Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We're EVERYWHERE...seriously

There are certain recurring themes in conversations I've had with American Jews here in Israel; Israeli falafel is outstanding, "Don't Mess with the Zohan" is right about the ubiquity of hummus, peace with the Palestinians would be really nice, and, most importantly, it's weird being around Jews all the time.

38% of all Jews worldwide live in the United States yet we only comprise 2.2% of the total US population.  There are possibly more Jews living in America than in Israel yet we're a minority there and the majority here in Israel.  American Jewish communities tend to be clustered in specific areas such as the New York metro area and Hollywood; entire swaths of the US are essentially Jew-free zones.  So there is a certain connection among American Jews, especially when traversing the gentile regions of the States.

My friend Anna mentioned the other night that she still looks around and thinks "Wow, there are a lot of Jewish looking guys here" before catching herself.  The minority outlook is deeply ingrained and does not vanish quickly.  Some find a level of comfort in being different and discover that being the majority, and thus no longer "special," is strange.  Others revel in finally being part of the majority, which is why many say they make aliyah.

I've had a different reaction, partly from my childhood in a very Jewish area of New York and partly from being Korean.  Hanging out with Jews all the time is nothing new and is actually quite normal and comfortable.  However, I can't vanish into the crowd here any more than I can in the US.

For example, Shira and I went to the shuk before Rosh Hashanah for groceries.  We split up for a bit and went wandering off for sundry foodstuffs.  As I went to buy some vegetables, I passed a couple Israeli teenage boys who yelled "China!" at me as I walked past.  There was no malice or threat involved; I actually can't figure out why they said it, to be honest.  It was just a bit jarring.

So even if I am here surrounded by Jews, I'll still be different.  I'll still be a minority.  I'm sure it would be the same in Korea, since I am American and Jewish.  But this is ok because, in my expert opinion, weird is the new normal.


  1. Whether one is a majority or minority member is a matter of classification definition and situation. Asian is a racial identification, whereas Jewish is a religious or ethnic designation. Most Caucasians cannot distinguish Koreans from Japanese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, or Chinese. Since China comprises the largest group of Asians, many Caucasians reflexively perceive all Asians as Chinese. Most Jews are Caucasian, but are of diverse national origin, therefore, their coloring, features and body type vary, even among Israelis. Since very few Asians are Jewish, most Jews would not classify an Asian as Jewish, at least at first glance.
    In my college class there were five “Goodmans,” all from different parts of the US. Although I thought all persons named Goodman had some Jewish connection, only two of the five Goodmans had any Jewish connections. Therefore, even names can be misleading if one tries to classify according to religious identity.
    If all Caucasian Americans (US residents), including those who consider themselves the only “legitimate” Americans, were suddenly to find themselves in China, they would represent a tiny minority of the population there, although “Chinese” are a small sub-segment of Americans. In fact, among the three global racial classifications, both Asians and Africans are more numerous than Caucasians, particularly those of European origin.
    When asked to identify themselves, some people think of their citizenship first, others consider their ethnic identity of greater importance, some designate their race, some their countries of national origin, and yet others consider their membership in religious groups. Too much focus on such distinctions and classifications distracts us from one truth: we are all human with basic human needs.
    Right now, your brother who, like you, is Korean born, my son and a naturalized American, , is in the process obtaining his Korean Family Register so he can obtain a visa to work in Korea as an English instructor. Racially, he might blend into the Korean landscape, but his language and citizenship separates him from others of Korean origin. Whether he is “Jewish” by virtue of his adoption or a naturalized American, is not even an issue. Go figure.

  2. "So even if I am here surrounded by Jews, I'll still be different. I'll still be a minority. I'm sure it would be the same in Korea, since I am American and Jewish. But this is ok because, in my expert opinion, weird is the new normal."

    That's true to an extent in Korea, brother :) From my experiences up till now, you'd definitely be able to fit in since on the outside we're Korean. As soon as we open our mouths though, American!

    Oh, and weird is definitely the new normal!

  3. I'm so happy you wrote this post. It brought me back to my days in China, back in 2005. I kept a running diary while I was there and this post spurred me to reread and refresh my memory about how I was feeling when I was singled out, racially profiled, whatever you want to call it.

    For the first time in my life, I was really different. The Chinese couldn't help staring at me, pointing, whispering, touching me (especially my nose - they were fascinated by the topography of my face) And, of course, stopping me to verify my passport and student ID, in the case of military personnel.

    And once they realized I could converse... oh! My afternoon was suddenly booked! They had thousands of questions about me, about America, about what I and Americans thought about China...

    What I very quickly realized was that, in the States, I'm American purely for purposes of filling out my I-9. Yet when questioned about 'what I am,' I instinctually say I'm British and Italian.

    In China, by contrast, I was an American. Because being American was distinguishing enough - for them and, I thought, for me. I didn't have to try to differentiate myself, explain that I hold an EU passport or that all family holidays are steeped in Italian tradition. I turned heads on the street simply because I looked different. Heritage seemed too complicated and not worth explaining.

    Then, I ran into a confrontation late one night. I was out with two of my American guy friends. One was walking about 10 paces ahead. A car going down the street passes us, stops, then reverses until it gets to my friend. He was caught off guard but, being behind, I could see what was about to transpire. Two guys got out of the car, slammed my friend against a wall and started shouting racial slurs in Chinese (basically the equivalent of cracker, whitey... however you want to translate it) at him. I'm not sure if they intended to mug him or just needed to release some pent-up, anti-American sentiment, but in any case, we ran to help him and the guys backed off. I don't think they had anticipated being outnumbered. My friend's neck had a bruise on it the next day, but otherwise, everyone was thankfully okay.

    After the shock wore off, I realzed I was happy for the experience. It taught me about both sides of the racial profiling coin. And while I wouldn't want to relive that experience or - God forbid - something worse, I accepted that it just comes with the territory of sticking out.

    Between that event and the never-ending fascination that the citizens had with me, I learned more about myself during my time there than I had expected. And I realized that the good far, far outweighed the bad that my different appearance propogated. The dialogue it spurred was beneficial for both me and the Chinese. And it was arguably the most educational part of the entire experience abroad.

    I understand, of course, that this gets exponentially more complicated when you throw religion into the mix and that I can't possibly extrapolate it into feeling like an outsider both within and outside the US. But the main takeaway for me was that it offered a unique opportunity and a great platform to open conversation and correct misconceptions, both on my part and theirs. That's what I miss about being different and I hope I get to have that experience again. Who knows, maybe the next time I'm over there I'll just right in and say, yes, I'm American, but I'm also Britalian!