Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billionby Michael Levy
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/b>… See more details below
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion
By Michael Levy
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Michael Levy
All rights reserved.
Take Me Home, Country Roads
Jian Nan Chun airlines flight 100, direct from Beijing to Chengdu, offered me my first glimpse into life in a country of more than a billion people. I walked to my seat midway down the aisle and settled in next to an old Chinese lady with thinning gray hair. She was munching on spicy chicken feet and silently offered me a bite. I politely declined. She belched in response.
Together, we watched the rows fill in front of us. We also watched as a handful of passengers struggled to find their seats. They looked from their boarding passes to the numbers above the seats, and back to their boarding passes. Eventually, though all the seats were taken, four people stood in the aisle moving in confused circles. The flight, it seemed, was standing-room only. I sighed, feeling pity for the four passengers who would now be delayed. "What a bummer," I mumbled.
Yes and no. A stewardess guided the four standing passengers towards the back of the plane where they doubled up with others. There was a bit of grumbling, especially from a petite octogenarian who ended up with a chubby teenager on his lap, but the eight people crammed into four small seats quickly struck up conversations with each other and began sharing cigarettes. We prepared for liftoff.
Lesson one from China: overpopulation leads to a certain flexibility when it comes to definitions of both comfort and safety.
I was one of fifty-seven Peace Corps trainees sprinkled throughout the plane. We were giddy, apprehensive, and fidgety as we imagined the ten weeks of training awaiting us in western China. It was meant to be an all-encompassing immersion that would prepare us for two years of volunteer teaching. We knew we would learn Chinese. Beyond this, however, we had only vague notions of what was to come.
The televisions in the cabin blinked to life and the stewardess who had solved the seating problem popped what appeared to be a Betamax cassette into a machine hidden in an overhead compartment. An Asian man in a white lab coat appeared in grainy Technicolor. I felt for a moment like I was watching an instructional video from the Dharma Initiative.
The video was in Mandarin with Japanese subtitles, so I wasn't entirely sure what was being communicated, but the tenor of the video — and the images of people panicking during a simulated emergency landing — led me to believe that an English translation of the voice-over would have included the following fortune-cookie wisdom: "In case of emergency, accept your fate." The actors in the video pantomimed the crash-landing protocol for passengers: we were to remove our shoes and cover our eyes.
As the plane took flight, exhaustion from the first two legs of my trip — from Philadelphia to San Francisco and San Francisco to Beijing — hit me hard. I fell into a fitful sleep. I dreamed of rice paddies and kung fu, egg rolls and Chairman Mao. I dreamed of my childhood fantasy of digging a tunnel to China. I dreamed of Phil, the Chinese guy who lived next to me during my freshman year of college. He was five feet tall, rarely left his room, and seemed terrified of me and everyone else on our floor. He even bought a Door Club to protect himself (protection from whom? We lived in a section of Ithaca, New York, where the worst crimes were teen drinking and public nudity). Phil almost drowned on his first day at school during the mandatory swim test. The lifeguard had to fish him out of the deep end of the pool with one of those giant metal hooks. "I cramped," he later explained.
Phil dropped out after a year of overly intense studying. If I survived the ten weeks of training and actually made it to my official site, would I find myself teaching hundreds of Phils? Would I have roomfuls of robotic students who could memorize instantly but were barely functional as social beings? Would stereotypes of Chinese students hold true? My nap was full of questions.
An hour later, I awoke to find the plane beginning a slow descent into a brown soup of pollution. We had almost arrived in Chengdu, the massive capital city of Sichuan Province and the home of the Peace Corps headquarters in China. The city was part of China's economic miracle and its corresponding industrial nightmare. Twelve million residents operated in an unregulated, crony-capitalist dream, generating a thick, pore-clogging smog. "It's like Luke Skywalker landing on Dagobah," I said to the old woman next to me. She smiled and spit out a chicken talon.
When I exited the plane, I was knocked dizzy by the evening heat. I imagined the capillary veins in my lungs recoiling in horror as breath after constricted breath dumped carcinogenic particulate matter into my previously healthy chest cavity. It wouldn't be long before my Chinese teacher would tell me that smoking cigarettes was actually healthy because it prepared one's lungs for Chinese air. The tobacco, she insisted, served as a vaccine against the smog. This seemed far-fetched to me, though I reconsidered my convictions after the Peace Corps nurse advised us to cease all exercise. An increased heart rate, she warned us, would lead to deeper breathing which, in Chengdu, meant a more profoundly damaged cardiovascular system. Best to sit and smoke, perhaps.
