This Lunar New Year, I'm Embracing My Chinese and Jewish Identities
Friday, February 12, 2021, marks Lunar New Year, an important holiday in the Chinese year. During this holiday, we remember our ancestors, cherish our families, and cap it all off with the Lantern Festival (元宵节), with the full moon signifying families reuniting. In Chinese poetry, the moon represents the longing to be home—a famous Chinese poem, Li Bai’s 静夜思 (“Quiet Night Thoughts”), reads “I raise my head to admire the moon, then lower it to reminisce about my hometown.” No matter where we are, we are under the same moon as those we long for.
But when it comes to Lunar New Year, I know that I am not actually looking at the exact same moon my family in China is—when it is night for me, they’ve already moved onto the next day. I moved to the United States from China when I was fourteen, making my upbringing partly American and partly Chinese. I grew up with the same education and cultural values as any Chinese child. But as I came of age in the United States, I began to adopt beliefs and behaviors that are opposed to what I had been taught in China. I rebelled against the expectations of traditional femininity imposed by my mother, straining our relationship.
As I assimilated into my American life, conversations with my friends and family in China slowly ceased. I went from checking WeChat and keeping up with my friends almost every single day to barely looking at it every two weeks. When I left, I was a proficient reader of ancient Chinese texts—now I struggle to remember some basic words in Mandarin. In my fervent pursuit to create a new life for myself here, I’d lost touch with the one I had.
Honestly, I don’t know that who I have become is someone that my friends and family would be proud of. I never wear makeup or dresses, and don’t care about my weight. I write about sex and talk about my mental illnesses. I am an organizer; I chose to make politics a career—something my mother expressly told me not to do as it would be “too rough and tumble for a woman.”
When I went back to visit China in 2017, I was reminded of how unwelcome my newfound values were there. Sitting at a banquet table with family friends, a male friend of my mom’s commented that hitting children was an acceptable form of punishment. To my left, my best friend was being nudged to marry a boy she didn’t really know—she was 21. I could not stand for it—she was being bartered and traded like some commodity.
Overwhelmed by all this at once, I stepped out abruptly. I cried uncontrollably, knowing that the perfect daughter I was expected to be would sit, smile, answer when called, and not say a word. I became acutely aware of just how maladjusted I was, how much of a misfit I would be if I ever moved back—more than I already had been growing up.
So it’s hard to reconcile all that emotional baggage with the unwavering pride and joy I do feel in my Chinese identity. Can I really be proud to be part of a heritage that I’d forgotten so much of? Am I really deserving of the love and kindness of my ancestors if my actions don’t meet their expectations? I struggle to reconcile the distance I feel from my life in China with my innate sense of connection to my Chinese roots.
But I’m starting to embrace this duality and learn to hold my hesitance and pride at once. Discovering my Jewish identity in college helped tremendously. I essentially had to learn everything for myself, as I wasn’t raised Jewish. I saw that observance of Judaism was a spectrum, and people are able to interpret and find new meaning in the tradition in ways that resonate with them.
Embracing Judaism began to change how I saw my Chinese identity. It enabled me to remember all the fun memories I had traveling with my cousins to Western China, playing in the tiny streams of rural towns and picking half-ripe fruits with my friends… It helped me start to identify all the ways I did feel Chinese—the 邓丽君 (Teresa Tung) songs I knew by heart, the sound of my mom’s zither songs flowing out of her room, the smell of sweet and sour ribs my grandma would make, the obsession I had with Ming Dynasty history as a teen.
Most importantly, choosing to reconnect with my Jewish heritage allowed me to realize how I express and connect with my Chinese identity is a choice, as well. My rejection of certain values and expectations doesn’t make me less Chinese. After all, a lifetime of not knowing much about Judaism didn’t make me less Jewish. I have nothing to prove to anyone—I am Chinese, through and through.
Recently, I was honored to hear the stories of 23 Asian American Jews while filming LUNAR: The Jewish-Asian Film Project, for which I am the Producer and Co-Creator. Like me, many of the participants are negotiating their relationship with cultural values that feel suppressive to them and working through hesitance about claiming an identity when they “don’t know enough” about their ancestral culture. This cemented for me that forming my identity is an ongoing process—that I don’t need to have all the answers now, and my complicated feelings can be a part of the journey.
This Lunar New Year, I’m holding all those feelings while reminiscing about my life in China. I want to remember my mom taking me to the market to get a new kumquat tree every year, my grandma making yummy dumpling filling while my friends and I competed to see who could fold the nicest one, and all the pretty lanterns near the temple as I walked by in the frigid weather, wrapped in three layers of sweaters. I’m learning that feeling disconnected while yearning for ancestral heritage is core to living in the diaspora.
How to cite this page
Slosberg, Gen. "This Lunar New Year, I'm Embracing My Chinese and Jewish Identities." 11 February 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 6, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/lunar-new-year-im-embracing-my-chinese-and-jewish-identities>.