My Two Bat Mitzvahs

By Koca Wen

Coming of age as a Chinese Jew.

Photo credit: flickr/Hans-Jörg Aleff
When do we become adults? When we experience our first tragedy? When we adopt adult responsibilities, and accept the weight of cultural expectations? When we undertake a coming of age ritual, like a bar mitzvah? For our Chinese-Jewish Mash-Up Koca Wen it was a mash-up of all of the above.

I became an adult girl when I was 12.

Not a woman. An adult girl.

I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I wasn’t a Jew at that point. I am Chinese, and it was when I began living wholly by the Confucian philosophy and the essential Chinese value of filial piety that I came of age as a Chinese adult. Filial piety, or xiao shun, according to the Chinese, delineates the correct way to behave towards one’s parents. Love them. Be respectful. Polite. Loyal. Helpful. Dutiful. Obedient.

I was called to duty, you might say, when I was 12 years old. My father had a stroke while I was attending a schoolmate’s bat mitzvah (I mean, could God throw me any more messages?). My mother was left grief stricken with an incapacitated husband and two young daughters to take care of, with no immediate source of income. She was ‘forbidden’ to work by my father. In line with traditional male-dominated Chinese thinking, he wanted her role to be at home, denying her a potentially fruitful international modeling career.

My mother, desperate, sold most of our possessions and moved us to Taiwan to live with our grandparents. She borrowed money and started some small businesses that never ever really succeeded. I wonder now how we survived financially.

As the elder daughter in the family, I took responsibility for everything.

As the elder daughter in the family, I took responsibility for everything else. No, I didn’t become a child slave. I wasn’t of legal age to work nor capable of earning any money. I, however, took on the emotional and psychological burden of taking care of my family. I sheltered my sister when my mother would weep every night with suicidal cries. I helped my father go to the bathroom. I pleaded with my mother to try to find solace and did everything I could imagine to make her feel better. I absorbed the emotional duress of a family under strain, holding the fraying edges together with my little arms. As an “adult,” I went about my teenage life as if all was normal — that was the Chinese way. We didn’t talk about it.

This lasted another two decades. When I was 20 years old, and graduated university, I also took over the financial responsibility for my family. But in my eyes, and that of my family, I had become an adult when I was just barely in adolescence. In those years after my father’s stroke, I lost a lot of my childhood, and gained a lot of maturity. I was no longer a child with no accountability.

Fast forward to my conversion to Judaism as a woman in my thirties. I married an Orthodox Jew, and was deeply drawn to aspects of the religion including, probably unsurprisingly, respect for elders and ancestors, tradition, history and responsibility to your community and God. I wanted to be part of a tradition that honored family and elders above all else.

I believe I was especially drawn to the idea of community in Judaism. When a part of the community is down, the rest rise up to help. I never really had that — as a kid, I felt like Atlas with every burden on my shoulders.

I was especially drawn to the idea of community. 

But when I finally I dipped in the sacred water of the mikvah, I came out after the third dip as a Jewish woman. And a Jewish woman can accept her mitzvahs, including a maturity and wisdom earned as a kid, and an appreciation for the fragility of life that for many take a lifetime to achieve. That was my true “bat mitzvah,” where I became a Jewish adult woman.

My conversion to Judaism didn’t mean I renounced my Chinese or Confucian heritage. I am still deeply Chinese. I live in Shanghai. I speak Chinese, celebrate Chinese New Year and Tomb Sweeping Festival. I still believe in loyalty and respect. I am equally part of the Jewish community in Shanghai. I am raising a Jewish son with my Orthodox husband. In our Jewish household, we honor where we come from and have deep respect for our traditions and values. And I expect my half-Chinese, Jewish son to do the same. Except, of course, he will have both Chinese and Jewish responsibility. Double whammy!

I came of age — twice, once in each of my cultures. I call them my two bat mitzvahs, 24 years after one another. The first one the circumstances pushed me into. The second one I chose. I’m an adult, several times over, which I believe that makes me about 92 years old now. But I still feel like an adult girl.

Here’s to self-discovery, Mash-Ups: 

When Half Leaves You Hungry

Saying Grace: Staying True to Who You Both Are

Finding a Name, and Myself

For more stories on coming of age, check out reBar. Rewind to 13. Fast forward to today.

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