I shimmied down the movable staircase that had been wheeled over and gathered with the other trainees in a muted huddle. Before departing from San Francisco, there had been fifty-eight of us, but one trainee dropped out before even boarding the plane. As time passed, we knew our numbers would continue to dwindle; the Peace Corps typically loses a handful of people during training and a lot more during the remaining two years of service. Worldwide averages told us that by the end of our twenty-seven-month assignment, 30 percent of our group would already be home. In the parlance of the organization, these folks would suffer from "Early Termination," a phrase that made me think of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who in this group would be Terminated? Who would make like Sarah Connor and survive? I looked at people out of the corners of my eyes. The tall sorority girl? The barrel-chested guy in the suit? I had the feeling people were giving me the same once-over. I tried to put a look of determination on my face but worried it just made me look like I had to use the bathroom (which, in fact, I did). I switched to a look that attempted nonchalance. I caught my reflection in an airport window and realized I merely looked slack-jawed and confused.
I knew I wasn't the only one who was worried and self-conscious, but this feeling of solidarity did not help allay my concerns. Western China, we all knew, would not be an easy place for most of us to live. It was beyond our frame of reference. We had all read Nicholas Kristoff's heartrending accounts of brutal Community Party repression, Fareed Zakaria's predictions about the future of U.S.-Chinese relations, and books swooning about China's economy with titles like China Rises or The Chinese Century. None of this helped me feel any confidence, however, since none of it had to do with actual daily life on China's streets. What was Chinese food like when actually eaten in China? How would I do laundry? What did ordinary Chinese think about Americans? What time would I go to sleep at night, and what time would I wake up in the morning? No question was too mundane, and as I stood on the runway in Chengdu with my fellow trainees, all of the pundits faded away. I felt the sun burning my skin, the smog filling my lungs, and the sounds of the teeming crowds in the airport. My senses were overloaded as the reality of the situation settled over me. I felt like Neo waking up in the goo of the Matrix reality.
* * *
We soon arrived at baggage claim. As I waited for my backpack, a thought occurred to me. Or if not a thought then a feeling, or perhaps a revelation. It was this: "Within the next two minutes I will use a squat toilet for the first time in my life." I made my way towards the men's room.
I was excited. I had never used a squat toilet before and I was curious about the technology. The whole idea was new to me. I had, in fact, been surprised and amused when I first heard a toilet described as "Western." Movies, I knew, could be Western, as could saddles. But toilets? I imagined urinals that shined boots, or leather toilets with stirrups. How much diversity could there really be in the world of the toilet? What were the differences between the "Western" and "squat" varieties? These were some of the questions about life in China the New York Times had never answered.
Only one thing was certain as I approached the bathroom, and it was my extreme inflexibility. My "squat" was more like a hip bend with a slight lean. This, I knew, would create all sorts of problems, though I wasn't too clear on the geometry of a successful delivery. The shortest distance between two points is a line. I remembered that from high school. It seemed somehow relevant.
I entered the bathroom and waited my turn. My bowel discomfort grew in inverse proportion to the number of people in line in front of me. There were six Chinese men waiting for a stall. Each was wearing shiny black-leather shoes and a sports coat over a T-shirt. All six were smoking. They all had man-purses tucked under their arms. One of them was humming the John Denver song, "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The six-man line was reduced to five.
I was surprised by how badly my stomach felt. The food we had eaten since landing in China twenty-four hours earlier had been greasy and spicy, but I always thought of myself as fairly impervious to indigestion. I started singing along with the humming to distract myself.
Take me home, country roads to the place I belong
The other men in line looked over their shoulders at me. Then, without warning, they all joined me for the next line of the song:
West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads
How could all of these men know the lyrics to this song? Was it possible that they would celebrate the entire John Denver collection? I would soon learn that Michael Bolton, Céline Dion, and the Carpenters were equally popular in China, but at that moment I was clenching my bowels far too tightly to think deeply on the soft power of American easy listening.
Two men now stood between me and my dream. My intestines churned and I fell silent. The man in front of me started up with the next verse of the song, turning to look at me when I did not join him. He saw the expression on my face, nodded at me with knowing concern, and cut his singing short.
Finally, blessedly, I was next. I rushed ahead. The stall was reasonably clean and I was pleased to find a sturdy lock on the door. I shut myself in and turned to face the toilet. But it was missing. In its place was a mere hole in the ground, surrounded by porcelain. The porcelain was a nice gesture but it did not distract me from the sickening realization that there was, in fact, no such thing as a "squat toilet." The phrase had apparently been invented to put real toilet users at ease. A toilet is a toilet, and a hole is a hole. I was standing over a hole. I felt cheated.
