I make my way through New York City’s busy diamond district with my children in tow. With only a few days in the city every two-years on a return visit from our home in Hong Kong, our days are packed with catching up with friends, taking in the sites and of course running errands.
My five-year-old tugs my arm as he pauses and breaks our brisk pace. “Mama, look that man is Jewish,” he yells out with genuine glee as he points to a bearded stranger in a black hat, long black coat and peyot. I glance back, a bit embarrassed and smile, trying to pick up our pace. Barely a second passes by and again he announces, “Mama, look that man is too!” again he points, stares and yells. “And there is another Jewish man. And another.”
Again I can only smile in sheer embarrassment.
I pull my small brood over to the side of the street in an attempt to avoid the sea of lunchtime foot-traffic rushing by. I bend down and whisper to my son, “Sweetie, look around and please don’t point. You don’t need to. Everyone here is Jewish.”
He surveys the passers-by skeptically but then looks up at me and concludes, “You are right. Just like in Hong Kong.”
I fight the urge to laugh and decide I will instead focus on the task at hand and clear up the misconception later. I am somewhat perplexed. He is an astute child and generally quite a keen observer of details for his age. Then I try to see his world from his viewpoint.
Our synagogue in Hong Kong is a five-minute walk from our home. Our children attend an Orthodox Hebrew day school that is also minutes from our home. Our next-door neighbors and their four children go to our synagogue (though they always manage to make it there before us) and attend the same school.
On a typical Saturday, we pass by another synagogue on the way to ours and cross paths with various neighbors as they make their way to the synagogue of their choice. “Shabbat Shalom,” we greet one another in the streets.
Our Jewish world is small but from his five-year-old perspective it is large, perhaps all-encompassing. The fact that in a population of over 7 million people in Hong Kong (95% of whom are ethnically Chinese) we as Jews collectively account for only about 4,000 or 0.05% of the population can be seemingly irrelevant. Large numbers and statistics don’t play into his worldview.
Interestingly, neither does race. He sees divides between people in terms of linguistics and his ability to communicate with them, a very practical and real dividing line rather than the arbitrariness of racial classifications. When he labels somebody as Chinese, or in his words “a Chinese,” he explains it is because they don’t know English. Having lived his entire life in Hong Kong, he does not have a racial consciousness. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from this.
While (after the fact) I find his outbursts in the Diamond District of New York City endlessly entertaining, it is also an interesting insight to his view of the world. I recall a similar incident years ago when my now teenage cousin went to New York City’s Chinatown with her parents. Also Hebrew Day School educated, though in Upstate New York, she had but one Chinese child in her school, a girl that had been adopted as an infant. When my then five-year old cousin walked through the crowded and bustling Chinatown streets and surveyed the new and unfamiliar, seemingly exotic landscape, she exclaimed, “Look Mommy, everyone here is Jewish.” My aunt surveying the same scene was confused and saw only Chinese faces. She asked her daughter where she saw other Jews. Matter-of-factly, my cousin responded, “Everywhere. Everyone here is Jewish just like Leah in my class.”
While in Hong Kong expatriates often poke fun at one another for living in a bubble, this is not altogether a falsehood. Though we do thoroughly explore our adopted home and, almost on a daily basis, increase our understanding of local culture and mores, truth be told, just as my son did in New York City and my cousin in Chinatown, we do look out for and gravitate toward the familiar. We do this when forming our closest associations and we tend to always make sure we are closely tied to our own faith and traditions.
Viewing life in Asia, even always through our own Jewish lenses, does allow us adults the opportunity to expand our own perspectives. As for my son, there will be plenty of time for him to gain perspective on his place in the world. He will likely, inevitably, develop a racial consciousness that extends far beyond the practical boundary of language. He will one day grow to appreciate just how very small we as Jews are in terms of numbers in the world. He will understand what it means to be a minority. There is plenty of time for this. For now, I am warmed by the fact that we have managed to carve out a very safe space in a very big world for him to grow up in.