During a free discussion session in class, one of the students asked
me how Americans celebrated Christmas. I explained about Christmas
lights and the tree, Santa Claus ("Old Man Christmas" in Chinese), gifts
and caroling. Another student asked me how my family celebrated
Christmas. I reminded the class that I was Jewish, so we didn't
celebrate Christmas. She nodded gravely.

Another student raised his hand. "Do you miss your family on
Christmas?" he asked, blushing at his bold question. I explained again
that we didn't celebrate Christmas, so it didn't mean much to me.

"Oh," he said, obviously disappointed.

"Do you have a tree?" a girl asked excitedly.

No, I explained, only Christians have trees. My family was Jewish. We didn't have a tree.

She nodded, perplexed. I could sense they were beginning to doubt that I
was American.

A boy in the back row raised his hand hopefully: "Do you
exchange gifts?"

I sighed. Yes, I said, we exchange gifts, we have a tree and I
miss my family very much on Christmas.

"Ahhh," the students sighed,
satisfied at last.

The next Yom Kippur, I prepared in advance. I told my students I
wouldn't be teaching that day, and explained the holiday thoroughly.
Though a bit perplexed, they accepted my explanation. I asked Miss Liu
for the day off; she wanted to know why.

"Yom Kippur is a holiday," I reminded her. "A fast day."

She did not understand. "You know Qing Ming?" I asked,
referring to the spring holiday when Chinese honor their ancestors. She
nodded. "On Qing Ming you sweep your family's graves clean and offer
fruit and flowers to honor your ancestors' memory, right?" She nodded.
"Yom Kippur is at the beginning of the Jewish New Year. We think about
the past. We recall our dead loved ones and honor them, and we also
think
about the things we have done wrong to other people in the past year, and
we fast and ask for forgiveness from God."

She thought about it for a while. "You don't eat?" she asked.

"Not for one day," I said.

She thought about it. "Only one day?" she asked.

I nodded.

"Certainly you may take the day off," she said. "Please be careful
not to
get sick; you are very important to us. I hope you have a good holiday."

"Thank you," I said.

She stood up to go. "Can you can make up the teaching day?" she
asked just before she left. Sure, I nodded.
"Good. How about this Saturday?"


Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen is a writer who lives in Pennsylvania.

MORE FROM Joshua Cohen

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