Up in the Air: A Jewish-Chinese Love Story

We are proud to introduce our Director of Social Media, Jessica Colman Cheng, in style and in her own words. As one of our first two couples to be featured in our “How We Met” section, Jessica and Eric’s love story in embedded in a strong sense of belonging to a home and a culture. Whether it is Jessica’s deep roots in her Jewish identity or Eric’s groundedness in his Chinese heritage, their love for each other and their child, and their commitment to giving her the gift of multiculturalism always emerges as the center of their lives.

Read on for Jessica and Eric’s story.

I often joke that the best $55 I ever spent was on a monthly subscription to an online dating website back in 2008.  On my second date through the website, I met Eric.  Standing at the end of the bar, wearing a blazer with jeans; he had a sophisticated yet casual look. He looked better in person than in his pictures (phew!). His smile was bright and warm.  He had planned the date, bowling followed by dinner.  It was refreshing to have a man plan a date that involved more than just meeting at a coffee shop.  Five hours of conversation later, I knew I wanted to see him again.  

I grew up in an upper middle-class town in Michigan.  Over 40% of my high school was Jewish so it was always assumed that I would marry a Jewish boy, preferably a doctor or lawyer, of course.  However, as I ventured into the dating world, I found that I was not attracted to those Jewish men.  I dated a Protestant, a Catholic (who was Black), and a half-Jew/half-Asian. I had tried JDate and went on the same ‘first’ date over and over again in my mid-twenties.

We’d meet at a coffee shop, they’d park their Audi (or similar expensive automobile)  in front and they usually wouldn’t offer to pay for my coffee.

No chemistry was found with those Jewish men, so I did some soul-searching and decided that if I wanted to meet a man who treated me well and took the time to get to know me not just as a Jew, but as an open-minded woman, I would try online dating.

On this website, you first complete a personality test and then get matched up with the opposite sex depending on your answers. Now, I am no rocket scientist, but if I enjoyed travel, being outdoors, and trying new ethnic restaurants, then why wouldn’t my potential mate?  Because the ultimate goal was to find a life partner who shared similar morals and values, the website lets you select options such as your desired age range, location, and religion.  I started communicating with a number of men who were either Jewish or spiritual/non-religious.  I figured if they were spiritual, it was enough for me as long as their culture was important to them.   

Eric’s race was obvious, he was Asian; his culture was Chinese.  Born and raised in mainland China, he came to America for high school and lived in the Boston-area with his parents. He went to college in Illinois and chose to live in Chicago afterward.  We had no friends in common, there was no way we would have met without this online connection.  

Once I started dating Eric, I had one conversation with my mom that went like this:

Me: I’m dating someone

Mom: What’s his name?

Me: Eric

Mom: Eric, who? (hoping his last name was something ending in ‘Stein’ or ‘Berg’)

Me: Cheng

Mom: Is he a US citizen?

Me: Yes

Mom: Ok, good. Can’t wait to meet him.

My mother wanted to make sure he wasn’t marrying me for a #GreenCard. Rd More. #HowWeMet #Interracial Click To Tweet

Clearly, from this conversation, my mother wanted to make sure he wasn’t trying to woo-me into marriage to get his Green Card, however, once this initial ‘fear’ was abolished, she had an open mind.  

For the first six years of our relationship, Eric worked as a traveling consultant.  He had to live abroad several times (Egypt, Australia, Hong Kong) and our relationship was long distance.  Due to his job, we were able to travel internationally a lot on airline miles and hotel points. It was always fun to figure out ‘Where in the world should Eric and Jess go?’   
Once Eric stopped consulting it was nice to know we actually could be around each other for a long period of time!
So, if a movie was to be made based on our love story, it would be called “Up in the Air” and would have a happy ending.

My family has been supportive of Eric and my relationship because he takes very good care of me, is very smart and goal oriented and is always up for challenging himself. His race perhaps has added to his appeal, possibly because in the U.S., Asians are seen as the ‘Model Minority’. A group of people who have managed to excel in education and technology; Asians are seen as non-threatening to the dominant white Americans.  

