Passover in Bejing: Does Sichuan Food Count As Bitter Herbs?

By | Mar 22, 2013
Food, Latest, Religion

As Passover approaches, we all recall that we are strangers in a strange land. And boy, are we. As expats living in Beijing for the past year or so, we find that the strangeness of this strange land doesn’t necessarily diminish with time. In fact, it can get stranger and stranger.

We celebrate Passover in our household by ordering kosher-for-Passover items from the city’s Chabad network, shopping at the local wet market for items like parsley and apples and walnuts, gathering every Jew we know, and celebrating the Jews’ victory over Pharaoh with a festive dinner that will be cleaned up by our ayi, cleaning lady, in the morning.

In many ways, Passover in China is a new exile in the wilderness. “Let my people go” becomes “Just let me get on Facebook.” The Four Questions become “Why does the heat in the apartment get turned off on March 15?”, “Is jian bing, the ubiquitous street pancake, kosher for Passover?”, “Does Sichuan food count as bitter herbs?” and “Why are the Chinese chairs so damned hard?”

And yes, there are the plagues. In place of the traditional plagues, I think this year we’ll offer up a Chinese version for 2013. As we dip our fingers in Great Wall wine and spill the drops on our plates, we’ll recount these ten plagues.

  1. (Blood) HIV patients turned away from hospitals when they need surgery.
  2. (Frogs) A frog invasion in Wuhan spawns fears of another earthquake.
  3. (Lice) Parents treat head lice with Traditional Chinese Medicine in place of Nix.
  4. (Wild beasts) Giant pandas head to extinction.
  5. (Disease of livestock) Dogs are painted to look like giant pandas.
  6. (Boils) Whitening agents fill body lotion.
  7. (Hail) Spring sandstorms hit Beijing.
  8. (Locusts) Mainland shoppers hit Hong Kong.
  9. (Darkness) Beyond-index air pollution makes noon look like night.
  10. (Death of the firstborn) Death of the firstborn daughters results from the one-child policy.

In the story of Passover, God turns Aaron’s rod into a serpent and the Pharaoh’s sorcerers turn their rods into snakes, which then get swallowed by Aaron’s serpent. Since this is the year of the snake in the Chinese calendar, that symbolism is appropriate, although the Chinese have a knack of making their snakes look like chubby cherubs, less to smite the Egyptians than to satisfy the endless hankering for kitsch.

We don’t know how long we’ll be in exile here, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I do think “Dayenu – it would have been enough.” What I tend to say, instead, is “bu yao.” Don’t want. Next year in 耶路撒冷.

Debra Bruno is a freelance writer in Beijing. She blogs about her experiences at


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