I know, I know: Never read the comments. But these comments struck a nerve. For the first time, I found myself questioning the dual identity I had for so long taken for granted. After all, I’ve never lived in China or Israel. I speak neither Mandarin nor Hebrew. For me, Asian is orange chicken and silk kimonos. Jewish is loving matzo-ball soup, my Long Island-born grandmother, and excuses to exclaim, “Oy vey!” Was that enough? Or were they right that I was really a collection of fragments, an outsider, an imposter?
To answer that question, I decided to examine two moments when I felt most Chinese and most Jewish.
I want the pork buns. I know exactly what they taste like: a heaven of tangy-sweet, barbecued tidbits encased in tender, papery skin. I’ve eaten them dozens of times at dim-sum restaurants just like this, stuffing them into my mouth two-handedly like a hungry chipmunk while my Chinese family yells over the table. But their name escapes me.
My mother remembers. “Ngo oi char siew pal,” she says in that strange yet familiar lilt, waving for the attention of the haggard waitress. Her incantation works: A silver cart pulls to a halt before us, and the waitress deposits two buns on our plate. “Xie xie,” my mother says.
Then the waitress looks up, and her eyes linger a second too long. They flash first to my mother, then to my brother and me, her eyebrows arched in an unspoken question: What are we doing here, with her?
We shrink in our seats, suddenly self-conscious. But my mother merely laughs the moment away. “She must think you two are gweilo,” she says: white devils.
My mother has always been my bridge to the Chinese world. The strange thing is, she isn’t particularly Asian herself. While she is ethnically Chinese, she considers herself culturally British; she was raised in Singapore and schooled in the United Kingdom. As a result, we were raised on English muffins and English breakfast tea, spelling everything with an extra “u.” It was my Shanghai-nese stepmother who lulled us to sleep with Chinese fairy tales, prepared authentic Chinese dishes, and took us with her to China.
But because my mother feels comfortable here, so do I. Even today, whenever I move to a new city, the first thing I do is visit its Chinatown. Wandering down narrow alleyways, under lanterns, and signs displaying Chinese characters, I’m sharply aware of my difference. I can’t read a thing, and as the only white face in the crowd, I get weird gweilo looks from shop owners. I scan for English, my eyes lingering on brightly colored lychee and dragonfruit candies, tastes I recall from childhood but can’t quite articulate. In my own way, though, I feel perfectly at home.
I remember, as a child, holding tightly to my mother’s hand and wandering through Chinatowns just like this. This is my heritage; this is my nostalgia. This is what I grew up with: One foot in, one foot out, straddling the divide.