By Daniel Blas
After eleven straight meals of white rice and vegetables – with the occasional edible nostalgia (peanut butter and jelly) thrown in – it was time for some meat. Kosher meat.
I took the subway, known here as the MTR, from my university out in the New Territories near Mainland China to one of only two kosher restaurants in Hong Kong, salivating the entire ride as I thought about my imminent schnitzel sandwich.
No more than three bites into the taste of my heritage, 8000 physical miles and a world of dietary restrictions away from this semester abroad, I was interrupted by a bearded yarmulke-wearing man.
“Can you come at 7:15 a.m. tomorrow?” he asked in Hebrew.
I had never seen this man before, and I didn’t recall announcing that I spoke Hebrew.
“My name is Daniel. Nice to meet you,” I replied, sticking out my hand.
We shook, and I showed no sign of annoyance at subtly being asked to attend morning minyan – daily prayer services – before exchanging pleasantries.
Lack of nice-to-meet-yous aside, I felt oddly at home in the restaurant — and not just because I knew for a fact that the vegetables were fried in fake pork sauce. I heard Hebrew, I ate hummus, I inhaled kosher aromas. For a moment, I was home.
It’s not easy to feel completely comfortable in Hong Kong, not even for the locals. Local students and their families officially live under a “One Country, Two Systems” policy that grants the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) a degree of autonomy from Beijing. Questions of Chinese influence permeate every governmental decision and political discussion, underscoring the melting pot status of the city: British and Chinese, Modern and Traditional, atheist, hipster, Buddhist, Confucian, and money-loving.
What, then, might I do to maintain my identity in a land where people more readily worship their smartphones and ancestors than their God and state?
It is good, I suppose, that smartphones take up so much space in the minds of Hong Kongers, for the holiday of Sukkot would have been hard to explain. I stood on the MTR mid-September, alternately avoiding straphangers dangling no higher than five feet eight inches off the ground and the hundreds of bodies surrounding me – I was by far the tallest around.
Without so much as a glance up from a game of Candy Crush for Android, one young mother nearly inadvertently impaled her child on my lulav, as she stared at the long green branch in a transparent sleeve alongside, and at my etrog, a lemon that looked like it would go well stir-fried with soy sauce.
The first lulav I ever bought for myself, adhering to the Levitical commandment of “and you shall take for yourself,” was in Israel on my gap year, when the selection ranged from kumquat-sized smooth-skinned etrogim to bumpy behemoths that rivaled a grapefruit’s girth (Gregor Mendel would’ve had a field day). My father purchased my four species every year prior, writing a check some time around Rosh Hashanah and showing up a couple of days before Sukkot, bundle in hand.
But here in Hong Kong, remoteness from etrog-growing countries doesn’t preclude the community from performing tradition. So, too, my own remoteness from a Jewish community did not minimize my ability – and my desire – to partake in the ancient leaf-binding practice. I have realized that the simple traditions which I so routinely perform – eating Shabbat dinners, putting up a mezuzah on my door, fasting for Yom Kippur – take on added meaning 16 hours from home. No one here watches how I observe Judaism, and I decide whether Buddhist standards of vegetarianism conform to Talmudic-era standards of kashrut.
The language barrier with my local roommate makes explaining phylacteries – tefillin – a challenge and has prompted him to ask, “Dan! You not eat ever local food?”
I miss out on duck egg-filled traditional Mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival (which falls every year on the first night of Sukkot, the full moon). I miss out on hairy crab, a must-have delicacy – the type of treat that stands in the you-haven’t-lived-until-you’ve-tried-this category. But most of all, I miss my community.
So, as I sit in the restaurant sipping my China-imported Tsing Tao beer and absorbing the lemon-garlic juice at the bottom up of any good Israeli salad armed with my pita bread sponge, I realize that I am in the perfect place.
My struggles to navigate Jewish and Chinese cultures abroad perfectly mirrors the difficulty with which every Hong Kong resident lives. There is no clear path to experiencing a foreign country with all of its tugs and pushes and centrifugation. But my commitment to Judaism makes the unknown a lot more comfortable.
There’s something nice, though, about actually being at home. Not my Hong Kong home in the 140-acre Chinese University mountainous campus but my four-year (well, three-and-one-half year) home at the University of Pennsylvania.
Because there I can carry a lulav without being stared at.
Daniel Blas is an undergraduate working toward his Bachelor of Science degree in economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently on a semester abroad, studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Growing up, he lived in New Haven for several years, and attended Ezra Academy in Woodbridge from sixth to eighth grade.
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