I had an interesting encounter yesterday. It was with a teenage boy, recently immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong. He’s been in the country only a few months, barely speaks English, and is still adjusting to a wildly different culture. He isn’t deterred by that, though, and his curiosity bears that out. We got to talking about how he came to Canada, which eventually led him to ask, “Where are you from?” It’s a common question in many places, but in Toronto, where the majority of residents are visible minorities, it’s often the first one to come up.
I said I was born here in Toronto, but my parents are originally from Israel. At first he didn’t even know what “Israel” meant. He pulled out an app on his phone, punched in the word and a translation popped up. “Oh!” He got oddly excited. A barrage of questions followed quickly. “If you are from Israel does that mean you are Jew — Jew-ish?” That’s a question I often receive the moment people hear I have Israeli background. I usually forego any deep discussion about my aversion to such instant labeling, especially when tied to religion, but I almost always answer with a simple “yes.” Sometimes I’ll clarify that I’m not religious.
Normally the questions end there, but in this case, the kid was only made more curious.
“Why aren’t you wearing a hat?”
“Only the more religious people wear those.”
“Do you hate Germany?”
“No, I have German background.”
“But don’t you hate them for what they did to Jews?”
“That was a long time ago, and it’s a different people now. I cheered for Germany during the World Cup.”
“How do you learn your history?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you read the Bible to learn about history?”
I’ve heard variations on those questions all my life — not usually so bluntly, but in the same spirit. The real surprise came when he said of Israel and Jews, “I heard that you are all very smart and have a lot of money.”
I really didn’t know quite how to respond. The kid was being so nice. Genuinely interested. Even the way he said it, he sounded like he’d been taught that Jews are people to admire. If not for the ugly anti-Semitic stereotype, it’d be flattering. I told him that it’s not true, and that Jews are people like anybody else, and some are smart and some aren’t, and some have money and some don’t.
My immediate thought was to judge him. How sheltered he must be, or how uneducated, or how insular his culture is. In thinking that, though, I started to feel a level of self-implication. Sure, this kid was ignorant, and hell, maybe a lot of people in Hong Kong are simply unaware and ignorant of Judaism, but I can’t say I’m particularly aware of the place he comes from. Granted, living in a pluralistic society I tend to adhere to a level of political correctness, avoiding the impression of ignorance, but that doesn’t make me any less ignorant. I shudder to think how ignorant I might come across if I went to Hong Kong and asked local people questions about their country and culture.
If anything, what this kid was doing was admirable. I know that ignorance is not benign, even if spoken in good nature. That said, by voicing his ignorance and being genuinely curious to learn more about another culture he’s had no exposure to, he’s bettering himself. That’s a good thing, and the world could probably use a lot more of that openness and willingness to understand each other.
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