A Bag of Soil

By Benjamin Davis ’18. Art by BC ’17.

Art by BC '17

Chinese School on Saturday, Jewish School on Sunday

“Who likes coming to Chinese school every Saturday?” posed Li Lao Shi, my fourth grade Chinese teacher. I turned around in my seat, as I looked around the spacious classroom. None of my classmates raised their hands. After a while, I raised my hand and shouted enthusiastically,


Ever since a young age, learning about different cultures enraptured me. My grandfather from Taiwan taught me my first words, hong ye zi (紅葉子), meaning “red leaves,” which illuminated our backyard with a beautiful hue during the autumn season, and my mom made me attend Saturday Chinese school ever since I was three years old. Every Friday for many hours my mom would sit with me and make me do my Chinese homework. Despite being the only half-Chinese person in the class, every year I received trophies for the academic award for the student with top grades in the class and for the speech competition. Apparently ever since I left Chinese school, they have continued to use my speech competition videos as examples for future students to follow.

My mom put in her best effort to engage me in Chinese culture, and it has been an integral part of my upbringing. When my mom hired a nanny, she made sure to find a nanny that could only speak Mandarin and no English, so that way I would be forced to practice my Chinese. Either my mom or the nanny would cook only Chinese food at home, so that way I would be accustomed to the Chinese palate. The nanny sometimes sang Chinese opera to me, or read me Chinese children’s books. In our house, we had a huge shelf for English books, and a huge separate shelf for Chinese books. We also had every Disney movie on tape, in both English and Chinese. “This is weird,” said my sister one day when we were very little while we were re-watching Mary Poppins in Chinese, and my mom laughed when I said, “what’s wrong with it, I don’t see any difference!” At home in Seattle we were very accustomed to using Chinese, (especially as the yelling language,) but people in China when I visited were stunned to see me, a waiguoren (外國人, foreigner) speaking Chinese, especially since I look more Caucasian than Chinese, and were further surprised to find out that I learned traditional Chinese characters fantizi (繁體字) instead of the simplified jiantizi (簡體字) that is universal in China.

Chinese is not the only culture that I grew up with. When my mom married my Jewish dad, he convinced her to convert to Judaism. After a whole year of study and toil, my mom learned enough about Jewish culture to pass the tests run by the conservative synagogue and the rabbis, and she was ready to go through the Mikvah ceremony, which is like a Jewish baptism, where one is immersed in a pool of natural rainwater, and emerges from the water reborn as a Jew.

However, my mom was pregnant with my older sister at that time, and they had to have an “emergency Mikvah ceremony” on the way to the hospital before my sister, the first child, was born, so that way all my parents’ children could officially be born Jewish.

My Ancestors

All my ancestors on my dad’s side were Jewish, which is part of why it was so important for his children to be born Jewish. Back in the day, my paternal ancestors lived somewhere near the Ukraine-Poland border. Half the family owned a successful electric company, and the other half of the family was not so successful, so they came to the United States to seek a better life. The half of the family that stayed unfortunately died in the holocaust. The family that survived quickly adapted when they learned about the culture here in the States, and somehow I was eventually born.

My great-grandfather on my mom’s side was fighting the Japanese in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and afterwards, to avoid the Chinese Civil War conflict, my grandfather moved to Taiwan, where my mom was born. Taiwan has its own culture that is distinguished from China’s culture, so my maternal ancestors had to adapt. But because my grandparents raised my mom under Chinese culture, she identifies as Chinese instead of Taiwanese. My maternal grandfather was a professor of political science in Taiwan, and was once arrested for his views on democracy; 16 out of his 17 books were banned (the last one a textbook).

Eventually, for political reasons and to seek a better life, my mom was sent with a one-way ticket to the United States, and since she had to claim this was a short trip, all she could bring was a small suitcase of belongings, which included some photos, two pairs of underwear, 100 dollars, a bible which her sister insisted she bring with her for protection, and most importantly, a bag of Taiwanese soil given to her by her taishi (太師), her father’s professor, to “never forget her homeland.” Though my mom was valedictorian at her school, (her picture hung on the school’s wall for almost 50 years until they recently took it down because nobody could beat her perfect grades) the English education in Taiwan was extremely poor, and my mom spoke zero English. She once tried to correct her teacher’s English pronunciation after hearing a Beatles song on her father’s record player, and she got in trouble for doing so, only to find out years later in the US that she was correct. “No matter what, do not come back. The US will offer you freedom,” were my grandfather’s parting words. Without speaking the language and with only a few possessions, my mom had to quickly adapt to US culture and make a life for herself.

