I am often met by a “knowing look” when I (a Chinese American female) share that my husband is Jewish.
“Oh yeah, that’s a thing,” says [insert well-meaning person’s name here]. And you know, according to all sorts of sources–including the New York Times—it does seem to be a thing. It appears I’m one half of a “marriage trend” that’s sweeping the nation, or at least High Holiday Services. (A professor once mentioned to me that her synagogue had Asian women “sprouting up” all over the congregation.) People usually cite the most popular examples, e.g., Mark Zuckerberg and “his Asian wife,” Maury Povich and Connie Chung, Woody Allen and “his very young Asian wife.” (Hmmm, Connie excluded, I’d say we Asian women are getting the shaft in terms of name recognition. But this is all beside my point.)
Our marriage isn’t trendy. At first glance, we might fit the bill. But ours is not a Jewish boy meets Asian girl, and due to a number of conveniently shared values–“tight-knit families, money saving, hard work, and educational advancement” included–they fall in love kind of story.
We met in the choir room our freshman year of high school, where we rehearsed for The Sound of Music. As freshmen, we were lowly chorus members–he was a Jewish Nazi, and I, an evangelical Christian Chinese Austrian nun. Oh, and in the “So Long, Farewell” number, we got to put on fancy clothes and sing “Goodbye!” as the Von Trapp children marched off to bed. Our friendship began, developed, and thrived while we acted and sang over the course of those four years. It continued as each of us dated our own high school sweethearts. And it deepened over the next four years despite being on opposite sides of the country, he out at Stanford, I at Western Michigan.
People sometimes ask us, why didn’t you date sooner, wasn’t love in the air? We usually smile at each other, then give an innocuous “it just wasn’t the right time yet” sort of answer. But here’s the truth. I think I may have loved him for quite some time–maybe it started back in high school–but the faith gap between us was more than just a gap, it was a fiery-bottomed chasm.
I was raised (very, very lovingly, I want to emphasize) an evangelical Christian. This is the faith of most of my nuclear and extended family. I learned how important it was to love others, that forgiveness is at the center of our faith, that it is God’s desire for all people to experience his love, and that Jesus was the only way to God. In church I was explicitly taught that the only suitable partner for me was another evangelical Christian.
When I was 14 years old, a nice Jewish boy (not the one who would become my husband, a different one) asked me to the Homecoming Dance. We had a lot of fun–so much that after the dance he asked me if I would be his girlfriend. I liked him, so I said yes. This triggered an intervention by members of my church. They loved me, and were trying to protect me from making bad choices. So I broke up with that nice Jewish boy, which led to a year of torment by his friends. They called me horrible names. My locker was plastered with unflattering caricature drawings. I went to school each day expecting to be punished in some way. And I really don’t blame them; they were being good and loyal friends to him. And anyway, I’d been taught that people would hate me for loving Jesus, which somehow made that terrible year bearable.
Over the next eight years, I dated only Christian boys because I believed this was what God wanted me to do. But as I grew, I came to find that the compassionate self I yearned to be, and was raised to be, could no longer honestly identify as an evangelical Christian. I didn’t believe that there was only one way to God. I witnessed love, compassion, and genuine goodness living within my friends from a whole variety of faith backgrounds. Over time, though the chasm between our families remained, my best friend and I have painstakingly bridged it. And it is upon that rickety bridge that we’ve built up our relationship from a longtime friendship into the marriage we have today.
This isn’t a story about a girl who is angry about her upbringing, or who rejects her past. I was raised with love, by a family who had the best intentions for me. I was raised by parents, who like most good parents, hope and pray that I’ll choose the path they intended for me. Being a mom now, I understand those hopes and prayers more than ever before.
This is a story about a girl who had to break her parents’ hearts in order to listen to her own heart, to be the person she is meant to be, and to marry the man she loves.
This is a story about two best friends making the choice to have difficult lifelong conversations. Our union doesn’t provide clean and easy answers. There are no presumptions that any tradition in our home will be the way either one of us “has always done it.” We are forced to be much more deliberate than that.
But despite its challenges, this is also a story of a beautiful baby girl, whom everyone (on both sides) can agree they love wholeheartedly. She will be raised with the hope that she will have love and compassion for everyone in her family, Christians and Jews. She will be raised with the hope that she will embrace and celebrate her Jewish, Christian, and Chinese histories side by side. And above all, she is raised with the hope that she will grow to live a fulfilling, purposeful, and happy life. But these hopes, like those of any good parents, are only hopes.
So when someone gives my husband and me “that knowing look,” I think back on the many years it took to build this bridge that supports our home. I look to a future of working together to sustain and improve our bridge and I think to myself, it is neither popular nor easy, this choice that we made. But then we grab each other’s hands and take a look at our little family, and trendy or not, I know it is definitely right.