Growing up as a Jew in America, I did experience anti-Semitism from time to time, especially in my late elementary to early high school years. However, everyone was, overall, accepting of the fact that I was Jewish, and although no one knew much about my religion, they understood that I adhered to a different faith and respected the fact that I stood up to them about it and never lied about who I was.
Now and for most of this year, however, I’ve been living in China and to my surprise, anti-Semitism just does not seem to exist in this country—on the contrary, I am often lauded for my being a Jew as belonging to the smartest race of people on the planet. I must admit, this is a nice change considering where I came from, but it still does make me feel uncomfortable, the same as it makes any foreigner uncomfortable when a Chinese man says they’re not qualified enough to be able to sit at the same dinner table with you. But, the Chinese welcome of the Jews can be understood by a simple search on Baidu—afterall, Lenin, Marx and Einstein were Jews. Any race that produces people like that has to be good, right?
This sort of judgmental attitude is the same reason why Blacks, particularly Africans, are openly unwelcome in China. One of my good friends here, Kevin from Ghana, tells me that whenever he tells someone here his country of origin, the conversation abruptly ends. He told me about an Ethiopian student in a nearby city recently who was dating a Chinese girl and, while walking with her outside one night, was surrounded by five Chinese men and stabbed. I, myself—in response to being questioned by a former teacher of mine about the foreign students in my university—have experienced this sort of racism first hand. When I told the teacher that we have something like seven to eight African students here, he immediately grew stern, shook his head and said, “I don’t like Africans. They’re not good people.”
This sort of behavior is replete in China and it irks me to no end, especially at this time of the year. I’m not sure who it was that told them this, but it seems that the Chinese all have it in their heads that every single person in every single country to the west of China all celebrate Christmas like it’s the greatest day of the year, and so, of course, China’s got to join in on the fun. My girlfriend tells me that when she was young, no one here celebrated Christmas. And yet, now, I’ve heard that it’s even bigger than Spring Festival here. Now, I haven’t been in China yet for Spring Festival, so it remains to be seen whether or not that’s true, but we’ll soon find out, eh? I read recently that when a teacher asked his students what the meaning of Christmas was, they said, “it’s a time for gift giving,” and “it’s a day for people to spend time together and play.”
However, the truth is that only five-eighths of the West actually celebrates Christmas. So imagine how alienating it is for me to constantly be told “Merry Christmas,” and then receive looks of puzzlement when I explain to them that I’m a Jew and don’t celebrate Christmas. The best example I can think of to highlight this situation occurred with my piano teacher. Recently, she asked me to come to the mall where she works to do a piano performance for a Christmas show. Later, she told me that one of my friends had cancelled on her for acting the part of Santa Claus, and asked me to put on the red suit and beard. I told her very clearly that I don’t celebrate Christmas, and for me to put on a Santa suit and yell “Merry Christmas” to everyone would be against all of my religious beliefs. Not to mention, although I am a secular Jew, I try not to do things that would severely disappoint my family and this absolutely was one of those things. She insisted however, and continued to plead saying that there was no one else, and it was no problem for me to be Santa. Again, I refused, citing my religious beliefs. Finally, the show comes, I do my piano performance, and walk around the mall with my girlfriend. I get a text message from the teacher when I am about to leave saying, “Not to pressure you, but could you please be Santa?” At this point, I was frustrated to the point of anger. Was she really so disrespectful of my Judaism to the point of asking me three times to celebrate a holiday which I was brought up to not celebrate?
And that was when it occurred to me that the people here, for the most part, have never been raised with any religion. They don’t believe in God at all, and some of them may have only heard of God from Western movies and music. It’s certainly not part of their pledge of allegiance. My piano teacher simply doesn’t understand what religion means to a Westerner, that it’s not just about buying gifts for your friends and family and decorating a tree, or about lighting some candles and saying a few words in another language but that, for us, it’s actually a way of life. After coming to this epiphany, I found it difficult to hold a grudge against her, even after the next day, when she text messaged me to come to her house and celebrate Christmas with her and, upon my arrival, excitedly yelled, “Merry Christmas!” Or even after—despite my telling them repeatedly that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas—she and her son still told one of their friends that all Westerners celebrate this holiday.
I have a friend here, who is also named Josh, also teaches English and is also Jewish (it’s quite strange, actually). He told me that, on that day, he had given a lesson to his class for which he made about 50 copies of a picture of Buddha and walked around to all of his students, repeatedly yelling, “Happy Buddha Day!” to all of them and handing them a picture of Buddha. His students almost immediately protested, saying they weren’t Buddhist, so why was he handing out these pictures? He told me he paused for a moment, then resumed, “Happy Buddha Day! Happy Buddha Day!” The students yelled, “Stop! We don’t pray to Buddha!” Finally, Josh stopped and said “Now you know how I feel.”
This simple example demonstrates the situation in China in regard to Christmas. The problem is that at least in the West, although Christmas has been commercialized to the point of starting right after Halloween, it is still understood that it’s a Christian holiday and still holds some semblance of religious importance. However, in China, Christmas is nothing more than a day for gift giving and shopping. The holiday here has absolutely no religious significance and I find that somewhat disturbing. Josh has about 20 Christian students (there are apparently ranging estimates of between 14 – 54 million Christians among the 1.3 billion Chinese) and one of them told Josh recently that she is actually insulted that Christmas is so widely celebrated by the Chinese as none of them actually understand the religious significance and only enjoy it for materialistic reasons. It cheapens the entire holiday.
Honestly, I have to say that I absolutely agree with this girl. If I began to see Hamantaschens* and drunk Chinese in costumes wandering about on Purim, I’d feel extremely insulted. After all, they don’t know the story of Purim, they only heard that some Jews were doing it in the West, so why not take another opportunity to take another holiday?
Josh’s girlfriend told me earlier today that in Beijing this year, they built the world’s largest Santa and also built the former USSR’s version of Santa named Grandfather Frost. I’d never heard of this before but, apparently, since religion has no place in communism, the Soviets made Grandfather Frost to be a non-religious symbol of winter who looked strikingly like Santa and was accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. Apparently, Grandfather Frost was built to come out and meet St. Nick as a demonstration of the relationship between the two countries. Seeing things like this makes me wonder how the people involved can be so insensitive, especially considering how many educated and well-traveled Chinese there actually are in China. Who would possibly think it would be a good idea for a country devoid of religion to build a symbol that is directly connected to one of the world’s major religions and then have it “meet” with one of the Soviets’ insults in their attempt to locally destroy Christianity? Did they think that Russian Christians would appreciate being reminded of how the Soviet Union tried to stamp out their freedom to practice?
All in all, this perverse Christmas spirit is widely and shamelessly embraced in China and shows no signs of slowing down. Whether the Chinese will continue to try to force their enthusiasm on me remains to be seen, however, I am not optimistic about the situation. What does this mean for Chinese culture? Westernization, to be sure, but whether it’s good in this case is something I doubt. In the meantime, I look forward to Purim and Pesach here in China. Especially the maror (bitter herbs). Mostly the maror.
*Hamantaschens is a pastry associated with Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine identifiable by its three-cornered shape. It is eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim. Photo above.