Recently, the VP of Facebook wrote a stirring piece about her dual identities as the daughter of Asian mother and Jewish father, called Fully Both. In it, Naomi Gleit says:
“To be entirely honest, I’ve never really found my voice on issues of identity and race. I wasn’t comfortable speaking up on behalf of the Asian community because as someone who was only “half” I didn’t feel qualified. But where does permission come from anyway? It doesn’t come from our genetics (our racial percentages and ancestral fractions) or whether we look like our mothers or our grandmothers. I have permission to say what is true for me: I am not half, I am whole. I identify with my mom and my dad, and instead of being half of each, I am fully both.”
Noami Gleit is not just the VP of Facebook to me. Naomi and I went to middle school together, where we soon discovered we weren’t just two of the only half Asian girls in our school. We both had Taiwanese mothers and dads’ named Steve who were immigration attorneys in New York. Weeks ago, thanks to her celebratory Facebook post, I also discovered our dads’ birthdays were a day apart. So it’s not surprising, that her recent piece resonated with me deeply: her realization that in sharing her story she does not represent the entire Asian community, she is simply speaking her truth. I also resonated with her feeling fully both. Though I wouldn’t really feel fully both until much later.
Despite the fact I was always told I looked more like my dad (for those who have seen him or known him) or simply “more white,” people first meeting me either comment on my disability (Cerebral Palsy) or Asianness first, sometimes just my smile. No one has *ever* asked if I was Jewish at first sight. Unlike Naomi, I never had a bat mitzvah. Granted, my dad choose in his truly rebellious ways not to have a bar mitzvah himself. Though, my dad also grew up in a time when he had to hide his Jewishness to survive, so I wonder if it was rebellion after all. I never thought I could have a bat mitvah, as I was told by my Jewish grandmother who also thought I hung the moon, that I simply wasn’t Jewish, and could never be despite having her and my father’s blood in my veins, because my mother was a gentile. Though she never loved me any less, I remember feeling forcibly disconnected from her by that crushing statement. Unlike Noami, I was never counted.
Until I was….
The first time I went to the JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side, I was really anxious: was I Jewish enough to be there? How would I be treated? I walked in and heard Korean being spoken to my left and French being spoken to my right, and immediately felt at home. Then, when introducing myself, I jokingly said, “I’m half Jewish, but the illegal half” they laughed and looked at me genuinely saying, “Nonsense, you’re Jewish. That’s not illegal, we’ll take it!” That feeling of home and belonging hit me again. Then a few years later, I was asked by one of New York’s most progressive temples to speak for Jewish Disability awareness month. I asked if being the other half was ok. They said yes, it didn’t matter which half. I was Jewish enough. My black pastor (who has always told our congregation that as Christians we are Jewish first, as Judaism is the foundation of our faith) showed up in support wearing his Star of David (which he wears daily) and his kippah and after the cantor sang, as we danced in the aisles hand-in-hand with everyone fully embraced, my heart, that I didn’t know had been broken at not being counted, was healed and my Jewishness made full and whole.
To their credit, my parents themselves never made me choose a side. They were more artistically inclined…focused on uniqueness. They didn’t care if I was Jewish enough or Chinese enough, or even disabled enough. They always reminded me that I was Xian and that was MORE than enough. They just wanted me to feel fully me. Perhaps that is why I have always felt like MORE because of my intersecting identities not less; and why at this divisive, dangerous time for all parts of me, I celebrate each one, because love is bigger and love is at the center of being fully and joyfully who we are, no matter who we are.
Xian Horn, Beauty and Disability Advocate, Teacher, Founder
Xian Horn is a joyful half-Asian woman with Cerebral Palsy, who serves as founder of her non-profit, Give Beauty Wings and her consultancy Changeblazer. She is speaker, beauty advocate, blogger, and Exemplar for the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge toward the creation of Assistive Technology. She was named Women’s eNews’ 21 Leaders for the 21st Century in 2017 and in Walker’s Legacy Power 15 in 2018. She was also inducted into the National Disability Mentoring Coalition’s Hall of Fame in 2018. Give Beauty Wings’ Self-Esteem programs originated and continue at NYU’s Initiative for Women with Disabilities, the Jewish Community Center Manhattan, and M.S. 131.
Xian has spoken at Apple, Viacom, AppNexus, New York Life, Met Life, for the New York Public Library, Barnard College, Williams College, the ReelAbilities film festival (where she serves on the Film Selection Committee). In 2018, Xian was invited to join Cooper Hewitt’s Accessibility Advisory Committee and AT&T’s Accessibility Advisory Panel. She has served on the NY Women’s Foundation Committee for the Future and mentored at the White House for Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0., the US Business Leadership Network’s Innovation Lab (now Disability:In), coaching their Rising Leaders. Xian has also run vocational workshops for the NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities for Disability Mentoring Day. She served the State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program’s European delegation, and has been on the State Department’s Speaker’s Bureau since 2016. Xian has been featured in The White House Blog’s Women Working To Do Good series, NPR, Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company, Bloomberg News, NBC News, Fox 5 and NY1 among others. Finally, in addition to writing for Thrive Global, she is a blogger for Positively Positive – a community of over 2.5 million readers and a contributor at Forbes.