- More Than Chicken Chow Mein
Growing up I was always told, "Well, Jews do love Chinese food, after all!" This, after the speaker had gazed into my eyes with furrowed brow, asked me where I was from, and reeled from the initial shock of my answer: "My mother is Jewish, and my father is Chinese." [End Page 136]
Jews love Chinese food? Stop right there ... don't even take the time to imagine that my father was a Chinese take-out guy who got sucked into some after-hours steamy broccoli and chicken romance with a local customer. If you want to know the truth, my mother dislikes almost all Chinese food, except for the occasional "beef and tomato." My father is the one with the food fetish. He can never seem to get enough of corned beef, pastrami, tongue, or matzo ball soup. My existence is the result of more than some Jewish relish for Chinese food.
People always need a reason. How could someone like me come to be? What could possibly explain why a Jewish woman and a Chinese man would raise a family together? I know that this question was on the minds of my peers at the Jewish Center where I took Hebrew School classes as a child. From the age of six until I was Bat Mitzvah, I was ridiculed, teased, kicked, and laughed at. I don't think my classmates realized their supposed predilection for Chinese food, because many of them called me "Chicken Chow Mein" with an intense hatred. It was always snarled. It made me feel dirty. It made me feel different. I can still feel the humiliation; wishing every Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday that my father was not Chinese. That I was not Chinese. I wanted to fit in, to be just like all the rest. I had a recurring dream in which I was reinvented with a name like Rachel Weinstein, Leah Goldman, or Sara Fishbein. Each time, I would wake up with a start, my smile quickly fading as I realized that I was still Jennifer Chau.
I was on the margins, although I was usually the only one who recognized that fact. My teachers never addressed the negative treatment I endured, and my mother thought the complaints she heard from my brothers and me were the usual childhood whinings. Because I felt ashamed about the way I was treated, I never really voiced the truth to my parents or my brothers. If my mother was left to believe that we were making excuses because we wanted to rush home after school to watch cartoons, it was probably more about wanting to be in a safe space where we felt we belonged.
On the day of my Bat Mitzvah, I realized that I would never belong in the Jewish community in which we lived (as an adult, I realize that there are other, more open and welcoming Jewish spaces). Feminists had succeeded by then in opening the Bat Mitzvah ritual to girls, but other significant limitations to full participation remained intact. During my Bat Mitzvah rehearsal, my father was offered the opportunity to stand on the bimah with my mother and me to say a prayer during the ceremony. We were ecstatic, because it was more [End Page 137] than we had anticipated in our Conservative synagogue. We had assumed that he would not be allowed to take part, because he is not Jewish—and on top of that, Chinese. We began excitedly to prepare. Unfortunately, the offer was short-lived. On the eve of the ceremony, the rabbi called my mother to tell her, "We had a special meeting of the Ritual Committee, and we decided that your husband cannot participate. We do not want to promote intermarriage." It didn't all make sense to me, but I saw my mother's hysterical crying, and I knew that it had to do with my parents being different from one another. My mother no longer wanted to participate without my father, so I was the only child in my class who said that special prayer without my parents. My Jewish grandparents filled in.