I Grew Up Jewish, But That’s Not How the World Sees Me

It took me a long time to embrace my Asian identity, preferring not to emphasize my differences from my white family.

In Judaism, the concept of bashert is primarily spoken of in the context of romantic love: finding one’s destined soulmate. However, for my parents, bashert is the story of how I found my way to them. It is how I became part of their family.

My story begins, as I suppose all of ours do, with my mother. After heartbreaking miscarriages, she had an epiphany: Her baby was waiting for her in China. In 1991, the country opened up its doors to allow for international adoption. So, in January of 1995, my mother and grandfather (for health reasons, my father could not go) came to get me. This is how I became a Kastenbaum.

Being Jewish is central to my parents’ identities. My father comes from a long line of Jewish people; his father was a kosher butcher in the Bronx, his grandfather a calendar maker. He is the kind of man who will go out into the backyard at night and talk directly to Hashem in times of need. My mother, on the other hand, is a “righteous convert.” She was raised Catholic. Before she met my father, she was already exploring other religions and sects of Christianity. She dislikes when people assume, incorrectly, that she converted for my father; the choice was all hers.

Before I was adopted, my parents made a promise that they would give me a Jewish education to thank God for the blessing of a healthy baby girl. They took this promise seriously, which is how I ended up attending Maimonides Academy, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva located in Los Angeles.

Throughout my teenage years, believing in God and being a practicing Jew were my default settings. I recited the Shema every night before bed. I fasted on Yom Kippur and dreaded eating matzah for a week during Passover. But I also began to process all the discomfort I felt during my early years in yeshiva (I left after fifth grade) where I existed on the periphery of the Modern Orthodox community.

My family was atypical for Maimonides Academy. We were not Orthodox. We drove on Shabbat. We ate at non-kosher restaurants. My parents were both theater majors. My father is an actor and comedian. I cringed when my parents showed up to school signing show tunes or belted out the “Star-Spangled Banner” when we lined up before class. Meanwhile, I tried my best to blend in. I learned to dismiss kids as they put their fingers up to their eyes, raising them to resemble a Chinese person, or lowering them to imitate someone from Japan. It was just a game, I told myself. I barely registered what it meant when my best friend Deanna declared that I was the product of China’s one-child policy. My mother, on the hand, called Deanna’s mom sobbing. Why would she tell her daughter that? Why would her daughter tell me?

For all intents and purposes, I saw myself as a Jewish American. My father used to ask, “If someone shook you awake in the middle of the night and asked you what you were, you would say Jewish, right?” He did not wait for me to answer, taking my silence as acquiescence.

In a sense, he was right. I did not think of myself as Asian. But that is how the world saw me, and still sees me. As with most Asian Americans, I often get asked the question, “Where are you from?” I used to assume people asked me this because I do not physically resemble my white parents. Once I left home, I realized this is the question Asians in America get asked.

Our sense of self is an identity born from both internal and external factors. I did not see myself as Asian because I preferred not to emphasize my differences from my family, and from the Jewish community. As I got older, my reluctance to tick the “Asian” box on standardized tests came from a belief that I shared little of the Asian American experience. I did not grow up in an Asian household, had no first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture. I did not want to misrepresent myself. During college, I chose not to join any affinity groups. I was tired of explaining my presence, feeling like I owed strangers my life story immediately upon meeting them.

I am ashamed to say that it is not until the last few years that I have begun to undo my own internalized racism and fully embrace my Asian identity. While living in Los Angeles, I attended Kollaboration’s EMPOWER Conference, a weekend-long event bringing together Asian American creatives of all ages. Now, in law school, I am a part of our Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, and even recently ran to be on its board.

I realize now, of course, that there is no singular Asian American experience. Some of us are adopted, and some aren’t. Some of us grew up steeped in Asian culture, and some, like me, did not. All that does not erase the fact that I do share commonalities with other Asian Americans. Unfortunately, this has often become apparent to me in instances of racist, and sometimes tragic, events.

At 8:00 p.m. on March 16, my mother sent me the following text: “Breaking news. 7 people killed in Atlanta spas – appear[s] to be an attack on Asian women. Be careful.” While I knew she was just being the overly protective and worried Jewish mother that she always has been, I was miffed. Be careful, I thought. How? It is not as if I can get rid of my Asian face.

In light of all the recent anti-Asian violence in America, I am reminded of what Sandra Oh (yes, I know she is Canadian, but the sentiment still stands) said the year she became the first-ever Asian actress to be nominated for lead actress at the Emmys: “It’s an honor just to be Asian.”

Reconciling my Jewish, Asian, and American identities has been a difficult and ongoing task. However, I now wholeheartedly identify as Asian, despite the despicable racism in this country, not because of it. It is an honor just to be an Asian Jewish American.

Millicent Kastenbaum

Millicent (Millie) Kastenbaum (she/her) is an Asian American Jewish person currently living in New York City. She is a former Capitol Hill staffer and current law student. She is always on the lookout for the best matzah ball soup.

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