Exploring New Cultures

Exploring new cultures has deeply been ingrained in my family through history, in the past because they were forced to, but now, my parents and I do it of our own free will. My dad chose to spend 5 years working at a Japanese hospital in Hawaii, and with a somewhat atheist or Buddhist background, my mom chose to convert to Judaism, my sister chose to study French-American Literature and study abroad in Paris and now she works in China, and I as well have chosen to immerse myself in many cultures in my life.

Before I was sent to Chinese school, or before I even spoke my first words, my parents sent me to a Jewish preschool and kindergarten. Every day we had English class in the morning with Morah Paula, and afterwards we moved next door and put our Kippahs on for Hebrew class with Morah Elishevah. Every week, there were Shabbat services on Fridays on the Sabbath. Even after leaving Jewish Day School, I continued my Jewish education every week at Sunday school with the reform synagogue, where the rabbis lectured us on the Torah, the Hebrew Old Testament, and we learned all about Jewish customs and values. We chanted songs of prayer every week, and Rabbi Weiner always accompanied us with his electric guitar, and sometimes even broke out with some flaming solos. I also went to Jewish summer camp, where the same activities were conducted, except we had services by the campfire instead of in the synagogue, and we spent our free time playing Gaga, a form of Israeli dodgeball, in the wooden octagonal-fenced Gaga pit in the yard. Outside of the Synagogue, my parents have numerous Jewish family friends, and we always gather for potlucks during all the Jewish holidays.

When I was thirteen, I finally had my Bar Mitzvah coming-of-age ceremony, when one becomes an official adult. I invited all my friends and family to join the congregation at the synagogue to see me read a Hebrew Torah portion on justice with an accompanying speech to the community. Afterwards, I had a huge party on a boat which went all around the Puget Sound, where all we middle schoolers dressed up in fancy clothes and danced the night away. After my Bar Mitzvah, I didn’t have to go to Sunday school anymore; before that, I had gone to Jewish school on Sunday and Chinese school on Saturday.

Not only did I immerse myself in the cultures of my heritage, but I also immersed myself in cultures outside of my heritage. I took French class in school from first grade to twelfth grade, where I learned all about French language and culture. We always lit a candle during class, and while the candle was lit, we could only speak in French, and if anybody said anything in English, the candle was blown out. Once the candle burned away, we would have a party in class with French food, music, and games, such as Pétanque, involving throwing balls at a target. As our French skills progressed, we delved deeper into French culture, learning about literature and history, and in class we read plays by Molière, the French version of Shakespeare, and Sartre, the existentialist, we listened to the opera Carmen, and we read Senegalese folk tales. I later went on a month-long trip to Senegal with my high school. Though I was only there for a month, it was like a home away from home. Every day, activity happened there, where I ate meals, played games, attempted to converse in my limited Wolof, and bonded with my host family for a whole month. Interestingly, we all somehow managed to connect with the villagers using non-verbal communication despite to the language barrier between us and the villagers who never went to school and couldn’t speak French. Even though I did not speak their language, and we came from different countries, in just a few weeks, these “strangers” and I still formed a connection. There, I experienced a whole new culture, and lived the life of people living on the other side of the globe.

In Dakar, the capital of Senegal, I got to finally use my French. There, we met up with local schools, and I remember being shown around the city by a bunch of Senegalese girls, and I remember being in awe of how it was the first time I ever got to use French outside the classroom. I even learned a tiny bit of Wolof. As I walked down the dusty Senegalese streets, I was constantly greeted by a “Salam Alekoum,” to which I responded “Alekoum Salam,” the typical Arabic rooted Wolof salutation. When somebody said something I couldn’t understand, I would always respond with, “Alhamdulilay!” which means, “Praised be the Lord!” because everyone who was Muslim could relate to the expression. Other times locals just shouted “Toubab!” at me, meaning “foreigner.” Well, they weren’t wrong, I was a complete foreigner, but that was the point of the voyage, so I could experience a foreign land, and I’m glad I did. Many years later, I bumped into a Senegalese taxi driver on the way from the Providence airport to Brown, and when I greeted him in Wolof, he was completely shocked, and we talked about the wonders of his homeland Senegal which he missed so much.

I think these experiences have encouraged me to continue learning about new languages and cultures. After coming to Brown, I took a Japanese class and a German class, and in addition to engaging in numerous cultural clubs such as Brown Taiwan Society and Brown Jews of Mixed Identity, I’ve met students from all over the world and heard about others’ experiences with different cultures as well. I’m glad my mom kept that bag of soil, because learning about the roots of my ethnic heritage has influenced my growth and shaped my life experience, and sparked my thirst for learning about new cultures — which has become an invaluable part of who I am.