The Summer Before COVID-19

The Summer Before COVID-19: One Student Reflects on her Time in China By Bella Wexler - photo by Zoe Oppenheimer

When I tell people that I studied in China in the summer of 2019, their reactions are understandably mixed. Having originated in China and stolen the lives and livelihoods of thousands, coronavirus is the elephant in the room. Since the virus’s initial spread, life has been disorienting and chillingly unfamiliar.

When I first set foot in Shanghai, I was thrilled by the unfamiliar. Not only was I the first Jewish person with whom the many Chinese people I met had ever spoken, but I was also the only Jewish American student selected for the study abroad program. As a Reform Jew attending public high school in Arizona, I am used to being of the few. But the only one? That was new to me. For the first time in my life, I was on my own.

Culture shock first hit me in an unexpected way. I was surprised by the religious diversity of the American students on the program. I met Protestants, Mormons, Catholics, and atheists. Our nightly conversations while we walked through Xiamen University revealed just how unique each of our affiliations were. In this foreign country, we shared a nationality and language, but diverged in many ways beyond that. We exchanged laughable stories before delving into more serious topics. I shared my anxieties about misconceptions Chinese people may have since Judaism is so rare in China.

“Well, Jews are a money people,” replied one of the Mormon students.

I stopped in my tracks, stunned. Never did I expect to hear a stereotype roll so matter-of-factly off the tongue of another American student. I explained the historical implications of the boy’s rhetoric, and he assured me that he meant no offense. But I was still shaken by the genuine tone he had used. In that moment of pause before I had responded, my eyes surveyed the other students. Most of them understood why I took offense, but none of them shared it. It reminded me that I was the only Jewish student there. It reminded me that I was alone.

When I arrived at my host family’s house for my final two weeks in Xiamen, I was ecstatic. They were patient with my evolving Mandarin skills and more than willing to engage me in conversations. The first night, I spent hours with my host father and sister discussing politics and culture over piping hot Oolong tea. They told me that their family is Buddhist, and I shared that I am Jewish. Although they had never met a Jewish person before, they were somewhat familiar with the religion and welcomed me with open arms. I was relieved by the ease with which we connected. Although I had only met my Chinese family that day, I already felt less alone.

The following week, I attended a cultural exchange event with my host family and several others from the program. The highlight of the day was a baking competition in which each family would create Chinese mooncakes and “American Bread.”

American Bread? None of the American students in the room had any idea what that meant.

After we were taught how to mold mooncakes, each team was given the mysterious “American Bread” dough. Then, a Chinese chef demonstrated how to make it. My eyes lit up in surprise as he split the dough into three strands and braided them together. He was making challah.

“This is Jewish bread!” I told my host family in excitement. As my American friends struggled to master the proportions of their “American bread,” I tapped into my preschool days at the Jewish Community Center where I learned to braid challah. After the bread was baked, the Chinese oils and scallions which had been kneaded into the dough became visible. It was a literal blend of our cultures, and a delicious one at that.

A few nights later, I was chatting with my host mother when our conversation shifted to our religious histories. She compared the Nanjing Massacre to the Holocaust. Magnitude aside, she brought up an interesting interpretation of the motives behind both events: Japanese people murdered Chinese people in Nanjing because they believed them to be inferior, whereas Nazis murdered Jewish people in Europe because they were threatened by our intellect. I wasn’t sure if I entirely agreed, which opened up a dialogue between us and drew to light the ways in which our religions and nationalities shaped our perspectives.

Now, as I flip through my travel journal almost a year later, I am overcome with homesickness. I miss theological debates with classmates, braided “American bread” with Chinese scallions, and late night discussions with my host family. Like all of us social distancing in the age of COVID-19, I miss in-person connections.

I knew I would have to adapt while geographically separated from my Jewish community last summer, however I didn’t know that I would need to adapt so much after returning home. Even in this unprecedented time of social isolation, online programs have kindled the unity of our people. In China, it was comforting to have Judaism anchor me to my roots while enabling my worldview to broaden. It is even more comforting to know that this anchor still grounds me through our world’s present changes.

Yes, I miss normalcy. I miss when the unfamiliar was thrilling rather than daunting. I miss bridging differences and celebrating similarities in person. I miss my summer in China and my regular life in America. But I don’t have to miss my community. I have been challenged between my experiences in China and during this pandemic to discover what it really means to have community. I’ve found that it is not defined by location or language, but by the bonds we form across differences and distances alike.

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Bella Wexler is a senior at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, Arizona. She is a journalist for the Tucson Dog Magazine, intern for the Jewish Latino Teen Coalition, and captain of her school’s Lincoln Douglas debate team. Bella loves to spend time playing with her sisters and pets or studying languages, particularly Mandarin and Spanish.
Accompanying photo: “Flower Dealing” by Zoe Oppenheimer