When I married my Taiwanese wife, Jean, I was a bit of an outsider, not just because I’m a round-eyed American devil but because I’m Jewish, too. At first, this provoked conflicting responses from her family: As an American, I must be profligate, lazy, spendthrift, but as a Jew, I must also be clever, well-educated, and good with money. Eventually, the contradictions fell by the wayside as they saw I was really none of the above, and more interested in consuming the delicious pork and seafood products of primarily Buddhist Taiwan. The only time they’ve ever seen me engage in anything remotely Jewish was the one time Jean’s mother and aunt were in New York during Hanukkah, when I made a nice, traditional dinner—roast chicken, latkes, etc.—and they brought a kilo of shrimp to stir-fry as an addition to the meal. But for most of our relationship, my Judaism, stunted as it is, hasn’t mattered.
But I’m also not the only religious outsider in the extended family. Jean’s brother married a lovely woman named Charmiko, who is a Christian—a sort of generic Protestant, I believe. I don’t know too much about how the family is dealing with her religion overall, only that no one has converted, and no one in the core family goes to church. But Charmiko and I have had a couple of very, very minor religiously based interactions that have stuck in my memory: Once, she gave me a couple sets of travel chopsticks, whose cases bore Christian sayings in Chinese. And on this most recent (and ongoing) visit to Taipei, she gave us a CD of Christmas songs. (A Taiwanese version of “Christmas in Hollis” was not, alas, on the track listing.) I’ve often wondered if she sees our shared Judeo-Christian background as a shared point of reference, one she shares with no one else in this family. I’ve also wondered if she’s subtly trying to convert me. Or perhaps she’s just being nice—her name is Charmiko, after all.
Even Jean’s brother, as far as I know, isn’t into the whole church thing, although he has consented to allow his daughter, Jen-Jen, just a year older than Sasha, to go every Sunday. And this created a surprising dilemma here the other morning. Jean, Sasha, Jen-Jen and I were out at a local playground, when the hour of 11 began fast approaching. Jen-Jen needed to be at church, and we were to deliver her there, a few blocks away. Easy, right?
Not with Sasha around. For she is deeply attached to her older cousin—wants to play with, talk to, and imitate her all the time. Could we drop Jen-Jen off and somehow drag Sasha away from church? Or should we just let Sasha go to church with her cousin?
At first, I’d been opposed to this. Church! For Sasha! Hell no! I mean, it wasn’t just the theology—the idea of Sasha sitting quietly through services was ridiculous, and there was no way Jean or I was going to suffer through that Mandarin-language hogwash.
But as we walked through the empty Sunday streets of Ximending, I relented. Whatever—let her go to church! It would be a new experience, she’d have no sense of what was really going on, and it would prime her for the day, a couple of years from now, when I enroll her in Jewish Sunday school.
Then, when we got to the church itself—a multistory building adorned, duh, with a big cross—we discovered the children were in a separate fourth-floor classroom, learning Bible stories: Cartoon figures in bronze-age costumes were frozen on a video screen. Awesome! No one for Sasha to disrupt. Let her attend, I decreed!
This, however, was not to be. While the class was only too happy to take Sasha, my lovely daughter, standing at the entrance to a room of Christian education, suddenly balked, crying and complaining that she was hungry.
“Do you want to go to school with Jen-Jen?” we asked her. “Or do you want a snack?”
Sasha looked down at the ground, and in a small voice said, “A snack.”
My daughter! We smiled fake-apologetically at the Bible teacher and ushered Sasha back downstairs, where a church volunteer had set up a table with baskets of cookies. Sasha grabbed one, and we set off down the street.
Then Jean brought something to my attention. “I wonder what they were teaching in there,” she said. “They were talking about the Jews.”
“Probably about how we killed Jesus,” I said. “That’s what Christians are always talking about.”
Then we walked into MOS Burger, the Japanese burger chain, where my hungry, heathen daughter gobbled a hot dog. I can only pray it was made with pork.