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‘Oh You’re Jewish?...’ // Thoughts from a Jew Travelling East Asia

Bogeret and ex-movement worker Jessie Galman has had loads of fun on her year abroad already. When I asked her what it was like to be Jewish in the places she's been, she decided to reply to me with this article. If anyone who's reading this wants any advice about travelling East Asia, I can't promise that Jessie will have the answers, but no doubt you'll have a nice conversation at the very least if you pop up to her.


Preparing to travel for the year was a lengthy and many legged process that I mostly coasted through, too excited to actually get going. Amongst the vaccinations, insurance searches and packing attempts, I also perfected the stock responses to the classic questions:

‘Who are you going with?

Where are you starting?

How long for?

You’re so lucky - are you nervous?’

The latter was always, in the minds of those asking, contingent on at least one of the two following facts: I would be travelling alone for at least some of the time and I’m a girl. 3 months in and making the move from Southeast Asia onto Australia, I can genuinely say I haven’t struggled being a female traveler. What has proved itself an additional thing to consider, and one that no one really anticipated, is being a Jewish traveler.

Broaching Japan, Korea and China in the first month threw up one main question mark. I left home on September 10th so it wasn’t long before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur descended at home. I was watching my mum make endless honey cakes on her Instagram story, getting stressed voice-notes from my sister about what to wear and how much work she was missing, and the burning question from my grandma, ‘are you going to shul?’ Losing track of the days - it's natural when your Monday is just as good as your Friday - meant that I ended up spending second day Rosh Hashana in Disneyland Shanghai. Unanticipated, and a fairly unique start to the New Year, but sweet nonetheless. Yom Kippur was of a similarly somber theme to home; 7 hours spent in a minivan traversing a Filipino island for my next stop - with no food so that must have been gods work. But in reality, the high holy days sailed past into my first month away with little discomfort; aside from missing my mum’s cooking of course.

The first real hurdle of miscommunication came in the sight of endless swastikas adorning the map of Kyoto I was using. It took a little time to work out that it’s actually the Buddhist symbol for a temple, of which they’re not lacking in Kyoto. Seeing such a toxic image scattered freely across the city took some getting used to, and I’m still not sure how comfortable I am with the concept - but I suppose that’s probably a cliché point of travelling really, to not be comfortable. Not so much a hurdle in itself, the food has been varied and plentiful. A crisps dinner is still an occasional fallback if I run out of cash too early and I’ve readily dipped my taste buds into every cuisine on offer. The outcome of that has been a lot of pork thrown into my diet. As someone who's not particularly kosher conscious at home, I’m not averse to pork but neither have I considered it a staple. In Asia, it’s been the key ingredient in nearly every meal. China particularly, didn’t seem to grasp the concept of a non-pork dish. Trying to order a vegetarian side resulted in a cauliflower pork stew and if you dared to try and ask what meat you’re going to get with your order the answer was simply ‘animal.’

However, I did come across a Jewish cafe - or maybe a badly signposted Chabad, who knows - in El Nido in the Philippines so that felt like a small victory for our presence in Asia.

Of course, British politics has recently stepped up to play host to a lot of conversations when I come across Europeans. In general, heads are quick to nod in understanding when inevitably they learn why Corbyn wouldn’t get my vote if you paid me, though it does tend to temper the rest of the conversation. It goes without saying that you do, and I have, met individuals who throw it back in your face. It can quickly become uncomfortable if you engage someone who is so set in their views they’ll call you a liar for talking about not going back home if Corbyn did win. Mostly, and thankfully, cruel conversations are few and far between - what is much more frequent are seemingly innocent, but no less ignorant, comments and presumptions. Having grown up in a diverse enough area, the first taste of encountering these types of comments was University. Travelling takes University freshers and will raise the stakes by 10; It’s even more problematic and disconcerting that, in reality, you don’t really know the people around you. There aren’t old friends to look to for support in numbers or societies to fall back on if things take a turn:

‘You don’t look Jewish?’ (As a compliment)

‘You sound Jewish.’ (As an insult)

‘Are you really rich? Does your dad pay for your travelling?’

‘You don’t have a Jewish nose’

‘But Jews didn’t live in Eastern Europe so you must be Israeli’

‘Why does everyone hate Jews?’

‘Zionism is colonialism’

‘Antisemitism isn’t a real thing’

‘You’re a white settler’

‘Why are you Jewish?’

Comments like this arose much more than I anticipated, and on a good day they were tedious, but on a bad day they’d make you a bit wary. The other side to the politics has been that I'm so completely far away and out the loop with the situation back at home. I often end up going weeks without really hearing any news from the UK; the news apps too data heavy and slow to load on local WiFi; the occasional article or satirical comment from my dad but mostly I’m oblivious. At a time like this it’s been a bit scary to really have no idea what way the election could have swung, or seeing friends at rallies and marches from all sides and not knowing enough about how safe they were.

A friend of mine is currently travelling Central America, and our first few weeks away were filled with requests for tips on each country we were both in. Slowly, and reassuringly, we’ve been exchanging ‘oh you’re Jewish?’ experiences, thankful we can turn to each other for a seed of understanding amongst the midst of confusion. Needless to say for both of us, travelling as a Jewish girl never really crossed our minds as affecting the experience. I don’t feel like it’s tainted anything, mostly I can chalk up the conversations to evening entertainment or an uncomfortable moment or two. What it’s shown me, along with a number of other things, is the frighteningly closed off view so many people have of their own bubbles. We talk about the North West London Jewish bubble and 3 degrees of separation and Jewnis: but it can’t compare to walking through Beijing and local people stopping, staring and taking photographs of you because they’ve never seen a white girl in real life before; or travellers struggling to ask you questions about your Jewish background, only able to base them off what they’ve seen or read in the media because ‘there aren’t any Jews where I live.’

Of course these are the extremes, and I’m lucky to have met some great people and some very accepting people, but it does little to help the faint stomach clench as you tell someone new you’re Jewish, and you watch the inevitable flicker of something cross their face; one way or another their perception of you is affected by that simple fact.

Jessie Galman


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