Tea Leaf Nation
Being Israeli and Being Jewish, in Chinese Eyes
China rightly admires Jewish smarts and success. But it's time to move beyond stereotypes.
Beijing taxi drivers are famously chatty. A lot of my foreign friends know that the best way to study Chinese is get into conversations with them, and my husband is no different. But it’s a bit harder for him, because every interaction unfolds almost exactly the same way:
Husband: Hello sir/ma’am, please take me to [somewhere].
Driver: Sure. Your Chinese is pretty good – how long have you been here, young man?
Husband: Ten years.
Driver: That’s long enough. Where are you from?
Driver: Whoa – so are you Jewish?
Husband: Yep, I’m Jewish.
Driver: Jewish people are great; they’re all so smart.
Husband: Thanks. Chinese people are smart too.
Driver: We can’t compare; Jewish people are the smartest race on earth. You all really know how to do business.
Husband: [Modestly] Nah …
Driver: You’re famous for your drip irrigation methods; they’ve been exported to places like [region] Xinjiang and [provinces] Gansu and Henan.
Husband: That’s true. You know much!
Driver: It’s too bad that such a small country is always at war. I heard that not long ago you fired off some missiles, is that true?
Husband: That’s true, but they weren’t dangerous.
Driver: Firing missiles, not dangerous!! Maybe China is better.
It took my husband many years to understand why a conversation in China never deviates from script as soon as he mentions Israel. It’s not that Chinese people are taking things lightly; that’s just how most Chinese people see Israel, and Jews: as smart, and rich.
Israel was the first country in the Middle East to recognize the People’s Republic of China soon after its founding in 1949, though the two countries did not establish formal diplomatic relations until 1992. In its early decades, China leaned towards Palestine, but pivoted towards Tel Aviv in the 1980s. Now commerce, investment, and cultural exchanges between Israel and China flourish.
Jews, of course, have a long history in the Middle Kingdom. During the Tang and Song dynasties, small numbers settled along trade routes, including the ancient Jewish community in the eastern city of Kaifeng. More recently, before and during World War II, the coastal city of Shanghai welcomed Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, providing a safe haven for over 20,000. It hasn’t been forgotten; in August 2015, the Israeli Embassy in Shanghai posted a short video thanking the city of Shanghai for its wartime contribution.
But Chinese opinions of Jews are formed to a significant extent by Israel’s remarkable success in recent decades as a high-tech exporter. Israel really doesn’t have any natural resources; more than half its small area is desert. It’s nothing like the land of milk and honey depicted in the Bible. Yet the small country has become a modern agricultural and industrial export power. Chinese people all know that Israel provides our beloved cherry tomatoes, not to mention the USB flash drives on which our offices depend. It’s not just the drip irrigation one driver mentioned; it’s everything from solar power, to diamond cutting, to weapons systems.
I think the Jewish intelligence of which Chinese often speak stems from a particular attitude Jewish people have generally assumed towards learning. It’s a wisdom built up over days, months, and years, not something inborn. In my free time, I mostly watch videos on Youku [a Chinese Youtube-like site] to relax. Whenever my husband sees me doing this, he’ll ask: “What new are you learning from this program? Can you share with me?” If I have nothing to tell him, I’ll feel that I’ve wasted my time. When growing up in a Chinese farming village, I always thought myself rather industrious, but compared to my husband, I’m lazy.
Chinese people love sorting people into categories. (See what I did there?) For example, I often say that people from southern China are delicate, while northerners are big and strong; or that people from Shanghai are liberal, while people from Wenzhou are good at business. With everything in a category, rulemaking is easy. Simple rules are easy to propagate, but they also inhibit deep understanding. The Jewish passion for education and family, the spirit of “Chutzpah,” the unflagging commitment to frank and plain dialogue – they are too complicated to be covered with words like “smart” and “rich.”
I’m a manager at a startup incubator in Beijing and I frequently encounter Israeli founders in my work. My Israeli friends and colleagues often tell me that if you ask two Israelis one question, you’ll get three answers. I think the courage to express one’s voice and a fearless attitude toward criticism are very important. Traditionally, Chinese have considered failure to be shameful. No one’s willing to admit they’ve ever done it, as outsiders view failures very coldly – though as China’s start-up culture has taken off, this is changing among the younger generations. But in Jewish culture I’ve become familiar with, failure is a valuable experience. The more you’ve failed, the more likely your success next time.
Marrying into an Israeli family has also helped me, as a Chinese, to understand the reality of a place that’s been in a near-constant state of war since its founding in 1948. Israel has always been a topic of after-lunch conversation among common folks in China, and even the old men and women of China’s villages have heard of Israel’s conflict with Palestine, or of the Gaza Strip. I remember the first time I visited in Israel in 2012. My parents, who watched news on Chinese state television network CCTV every day, worried for my safety. Most of my husband’s family still lives in Israel, and whenever violence happens there, we’re both a mess. But it’s not as bad as Chinese people imagine; even though his relatives live in a state of war, they have to go buy food, send their kids to school, and live their own lives.
China could learn a few things from Israel, and not just because Jews are “smart” or “rich.” A country founded just one year before ours, with incomparably smaller populations, land, and resources, it’s still among the ranks of world powers. It’s borne of desperation: if Israel doesn’t develop, it has nowhere else to go. That’s why I think it’s dangerous that most Chinese people just talk about Israelis as wealthy and smart. It’s borne of many deeper reasons that China, as it considers its own way forward, needs to explore.
This article has been translated from Chinese.
Image: A bronze sculpture depicts Jewish refugees arriving in Shanghai in the 1930s. By Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images