Jonathan Chao Burnston is a Chinese Jew from Bergen County, New Jersey. He wrote his first article for Interfaith Family, "J.A.C.K. Jewish American Chinese Kid" in 2000 while in high school. He wrote his second IFF article, "To Make One's Life A Blessing" in 2005 while in college. He currently resides in New York, where he is trying to find enough leisure time to write again, in and around a busy job at a renewable energy financial services and advisory firm.
J.A.C.K.: Jewish-American-Chinese Kid
My mother is 100 percent Chinese. Raised in Taiwan, she came to America as an adult. My father is 100 percent Brooklyn. They met at an English-as-a-second-language class, my father the teacher, my mother a student. I guess opposites really do attract, for somehow two entirely different people came together and married.
Being bi-cultural has been the foundation of most aspects of my life. It is the source of my greatest pride and my greatest shame, the origin of extreme happiness and deep pain.
My father's family is spread out along the East Coast and I have, therefore, lived my life more tightly connected to my mother's family members who live in the immediate area. However, having a half-white immediate family did not allow me the same chance to master my mother's native language as a completely Chinese family would have, since English was the language spoken in my house.
As a kid, my Chinese grandparents basically brought me up, acting as a second set of parents. While Mom was at work, I spent my elementary school afternoons at my grandparents' house. This was never a problem, for though I spoke broken Chinese, I was still a child, and most interactions I had with them did not involve words. When necessary, I was able to get my point across using simple terms and hand gestures. Since I was just a child, I was not about to spend time sitting and learning Chinese from my grandparents. The repercussions of not utilizing this opportunity never occurred to me or to them. Unfortunately, the blissful unawareness of the language barrier between me and my grandparents did not last.
Maturity brought the death of innocence. As when Adam and Eve realized they were standing naked before God, I realized that I was very poorly equipped to interact with my mother's parents. To avoid such an awkward encounter as a conversation, I stopped speaking to them except in short, direct statements. However, without the practice I so desperately needed, my Chinese grew worse and worse, to the point where even answering simple questions became an ordeal. When I was ten, my grandmother, my "second" mother only because I came from her daughter's womb instead of hers, died after a long battle with diabetes. By that time, I could barely talk to her and was afraid to try.
Ever since then, I've had a gaping hole in my heart. I know that I squandered the time I had with my grandma because I could not talk to her. This knowledge has eaten away at me for six years and caused me to grow tense and nervous whenever I am in a situation where I must use Chinese. My relationship with my still-healthy grandfather has all but ended. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of how depressed he must feel when he spends any time with his grandson, the boy he spoiled like a prince, who cannot even talk to him.
Still, my ethnicity has brought so much good to my life that it overshadows the pain I have felt as a result of my multi-cultural background. As a child, I always knew I was different, but never placed any emphasis on it. Yes, I grew up speaking more than one language, but then again, so did most of the kids who lived on my block. It never struck me as odd that one half of my family had literally no cultural similarity to the other half. I assumed it was supposed to be that way and accepted it with a child's innocence, as did my friends when they were introduced to my unique family environment.
Actually, it was my own family that first made me conscious of my different ethnicities. Around my fifth year my father playfully labeled me "JACK," for Jewish-American-Chinese Kid. He had me tell people I was "half Chinese, half Jewish, and all American." This was met with a chuckle, followed by compliments to my cleverness. Happy with the response, I grew to love my self-categorization, a love which quickly grew to encompass my ethnicity itself.
This love of my multi-cultural background only deepened as I grew older. It was what defined me, what made me different from everyone else. I fully appreciated the Chinese calendar on the wall and the authentically furnished Chinese room of my house. I never thought to question the different holidays that none of my friends celebrated. Even if they were Chinese, they had never heard of Passover or Hanukkah; even if they were Jewish, Moon Festival and Chinese New Year meant nothing to them. I accepted and embraced the two cultures without hesitation. Because of the diversity of my personal identity and the varying viewpoints embodied within me, I was allowed, in fact forced, to keep an open mind in situations where other kids may have been unable to do so. For instance, my childhood friends came from social groups of varying races; it never crossed my mind that perhaps I should hesitate to cross my racial boundaries in meeting people. Of course, these boundaries encompassed a rather large area, and so remaining within my ethnic borders was not particularly difficult.
One might think that being of two different cultures would alienate me from both. On the contrary, it allowed me to feel at home with both races. My self-esteem, which I could originally trace to the pride characteristic of both my American and Chinese nationalities, has been enhanced by the pride I have discovered in my unique diversity.