The title of this post should generate some attention! First, PURPLE. As my friends and family well know, I love purple, have many purple clothes. The amethyst stone is my (February) birthstone, and I’m lucky enough to have a few of those, too. I hope you will all note my redesigned PURPLE website.

Now to the PASSION part. Recently, I was honored by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation with an Immigrant Heritage Award. The event was a dinner with nearly 400 attendees at the Hilton Financial District Hotel here in San Francisco. Fellow honorees were Yuan Yuan Tan, the China-born principal ballerina of the San Francisco Ballet; Vish Mishra, an Indian native and Silicon Valley entrepreneur; and, as an institution, the historic Chinese Hospital of San Francisco. Angel Island could be called the “West Coast Ellis Island,” and the foundation strives to keep the memories of immigrant stories alive through exhibits and oral history recordings.

I’m told I was selected for this award for bridging communities–specifically the local Chinese and Jewish communities–in such volunteer roles as chairing the “Jews in Modern china” exhibit at the Presidio in 2010, assisting the Israeli Consulate with its “Israel China SF” Cultural Festival this year and coordinating two Chinese-Jewish mah jongg parties. This work, along with my role in HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) have benefited me at least as much as the “targets” of it. Along with my family and friends, this work reflects my passions.

And I wore a purple dress to the dinner (see photos). I’m including the short remarks I gave when I accepted the award. By the way, the award itself is a lovely glass sculpture on an inscribed wood base. As you see, we had a special guest from Beijing here to celebrate!

Eli and I at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation Award Dinner (award in hand).

 

Left to right: My daughter-in-law, Amy (aka Li Xuebai), me (the Jewish Popo) and ballerina (and “sister” honoree) Yuan Yuan Tan at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation dinner.

My remarks:

There’s a Yiddish anti-curse, “kenehora poo poo poo,” which loosely translates—the kenehora part—as “without the evil eye.” The “poo poo poo” is an add-on usually spitted out for emphasis to ward off a jinx. Perversely, it’s sometimes a kind of compliment, as in “My, how the baby has grown. Kenehora poo poo poo.” My Grandma Fannie, my dad’s mother, like most Jewish grandmas of her time, used to say this constantly. I’m sure she never dreamed that her oldest grandchild would turn out to be a Jewish popo, Chinese for a mother-in-law on the husband’s side. And I’m honored that my daughter-in-law, Li Xuebai, also known as Amy Li Ansfield, is here representing the Beijing branch of the family. She made me a popo.

Grandma Fannie came to this country with her family as a young girl from near Minsk in Russia in the early 1900s. She landed in Baltimore. If they’d lived further east, they might have gone the other way, perhaps to Harbin or Shanghai, China, and come here via the Pacific route. My grandfathers both came through Ellis Island on their own, as young men still in their teens: my mother’s father from Warsaw, Poland, after four years living with and working for uncles in Glasgow, Scotland. My father’s father came from Galicia, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Ukraine. My other grandmother was the family “Yankee”—born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but her parents had immigrated from Lithuania a few years before her birth.

America’s streets were not necessarily gold-paved, but these immigrants arrived with the hope that life here could be better than where they came from. If my relatives had stayed in Europe, I probably would not exist.

When my grandparents came to this country, there were no more pogroms, but there was still prejudice. Despite the odds and the trials of arriving with practically nothing and learning a new language, they took whatever jobs they could find, married and had families, eventually started businesses. Their children, my parents and my uncles, all graduated from college—in fact, it was expected that they’d go to college. My father and uncles served in World War II. My memories of our family life throughout my childhood include holidays, Sunday dinners, joyous life cycle occasions, funerals. Noise from conversation and laughter–and sometimes tears. Always plenty of food. Good times, sad times, but the family together, multiple generations, often multiple extensions—great-aunts and uncles, first and more distant cousins. Family above all, with the understanding that education and hard work were key to forging opportunity and achievement out of hope and ambition.

No doubt, this sounds familiar. These values of family life, education, hard work lie at the foundation of the Asian immigrant experience, too, and comprise the enduring bond between us, Asians and Jews. Your families persevered through the 1882 Exclusion Law, detention and internment, more repressive acts of prejudice than most Jews faced in the United States. Whether one’s family sailed past the Statue of Liberty or through the Golden Gate, whether they landed at Ellis Island or Angel Island, they arrived with the same core principles that have brought us all to the achievement reflected in this ballroom tonight.

So, when my son, Jonathan, made China his home and career, and our family melded with the Li Family from Langfang, we didn’t speak the same language but we shared what’s important: reverence for family, education, work. And, of course, food!

On the surface tonight is not about my grandparents and my son and daughter-in-law. But it is. It’s about my family and your families, from generation to generation, rejoicing in our shared values and understanding our differences—building bridges. And it’s about preserving memories and heritage so that we and the generations ahead don’t forget where our families came from and what they endured in order to sow the seeds of the fortunate life we have now. There is no finer example of this activity than the work of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

If my volunteer efforts here in the Bay Area have made the kind of impact that warrants the honor I’m receiving, it’s frosting—very rich and fattening frosting–on the cake, because the impact on me personally of meeting and forging relationships with the local Chinese community, as well as with former residents of the Jewish community in China, has been profoundly educational, gratifying and fun. I know Grandma Fannie, if she knew, would say “kenehora poo poo poo” to her granddaughter the Jewish popo.

All I can say is xie xie–thank you so much for this award–which thrills and humbles me at the same time.

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