Jun Chen is a non-Jewish New Voices writer at Indiana University. In Part I of a three-part series called Non-Members of The Tribe, Chen writes about her own experiences getting to know the Jewish people and about why young Chinese have an affinity for the Jews. In Parts II and III, coming over the next two weeks, she will profile other non-Jews who have become deeply involved with the Jewish community in Bloomington, Ind.
Part 1: Jun Chen
Chinese | Graduate student | Journalist covering the Jewish community
Indiana University (Bloomington, Ind.)—
It was 10 years ago that my father told me for the first time what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was. We both sat in front of the T.V. watching the news, which said the 2000 Camp David peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians were set to begin. My father was just an engineer then, but he has the best memory among everyone I know. He said what he most wanted to provide me with was multi-cultural awareness and the capacity for independent thought, things that were not highly regarded in China in the days before the new climate of openness began to prevail. One reason I remember this so vividly is that just a few days after our talk it was Sept. 11, 2001.
I am a member of the so-called “post-’80 generations” in China, the first generation born after the economic reforms and China’s one-child policy. We stand out in China for the self-aware discussions of social values and the role of the government in much the same way that Baby-Boomers stood out among Americans when they were young. My peers are increasingly unwilling to accept the hypocrisy of Chinese authorities. Our mistrust of our leaders runs deep, and there is a keen desire to understand other cultures.
For this young, well-educated Chinese generation, Jewish culture has been one of the few foreign cultures that comes naturally. The Nanjing Massacre in 1937, when hundreds of thousands Chinese were murdered in a six-week period during the Second Sino-Japanese war, occupies a similar place in the Chinese mind to that of the Holocaust in the Jewish mind. And the dilemmas of identity examined in some American Jewish literature also resonate with the young elite of China, anxious about their sense of self in a society with a huge spiritual void.
Because of the respect for Jewish culture, anti-Semitism in China is merely a term to be explained in history classes. Before visiting America or Europe, many Chinese take it for granted that this centuries-long hatred is disappearing in the post-Holocaust world.
Since I began to cover Jewish issues in America almost a year ago, what has struck with me most vividly is how paradoxically American Jews view themselves and the negative attitudes some people have toward them. They support Israel in many ways, but they held more moderate and liberal views of what Israeli government policies will prevent Israel from risking isolation. Some American Jews criticize Israel, but they would never know when these criticisms would be labeled “anti-Israel” or “Self-hating”.
Meanwhile, Jewish identity is also a delicate and intricate subject. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, Jews have struggled with some basic questions about their identity quest: Open or exclusive? Whisper or speak up? Assimilate or remain distinct? While having a fear of being disappearing in American societies, many American Jews still feel very much part of this county.
I sat down in Bloomington with people who are not Jews, but are now heavily involved with the Jewish community. (In four parts over the next three weeks, my interviews with them will be published here at New Voices.) They talked about how they view the Jews and the Jewish culture with which they come into contact. So do they see Jews as a contradictory cultural figure as what we can see in the ongoing public debate? A winner or a plague? A victim or a victimizer? The answer is all of the above.
It has always been challenging to discuss ideas of a society and culture that is vastly different from our own. But as an old Chinese saying goes, you have no right to hate, unless you understand the one you hate as much as you understand yourself.
Jun Chen is a journalism graduate student at Indiana University. She is a Chinese girl, a news junkie and music snob who believes there is inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be.