My totally unscientific impression from living in China is that 98 per cent of the Chinese have never heard of the Jews or Israel. That leaves 39 million who have, and these tend not to believe it when I tell them there are only 13 million Jews on the planet and six million in the Jewish state.
Disinformation, right? An ethnic group/nationality numbering half the population of Shanghai couldn’t possibly be carting away so many Nobel prizes or bringing so many tourists, students, teachers and business types to the Middle Kingdom.
Yes, go to the strictly non-kosher buffet in any half-way decent hotel in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Gangzhou. More than likely you’ll hear some Hebrew. Go to the arrivals hall at Kunming airport. You’re apt to see and hear a just-landed platoon of loud, life-affirming women in “Malkat Hamidbar” teeshirts and short haircuts on their way to self-drive by jeep convoy to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Once you know what to look and listen for we seem to be everywhere.
Faced with disbelief I have to whip out my iPhone and Baidu “Israelis/Jews/how many.” This does the trick. It’s also apt or liable to raise the respect and fascination levels — how could a microscopic sliver of humanity become a hi-tech superpower? What’s the magic? How can China partake of it on its way to regaining all its lost glory and then some?
Once the numbers are settled I like to focus on how unexceptional if not subpar most of us really are. Granted, the Technion and Weizmann Institute are world-class. But when it comes to math, physics, chemistry, biology and general seriousness your average Shanghai high schooler puts your average Tel Aviv high schooler in the shade, and at Harvard the Jewish quota has been replaced by a Chinese quota—-tough luck for applicants with a Jewish father and Chinese mother. There are Jews sifting through garbage cans in Tel Aviv, and Israeli presidents and prime ministers have established a tradition of going to jail for rape and corruption.
Instead of losing face for me this honesty raises the respect level further. No mystery why — it bespeaks self-confidence of a kind not everybody in the world’s oldest, greatest civilization has fully recaptured yet. It may also minimize the odds that when bumps in the road come fascinated admiration will flip to its opposite. And they will come.
Most of the Jews and Israelis who come to China hoping to make a killing come away wiser. Likewise, some of the joint projects under way or envisioned in nanotechnology, agriculture, biomedicine, environmental protection and so forth are going to turn out brilliantly, some not so much and some will fail. When they fail let’s see to it that it’s back to the drawing board and not good-bye.
There are various ways to render things more human and less stereotypical. One is to get Israelis in China to stop nicking hotel towels. Another is to encourage Chinese tourism to and study in Israel. The last is to make sure that besides reporting on hi-tech the Chinese edition of The Times of Israel delivers a regular portion of news and background on Israeli culture, society, politics, scandal and corruption much like ToI French and ToI Arabic. Warts and all. Doing this will maximize interest, respect and clicks.
Oh yes, and don’t forget a weekly Tiger Mother joke.