Since WWII in the U.S., there has been an increase in Asian women married to Caucasian men (almost 40%), but Caucasian women married to Asian men has yet to see an influx. I’d like to think I am helping start a trend!  Only 16% of Asian men marry outside of their race, and it’s commonly the men who are more assimilated into the American culture. In China, we get lots of looks as an interracial couple but in America, no one stares at us.  However, Asians in the US sometimes seem perplexed when they see a Chinese man with a white woman and will ask us questions openly.  They always want to know how we met because maybe it doesn’t seem like a common occurrence. 

Eric’s friends have used the term ‘White-Washed’ to describe him.  My understanding is that he is so assimilated that he has almost lost touch with his Chinese heritage. It was difficult for me to understand why he’d stopped celebrating his holidays.  As a Reform Jew, I knew that you could assimilate but still participate in your own cultural traditions (that was how Reform Judaism was created in America after all).  Since I met Eric, we’ve been celebrating the Chinese New Year with other friends, many of whom are Asian.  

We make chicken and chive dumplings every year at our home to bring in the New Year.  I don’t eat pork, so Eric has had to make some compromises!

Because of Communism, there was no religion for the Chinese people of Eric’s generation. Therefore, my Jewish holidays are celebrated much more often than his Chinese ones.  The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanna), Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Hanukkah and Passover are celebrated in our home with my side of the family.  The Lunar calendar is used by both Jews and Chinese alike. Because of this, many of our holidays are during the week but we try to celebrate as authentically as much as possible.  

By the time he was ready to propose in 2011, we had been dating for 3.5 years and he popped the question on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement, aka the most religious day of the year for Jews).  He wanted to propose at sunset but I was so sick from fasting all day – I had low blood sugar and a horrible headache, his best-laid plans didn’t work so instead it was after dusk.  He suggested we go for a walk to get fresh air to make me feel better.

We often go to the Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk which overlooks the skyline of Chicago. He was saying very sweet things to me on the bridge there and all of a sudden got on one knee which made me step backward in shock.  He said “Come here” and so instead of taking a few steps towards him, I actually got down on my knees as well so we were face to face!  We looked like we were doing a football huddle!  Of course, I said yes but couldn’t see the ring so I jumped up and ran to the nearest street light to check it out. 

Since it was Yom Kippur ‘Break Fast’ and families get together at that time, we were able to call my parents and they were with a bunch of extended family and friends so everyone could hear the news immediately.  Everyone was very excited!

I knew I wanted to include Chinese traditions in our wedding.  The colors red and gold are used to celebrate happiness, luck, and love in Chinese.

We used those as our wedding colors, as well as, the Chinese character for ‘Double Happiness’.  My mom was able to use that symbol within the Jewish Star of David to paint our Ketubah (marriage license) for our wedding.  See photo below

Photo Credit: Silver Thumb Photography

A few years later, when we found out we were having a baby, we didn’t know the gender but decided to choose a Hebrew first name since our child would have a Chinese last name.  This is the greatest testament to honoring our multicultural backgrounds.  Talia Cheng is now a thriving toddler with her father’s smile and attitude and her mother’s eyes and curly hair.  I guess my Jewish genes were a lot stronger than Eric’s Asian genes based on her looks!

In our relationship, we really focus on communication ahead of time. Sometimes Eric does not participate in the storytelling involved with certain Jewish holidays (i.e. Passover Seder) because it makes him uncomfortable.  We aren’t sure what will happen once Talia learns to read and can participate herself but we’d like her to decide herself if she wants to be involved. 

We always try to integrate our cultures whenever possible. Some of my favorite memories of this are making dumplings together on Chinese New Year, doing the Hora at our wedding and other family weddings, enjoying brisket and matzah ball soup during the Jewish holidays, and traveling to China together.   

Talia had a Jewish baby naming ceremony when she was born and will likely attend a Jewish preschool. She takes a weekly Mandarin class and practices at home with Eric and her NaiNai (Grandma).  How lucky Talia is that she will have a strong upbringing in both cultures and celebrate holidays from both lineages! Maybe she’ll be trilingual one day; maybe she’ll choose to study abroad in Israel or China. Whatever her future holds, we hope she will be aware of the diversity in the world around her and will cherish the cultures from which she comes.  

Jessica Colman Cheng is the Director of Social Media at the Parent Voice,.  

Eric Cheng is the Director of Strategy at Sears Holding Company.

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Also read:  Want to Raise Bilingual Children? Grow these 5 Habits Today

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