Regardless of the nomenclature, I was confronted with a vexing dilemma: which direction was I supposed to face? It wasn't clear to me how I ought to position my feet. Should they point towards the door, as they did while sitting in stalls in America? Or should I reverse direction in homage to being on the other side of the globe? I decided to face the wall.
I also wasn't sure if I was supposed to keep my pants on or remove them entirely. With pants on, I didn't see how I could prevent them from touching the ground as I squatted. The stall was clean, but the floor was definitely off-limits to anything other than the bottoms of my shoes. I grew up with a typically fastidious Jewish grandmother, and I inherited her distaste for disorder. She would follow family members around and clean anything they touched. She would refold my grandfather's newspaper each time he put it down; she would trail my father with a broom as he gardened, sweeping away any dirt that fell onto the driveway; she would wash each item of my clothing as soon as I took it off. I'm no Jewish grandmother, but I am infected with the same fear of the unclean.
I decided to remove my pants. I took off my left shoe and pant leg, lay toilet paper on the floor in a little sanitary island, and stepped on top. I repeated the procedure with my right shoe and leg and managed to get my pants off without stepping on the floor. All the while I was groaning and clenching my sphincter muscles. I tucked my pants under my armpit and moved into my best squat, a creaking version of the real deal. I teetered dangerously above the hole in the ground, thighs and calves burning. My hips soon threatened to lock and I bailed out, returning to standing position. I was mortified by my failure and moving towards white-hot panic. Luckily, there was a water pipe jutting out of the wall. I grabbed it and leaned backwards, now well positioned for the business at hand. As I relaxed, I felt my first, tiny victory over the challenges of life in China. I had also learned my second lesson: only enter stalls with handholds.
* * *
We soon left the airport and boarded a bus heading for the center of Chengdu. As we zipped down a newly constructed, nearly empty highway, I reflected on what I knew about China and its people. I knew there were tens of millions of Chinese enjoying an economic boom in cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong in the south. There were tens of millions more committed to China's traditions — both Imperial and Communist — in Beijing to the east. Still others suffered, far to the west, in the cultural genocide taking place in Tibet. As for the billion people squeezed between these well-known locations? Of them I knew next to nothing.
I was particularly unaware of what life was like for the teenagers I would soon be teaching. The only stories I had read about young people in China were stories of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a ten-year period lasting from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, a rabidly Maoist army of teenagers — whipped into a quasi-religious fervor by exhortations from the Chairman — enforced an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole chaos meant to usher in a messianic age of Communist perfection. The kids, who called themselves the Red Guard, were told by the Communist Party that "everything that does not fit the socialist system and proletarian dictatorship should be attacked." Or, as Chairman Mao put it, "To rebel is justified."
High school students, in particular, took this to heart and went completely berserk. Mao issued directives forbidding police to arrest students regardless of their crimes. Young people were also given free transport on trains and buses, and restaurants were required to feed them gratis. Thus, while American teens of the 1960s were tuning in, turning on, and dropping out in a bong-assisted quasi-rebellion, Chinese teens were waving their Little Red Books and engaging in rebellion of a more genuine variety.
It was not a good time to be a teacher: every student with a bone to pick became a deadly threat. Teachers who gave students bad grades risked being accused of deviating from a "strict Maoist line." The most unpopular educators found themselves slapped with the label "capitalist roader." Once these accusations were made there was almost no way to avoid punishment. Foreign teachers were particularly helpless. The lucky ones were deported; others were locked for the decade in cowsheds or sent to rice paddies for reeducation. Chinese nationals had it worse. Thousands were beaten and hundreds killed. There are even accounts of students capturing, flaying, and eating teachers who did not worship Mao with sufficient zeal.
As I sat on the bus, however, stories of teacher kebobs seemed completely unbelievable. I was, after all, looking out the window at what seemed to be a fully modern society. I saw bowling alleys, a Toyota dealership, a planetarium.
A planetarium? Chengdu was going to be full of surprises.
The buildings that zipped past my window were tall and covered in green-tinted glass. Shoppers filled the sidewalks and bike lanes were stacked ten deep with riders grinding away in the now-shimmering heat. Many of them had rigged umbrellas to their handlebars to protect themselves from the sun. Above the sea of umbrellas, advertisements flashed in neon, and models stared down from billboards. Most of the models were scantily clad adolescent girls or shirtless, six-pack-ab boys, flaunting their nipples like talismans. It was an amped up, hyperpolluted, and densely populated version of Times Square.
Excerpted from Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy. Copyright © 2011 Michael Levy. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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