Along the matted dirt path of Chongqing, children play in the fields bordering the green, mellow mounds not quite large enough to be mountains.
“Ni hao!” I greet the children in Mandarin Chinese.
“America! America,” they exclaim, wildly excited to discover my foreign self. My fluency will never hide my ethnicity. My curly dark hair and light colored eyes won’t fit in.
It is less polluted here than in the main city, but the sky still fades white. I take out a tissue from my back pocket and blow my nose. Now that I am not in the city, my tissue comes out clean as opposed to the black gunk from the black air. Finally, I am not in a bubble of carbon monoxide and soot. The air is muggy but crisp, not a strange combination for Chongqing. Today I escaped from the busy city to visit suburbia.
On the opposite side of the path, a woman and two children carry shallow wooden baskets as they pick from the fields. I notice these aren’t fields; but swampy lengths of waving grass-rice! Of course it is rice; Chongqing is one of China’s largest rice producers.
The woman notices my gaze and my excitement over discovering rice fields in Chongqing. Her crooked smile shows teeth slightly yellowed from the sugar cane poking out from the knapsack dangling from her shoulder. Her eyes dance, even though the wrinkles around them show long days of strenuous work. The exact state of wrinkle I use my nightly anti-aging cream to avoid. I love her straw, pointy hat. It covers her entire face from the sun while still allowing her a great deal of vision. Still smiling at me she yells across from the grass, “Dou shao chein?” She offers her hat, for a price.
I explain in Mandarin how much I love her hat, but she should keep it for her work.
She stretches out her palm, flapping her wrists. “Meiguanshi!” It isn’t a problem; she has many hats. She points to her children wearing the same type.
“Lai lai,” she beckons. I follow, drawn to her friendly independence. I want to find out more about her, about farming, about her children, and about Chinese hats.
Neighborhoods in the outskirts of town are easily accessible, since there aren’t any fences or gates, just scattered fields dotted with little concrete houses.
The woman drops her basket as I approach, meeting me half way to the dirt path. Her name is Xiang Lee and her home is very close. She leaves her children to gather rice and play while we continue toward the very square, concrete home with a cozy porch on the very end. The dull color of the concrete against the green fields makes it cozy.
“Your Chinese very good,” she says in English. The Chinese always say that, even in you only know one word. It’s part of the culture. I’m supposed to deny this, tell her how little I know and how I have so much left to learn. Then she would respond that my Chinese is too good, that I must be an extraordinary student, and expect me to describe what a lazy student I am and how she is mistaken. I am not in the mood for this type of bickering so I avoid it all together and thank her for the compliment.
Her dining room consists of a square, wooden table surrounded by four low stools. This table appears to have been sitting here for decades according to the indentations on the floor. I squat onto the low stool. Beside me, an armoire hangs open, inviting the eyes of visitors. I inspect her dish ware and some candle holders, one of them a menorah.
I’m Jewish, my father Israeli and my mother American. While my father was a soldier in the Israeli air force, he worked as a delivery boy twice a week for a local convenience store, bringing fruits and vegetables from local markets. My American mother was visiting distant relatives in Jerusalem and happened to find my father delivering fruits and vegetables. My parents raised my brother and me with an evenly divided culture; I still admire the falafel and hot dogs resting together on the dinner table.
She talks about the weather. As she shows me the sweat that has amounted in her hat, I’m thinking about the menorah. I am polite, nodding and sympathizing in all the right places. When Xian-Lee finishes, I point to the menorah and ask her what she uses it for. Will she tell me the story of Chanukkah? I am expecting some sort of reference to a temple, since menorahs were used in temples to illuminate the Arc of the Covenant. She chuckles as if the answer is only logical.
“More candles, more light!” I am unprepared for this answer and she is shocked at my burst of laughter, and with that our laughter echoes in her concrete home.
There were three major waves of Jewish migration into China, the First Opium War, the Russian Revolution, and WWII. But even before then, Jewish settlers were in China. It remains a mystery how these Jews arrived or why they decided to move to China during the 7th century. According to Richard R Wertz, Chinese Jews lived in isolated communities from the 7th to 19th century, but by the time The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, few native Chinese Jews practiced the Jewish religion and culture. The menorah in Xiang-Lee’s armoire could be a remnant of her ancestry.
I ask about her family. She has to catch her breath from laughing so hard before responding, “Henan.” I tell her about the ancient mystery of a Jewish community in the city of Kaifeng, Henan. As early as the Tang Dynasty, Jewish people in China must have intermarried with the local Chinese, perpetuating assimilation. Most descendants of this community do not know of their history but still practice common Judaic traditions unknowingly.
“PIG! PIG!” Xiang-Lee interrupts. Her thin eyebrows furrow. Does eating pork have anything to do with Judaism?
I nod and her eyes become bright with disbelief. She tells me a story of how her mother and her siblings could not eat pork, but her mother never understood the reason behind it.
Xiang-Lee closes the doors of the armoire. “This very old,” she says in English, leaving the secrets of the past to be discovered. I unlock my knees from sitting in the wobbly stool for so long, and get up to say goodbye.
It is time to head back to the city, I tell her. She chuckles when she sees the time; she must get her kids and start making dinner. Rice noodles dry in the sun on the other side of the house. She gathers her hat and her knapsack and offers me one of her hats. “You take to America and you remember me!”