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‘Identification, Please’ How three words defined me to others and taught me the best of two ancient cultures

By Mason White 5:30 PM August 5, 2013
Boruch Wahrhaftig in China 

By: Boruch Wahrhaftig
Coordinating production of consumer goods from an office in Brooklyn taught me to do business with suppliers in China. I picked up a few cultural clues in the communication, but nothing prepared me for life in China.

Language was a manageable concern. I got by on translators, hand signals, and a few important words in Chinese. I had not anticipated how much Chinese culture mirrored Jewish culture. Confucius codified Chinese ethics and philosophy, emphasizing family, duty, and honor. The Chinese word for “people” (ren) is used to describe feelings of empathy, altruism, and striving for excellence. In Yiddish – being a mensch.

A succession of takeovers from the Mongols to the communists did not change the basics of Chinese society. The new leaders just became Confucian. China went on honoring its elders, worshiping its ancestors, and celebrating the ancient holidays. To the lands where they traveled, the Hebrews brought Mosaic Law, the bagel with shmear, and lawyers who practice the one while eating the other. Both cultures value personal honor. Saving face is a huge priority in China. The ‘crown of a good name’ is mentioned in Ethics of Our Fathers. Both Chinese and Jews seem to have a saying for everything, whether or not you appear interested. When serving food, every Chinese person is a Jewish mother.

An orthodox Jewish man arriving in the People’s Republic, I was more than a large white foreigner. I was an inscrutable mystery. China hosts many American and European visitors, but a Caucasian with a yarmulke and beard was an unfamiliar sight that most resembled a Muslim from China’s western provinces. It did not help that removing my glasses for my passport photo gave me a wild-eyed zealous resemblance to Osama bin Laden.

Within minutes of reaching China, someone touched my chin and said, “Nice beard.” Chinese passengers waiting to change planes tried to read the boarding pass extending from my shirt pocket. In an attempt to shame them into giving me some privacy, I held it up to be read. The readers nodded their thanks, smiled, and leaned on my hand luggage. New York and Tel Aviv were light years behind China in the pushy and nosy stranger competition. The concept of personal space was undefined in the People’s Republic.

People asked, “Where from?” but my replies only generated puzzled expressions. I learned to answer, “I am American, from New York,” in Mandarin. They shook their heads in disbelief and repeated their question in Chinese. When I wore the drab cadet cap sample from my desk, people cheered Fidel Castro and Cuba. Nobody had any idea where I was coming from.

Eventually, I mastered the phrase “wo zai you tai ren”, which means “I am Jewish”. In some countries, that was somewhere between not a good opener and downright dangerous. In China, it was received as if I had said, “I am Warren Buffet,” or “I am president of the United States.” I went from interesting to amazing in zero seconds. People not only knew what I was talking about, but they had a near-universal encouraging reaction. Pointing to their head, they would smile enthusiastically and say “hen hao,” (very good) in a great show of respect.

The positive stereotype of Jews as clever and good at business prevailed thoroughly. The early success of Jewish entrepreneurs such as the Sassoon brothers, builders of the famed Peace Hotel and other Shanghai landmarks did not hurt matters. Being Jewish in China was an immediate popularity boost. Factories were eager to do business with a member of such a successful race. Who was I to argue?

During factory visits, the hosts invariably expected to dine before starting business. My staff explained that I would not be able to join their meal because Jews have dietary restrictions. People were distressed when I declined an array of delicacies that reminded me of a pest control brochure, but they never ridiculed my convictions or attempted to persuade me. The general manager’s office was often home to an altar with incense burning before a bearded stone figure. In China, respect for old customs and practices lived on.

Returning to the USA, I experienced a reverse culture shock. Boarding the return flight reminded me what obesity looks like from behind. In the states, nobody carried their own bag into the store to avoid the fee. At Starbucks, people used credit cards to pay for complex drinks, not cash for juice or water. When the summoned waiter served tepid coffee to my elderly father-in-law after filling my cup, I missed attentive service, hot drinks, and deference to age.

In China, I rediscovered the joy of living small and savoring the moment. Exchanging slippers for shoes as I entered the minuscule apartment to share time with colleagues was like stepping into the real world. Sharing ideas, jokes, and hopes over tea in delicate cups reminded me of my grandfather sitting in the room behind his grocery store, sipping a glass of tea as he perused the Yiddish newspaper. America could well use a bit more Chinese Jewish culture.

Boruch Wahrhaftig resides in New York when not visiting friends and family in China, Israel and South Africa. His writing on topics of culture, science, and personal well-being is published in the USA and globally. Books on inspiration within nature and edible science are under construction.