BEIJING — When I tell people in China that I am Jewish, I often get the same response. ‘‘Ah, so clever!’’ the Chinese person will say with a nudge. ‘‘So good with money! The Chinese and the Jews — we have so much in common!’’
Aside from visits to the Chabad community center for the High Holy Days and Passover meals shared in Jewish friends’ courtyard homes, little differentiates me from the thousands of other Europeans living in China’s capital.
On the outside I am a laowai, a faceless foreigner from a world whose history and people the vast bulk of the Chinese population knows very little about. Yet when I reveal my ethnicity I am always surprised by the expressions of affection that the Chinese show for the Jews. Both cultures, the Chinese emphasize, share respect for family, learning and, yes, money.
But this warmth comes with an uncomfortable catch and bizarre inconsistencies. The same stereotypes that draw declarations of admiration are just a hairline away from the images that fueled anti-Semitism and its horrific results over the last century. During World War II, tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were welcomed in China. Yet, oddly enough, Hitler is widely respected in China today — not for perpetrating the Holocaust but for being a strong leader who could rally the German nation.
This racial stereotyping is commonplace in China. Many Chinese view their own 55 ethnic minorities through a checklist of supposedly inherent talents and skills. And though it can work in the Jews’ favor here, such stereotypes can also work against other foreigners, notably Africans visiting China who regularly battle racism.
Today, foreign Jews — China’s own Jewish community, the Kaifeng Jews, dwindled away after centuries of assimilation — are free to quietly practice their faith. This is partly due to Judaism’s non-evangelical nature: while the state is nervous about Christian missionaries (and any religions that can inspire mass gatherings and challenge the authority of the Communist Party), Judaism is tolerated because it does not try to convert people.
Beyond this, there is a general feel-good attitude — bordering on fascination — toward Jews. One friend who stayed at a large Beijing hotel near the Chabad community center told me with amazement how eager the Chinese staff were to help their Jewish guests. Seeing him sport a kippa they would rush to open doors, switch on lights or turn up the air-conditioning — knowing that Orthodox Jews are not allowed to perform these activities themselves on the Sabbath.
“Most Chinese will think Jews are smart, clever or good at making money, and that they have achieved a great deal,” Professor Xu Xin, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University (one of over half a dozen centers in China dedicated to studying Judaism) told me last week.
“Revelations of Jewish People’s Wisdom,” an account on China’s largest microblog site, Sina Weibo, has nearly one-and-a-half-million fans. Its revelations include: “Make a fortune under adverse circumstances.”
This logic — that the Jews are admired for their success despite their small numbers and historical oppression — has also led to aburgeoning industry of self-help books that use Jewish culture and the Talmud to preach business tips.
“Judaism is a smart nation with a turbulent history. They accumulated their experiences and wisdom from generation to generation, possessing qualities such as excellent earning power and wealth-building means,” Zhu Xinyue, author of “101 Money Earning Secrets From Jews’ Notebooks” (2011) and “Learn to Make Money With the Jews” (2010), explained last week.
But such ready-made ethnic and racial formulas tread on dangerous territory. Some Chinese believe ‘‘Jews rule the world or play a bigger role than they actually have done,” Professor Xu explains. “Sometimes they overexaggerate the power of the Jews.”
Last week was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement that marks the beginning of the Jewish new year. Usually, when people in China tell me I am smart or good with money, I smile and nod along politely. This year I’ll resolve to tell the truth: that I might be Jewish but my finances are a mess and nobody would ever, in a million years, confuse me for Einstein.