Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion
  • Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion
  • Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion

Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion

4.3 24
by Michael Levy

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An irreverent tale of an American Jew serving in the Peace Corps in rural China, which reveals the absurdities, joys, and pathos of a traditional society in flux

In September of 2005, the Peace Corps sent Michael Levy to teach English in the heart of China's heartland. His hosts in the city of Guiyang found additional uses for him: resident expert on

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An irreverent tale of an American Jew serving in the Peace Corps in rural China, which reveals the absurdities, joys, and pathos of a traditional society in flux

In September of 2005, the Peace Corps sent Michael Levy to teach English in the heart of China's heartland. His hosts in the city of Guiyang found additional uses for him: resident expert on Judaism, romantic adviser, and provincial basketball star, to name a few. His account of overcoming vast cultural differences to befriend his students and fellow teachers is by turns poignant and laugh-out-loud funny.

While reveling in the peculiarities of life in China's interior, the author also discovered that the "other billion" (people living far from the coastal cities covered by the American media) have a complex relationship with both their own traditions and the rapid changes of modernization. Lagging behind in China's economic boom, they experience the darker side of "capitalism with Chinese characteristics," daily facing the schizophrenia of conflicting ideologies.

Kosher Chinese is an illuminating account of the lives of the residents of Guiyang, particularly the young people who will soon control the fate of the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this lively memoir of serving in the Peace Corps in Guiyang, China, Levy explores a society in flux—while mining the entertaining if familiar terrain of cross-cultural misunderstandings. He struggles to explain English terminology to students who unknowingly translate their names into expletives, is coerced into eating the specialty at Dog Meat King, and finds that the community distrusts him not merely because he is American, but because he is Jewish. But Levy turns his perceived otherness to his advantage, earning the nickname "Friendship Jew" and being tapped to lead a student organization, the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, a rare extracurricular activity in a culture Levy finds devoid of such opportunities. "There were no glee clubs, school newspapers, yearbooks... expressions of creativity were mere distractions, as was critical thinking." Pop culture references abound: Sex and the City, Star Wars, The Matrix are all name checked as if to suggest that Levy is grasping for familiarity in a foreign land, but their ubiquity becomes tiresome. Humor works best when Levy uses them to point to matters of deeper significance, such as the Westernization of China. As one of the local teachers encapsulates it, "Wal-Mart is the future, and Chairman Mao is the past." Interested readers would do well to check out Peter Hessler's Peace Corps memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. (July)
author of River Town and Oracle Bones Peter Hessler

A funny and informative account of life in Guizhou province, deep in the heart of China. As a Peace Corps volunteer, Michael Levy came to know and love a part of the country that few visitors see, a world away from Beijing and Shanghai.
author of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life i Michael Meyer

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Michael Levy taught for two years in a corner of China overlooked by tourists and correspondents. Kosher Chinese is a heartfelt, engaging memoir that captures at once the poignancy and humor of daily life in the new China. Levy's narrative balances his own acclimation to China with his students' acclimation to university life, and independence. This is what it feels like to be immersed behind the headlines--for Levy, it came to feel like home.
author of Walking the Bible and The Council of Dad Bruce Feiler

Michael Levy is the tour guide to the real China we all long for. Funny, insightful, full of warmth and wit, Kosher Chinese brims with interesting characters and scenes, and it marks the debut of a fresh new voice in American writing.
Library Journal
As in Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze and Peter J. Vernezze's recent Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice, and the (Chinese) Way, Peace Corps experience is the inspiration for Levy's cheekier and freewheeling but insightful adventure story. Pundits describe a prosperous Chinese middle class living along the coast, but in 2005 Levy arrived in poor and isolated Guizhou, where the students he taught belonged to China's "other billion." At first it was hard to know which side knew less about the other—Levy, whose China background was shaky, or his hosts, whose understanding of his Judaism was limited to the fact that "Comrade Marx was Jewish" and so was Einstein. As Levy gets to know (and play basketball with) his students, his misadventures with squat toilets, confrontations with exotic foods, and bureaucratic snafus become less important than genuine debates over American democracy and the students' belief that their authoritarian system has led to development, stability, and dignity. VERDICT Informative, snappy reading, though not essential.—Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews

An ex–Peace Corps volunteer chronicles the two years he spent living and working deep in the Chinese hinterlands.

With intelligence and zesty good humor, Levy tells the story of his sojourn as an ESL teacher in Guiyang. "In American political terms," he writes, "it was red China, as opposed to the blue, progressive, latte-sipping China of the coast." As the only white native speaker of English at Guizhou University, Levy soon became the center of attention. But it was his Jewish identity—which he shared with Chinese cultural icon Karl Marx—that made him a particular object of student fascination. Drafted as the leader of the Guizhou Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, he prepared challah bread on his day of Sabbath, "no matter what Rabbinic rules were broken." Levy's students and colleagues also pressed him into service as resident love advisor. As one girl told him, "Americans like him [had] been falling in love since Shakespeare and [had] many examples to follow." Chinese people did not. The college basketball coach eventually recruited him as the star player on the Guizhou team, and Levy earned the moniker "Friendship Jew" and notoriety for his hirsute body. At first bewildered by culture whereguanxi(personal connections) were crucial to upward mobility and where Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut and KFC were considered the height of Western cosmopolitanism, the author learned to accept contradiction as one of the defining trait of modern China. His most profound insights came from a group of graduate students he taught who identified with writers of the Lost Generation. Like these men and women, the students "lived in a world that seemed unmoored from traditional values." Knowing that he could change neither the world in which he found himself nor the fate of those whom he befriended, Levy found unexpected comfort in the pop-culture wisdom of a teen singing sensation named Li Yuchun: "You cannot change the course of a river, [b]ut you can learn to appreciate its beauty and power."

