Token White Guy: How to be a Jew

Jonathan ‘Cao Cao’ Kos-Read has played the token white guy in more than 60 Chinese films and sitcoms. Not surprisingly, he has more than a few tales to tell.

Why are Jews better? Why did people hate them in the past? Why are they so rich? Why are they everywhere?

These questions were on my mind last month because I just got cast in a show where I play one. It’s this big 40-episode monstrosity about 50 years of Shanghai history. I play a Jew who goes there to make his fortune but instead finds love. It’s a rich, complex, genuinely good role that begs for a serious actor.

And I am a serious actor. I care about my art. But what does that really mean? This month: How a serious actor practises his craft.

The Ideal

A lot of stuff written about the lengths actors go to, to prepare for a role. We read about ones who go live with some crappy tribe for a month, or take drugs to paralyse themselves or cut off their testicles or, you know, all that stuff actors do. And when we read that, a little secret voice inside of us usually whispers, “Dude, ahhhh, that’s a little silly.” And it is, but there’s a reason (aside from PR) that they all do it.

To react like a real person, and a person different from who he is, an actor has to answer five questions. They are, in order of importance:

1.      What does my character want?

2.      Why?

3.      How does he go about getting it?

4.      Why does he do it that way?

And finally, and sort of separately:

5.      What does he want out of life?

So, because I’m a serious actor, I went and got my most serious, nebishy, what’s-the-meaning-of-life-and-what’s-my-place-in-it Jewish friend, treated him to some nachos, and grilled him about being Jewish.

I had three questions:

1.      Why did my Jew want to succeed so bad?

2.      Why did he feel guilty about marrying a prostitute?

3.      Why did he go to China?

Here are his answers:

Success: Jews feel a heavy weight of responsibility. They survived as a culture without a country for 2,000 years. They survived both the Romans and the Germans trying to exterminate them. So to be a loser is to betray all those hundreds of generations who struggled so hard to survive just so that you could exist.

Guilt: Sex and procreation are super important and strict for Jews because there are so few of them. The strictness allowed them to survive as a culture without a country for 2,000 years. To step outside of that boundary is to betray a lot of history. And even if a Jew doesn’t believe that, everyone he loves and respects does.

China: A Jew is a foreigner wherever he is. So my English Jew would see himself as Jewish first, English second. He would feel natural going off to be a foreigner in China – it’s just another destination for the diaspora.

Not all Jews would agree. That’s okay. Because his answers were knives I could use to sculpt a believable and honest character. My Jew. His Jew. But not every Jew. Who could ask for more? So I hopped on the plane to Shanghai, armed with truth and insight, ready to do battle with my own psyche as I slashed away to the core realities in this character’s heart.

The Reality

The first scene of the first day was a love scene. My Jew has just saved a good-hearted, lonely prostitute from an evil ruffian. The audience can see we’re meant for each other, two lonely youngsters looking for love in this cold, cold world. I bring her back to my room where she washes up and then, to thank me, bangs me silly. After she leaves I’m feeling a little guilty about screwing a hooker (albeit one of those heart-of-gold-actually-a-good-person ones).

Then they have me, the Jew, get down and pray to Jesus about my sin. 

I went to talk to the director, “Hey, Director Li, I don’t know how much weight you would put on this being accurate, but Jews don’t pray to Jesus.” (Not sarcasm. This is really how you have to talk to directors.)


“No, they killed him.”

The director thought about this for a minute, “Does everybody know that?”

I had to think for a minute. America. Europe. The Middle East? “I think a lot of people would know.”

“Well this is a Chinese show. Chinese people won’t know.”

You walk a thin line when you, a foreigner, tell a local he is wrong – especially when his mistake comes from being lame and retarded. Locals (anywhere) are tre touchy. So you have to be super polite and pretend it’s a common mistake or like it’s just a question of preference and usually you can get what you want.

I said, “True, that’s why I asked how much you care. It’s up to you. But it won’t be, like, you know, super accurate.”

He didn’t say anything for a minute. I could tell he was just wishing this problem would go away. This wasn’t stupid. He understood it was a problem, and in some world of platonic ideals we would care about things like this. But he had this pretty shot in mind where the crane swoops down and the music swells and I’m kneeling there praying my heart out to assuage the guilt of a sin I do not feel because love is overpowering my heart.

We just kind of sat there in silence for a little while. I looked back at the big oil painting of Mary (haloed, weeping and virginal) and Jesus (bloody, full of holes and stoic) that I was supposed to pray to. I decided to make one more jab at it.

“It would sort of be like if we made a Hollywood movie about China where everybody was wearing Japanese uniforms.”

“Hmmm,” he said, pretending to think about that.

“So it’s up to you I guess,” I said.

The director looked around for help, somebody else to be a dick and not care about art and accuracy so he wouldn’t have to feel like an asshole. The producer was standing next to us. He (sigh, I know, it’s a cliché, but what can I do but record reality) manned up.

“Well there maybe are Jews who pray to Jesus, right, I mean there must be some who pray to Jesus, too, right?”

“Not really.”

The producer said again, “Well there must be some so you’re just that kind of Jew, or like you’re just praying to Jesus today. Ha ha Cao Cao, you’re so artistic and serious.”

The director, “Yeah, because there are like all kinds of Jews in the world, you know?”

And what are you gonna do? It’s the first day. If I stuck to my guns the following would happen: The crew would hate me because I would make them work late because they would have to reset the whole scene. The producer would hate me because everyone would go overtime. The director would hate me because I would make him lose face. And it was the first scene of the first day.

So after praying my heart out to Jesus, we started the next scene, where my Jew takes his family to church. And there I was sitting on the church pew soundstage with my hooker wife and half-breed son (who was Chinese with bleached hair because they couldn’t find a mixed kid). Above us was an enormous crucifix. Below it in both English and Chinese was written inexplicably, “Father have eaten a sour grape.” And I thought: Jews were kicked out of their country, hunted, killed in pogroms, thrown to lions – all that terrible shit, for 2,000 f**kin’ years. I looked at my watch. I, the serious actor, had lasted one hour and 22 minutes.

I felt like a nudnik.