20 September 2015 - 7 Tishri 5776 - ז' תשרי ה' אלפים תשע"ו
How three words defined me to others and taught me the best of two ancient cultures E-mail

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 travelled, 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.

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