A rollicking, thoroughly refreshing debut.

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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7.82(w) x 5.26(h) x 0.68(d)

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The People Who Are Special, Too

I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable. The particular version I found in my bowl on a warm summer evening in the summer of 2005 was an easy call. There were hundreds of them, red and pink, each about an inch long. They had however many legs it takes to make something "milli" as well as angry-looking pincers from both the front and back. They had been deep fried and were left moist with oil. The dish included long sugar sticks that one could lick and dip into the bowl. The millipedes that stuck would get sucked off the stick in what I had been assured was a delicious combination of sweet and sour. Nevertheless, I demurred.

"I cannot eat this," I told my host, a middle-aged Communist Party official in a dusty blue jacket. We were two of the dozen or so people who had gathered at the center of Unicorn Hill Village #3—a tiny hamlet of perhaps thirty single-story houses constructed of cinder block and wood—to celebrate my visit and the arrival of the Peace Corps. We were sitting around a low, round table on fourteen-inch-high plastic stools. The millipedes glistened before me in a chipped porcelain bowl. The group stared on in silence as the village leader looked from me to the millipedes and back to me. He had a spindly frame and tanned skin that was drawn taut against his cheekbones. He looked like a Chinese Voldemort.

"Eat the food," he grunted. His wife had made the millipede dish according to what my guide told me was "a very special recipe of the Bouyei people." The Bouyei were a tiny, impoverished ethnic group concentrated in the mountains of central China. These were some of the very people the Peace Corps had sent me to live with, learn from, and—in theory—teach. My first meal in the village and I was off to a bad start.

"You can eat this," my guide said with a nervous smile. "It tastes good." He demonstrated for me, licking his sugar stick, dipping it in the bowl, and sucking off one particularly hairy millipede. "They're sweet," he explained, crunching away happily, "and Americans like sweet things."

I nodded. "That's true." I groped for a polite escape. "But I'm a little different than most Americans." This gained me perplexed looks from both my guide and my host.

"I'm a Jew."

Gasps. Widened eyes. Furrowed brows. Awkward silence. I said this last sentence in Chinese. "Wo shi youtairen." The phrase, loosely translated, meant "I am a Person Who Is Special, Too."

Why—oh why—had I said this? This was atheist, Communist China, after all. Didn't Karl Marx say religion was the "opiate of the masses"? Had I just told my hosts I was a drug addict? And hadn't Chairman Mao condemned religion as one of the "Four Olds," a remnant (along with old culture, old habits, and old ideas) of the feudal past the Communist Party sought to destroy? I wondered if the arrest and deportation of a Peace Corps volunteer would make the evening news back home in Philadelphia.

As the silence around the table deepened and my face turned ever-darker shades of red, I marveled at the desperation of my religious mea culpa. I should have known better. I had, after all, already undergone months of Peace Corps training, sweating through seemingly endless hours of language classes, daily safety-and-security lectures, and occasional lessons in cross-cultural sensitivity. All of this, however, had taken place in Chengdu, the wealthy, relatively Americanized capital city of Sichuan Province, which was now a sixteen-hour train ride to the north. Chengdu had McDonald's, Starbucks, and an IKEA. It was the China of Thomas Friedman and other American pundits touting China's rise. I was now in Guizhou Province, the desperately poor, rural province in the dead center of China that would be my home for the next two years. Guizhou had . . . millipedes.

I was happy that my training was complete and I was finally on my own. I was happy to be in a part of China I had rarely seen covered in the American media. I was feeling like an authentic, trailblazing Peace Corps volunteer on an Indiana Jones adventure. Unicorn Hill Village #3 was no Temple of Doom, but this was far from my typical dinner.

Dr. Jones played it cool; I was desperate. Embracing my Jewish roots at that particular moment was a foggy-headed attempt to get excused from the table. I had never yearned so powerfully for a bagel.

"Jews can't eat insects," I mumbled, my eyes scanning for reactions from the men who surrounded me. "I don't want to get into it, but there are a lot of rules for us . . ."

The tension seemed to mount until, quite suddenly, the silence was broken by a hoot from my host's wife. Her cry was followed by smiles from others in the group, pats on my back, and even some applause.

"Comrade Marx was Jewish," said a man sitting a few paces away from the table, staring at me intensely.

"So was Einstein," beamed the man to my right, offering me a cigarette.

"You must be very clever," said my guide, as the bowl of insects was removed from my side of the table, replaced by a dish of steaming meat.

"Why would the CIA send us a Jew?" mumbled Voldemort. I wasn't sure I had heard him correctly, but the raised eyebrow from my guide let me know I had, officially, just been accused of being a spy.

It was all a little bewildering, but I smiled like an idiot, happy to avoid the millipedes. I dug right into the mystery meat, and the men around the table quickly began eating their food as well. There was a toast to my health, then another to my success as a teacher, then another to American-Chinese friendship. We all got good and drunk.

I had passed the test. I was a Jew in the middle of nowhere, China.

Excerpted from Kosher Chinese by Mike Levy

Copyright 2011 by Mike Levy

Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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