The Quest For Kosher Among China's Other Billion

Michael Levy enjoys a game of Mahjiang with local youth. i i

Michael Levy enjoys a game of Mahjiang with local youth. Courtesy Of The Author hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Of The Author
Michael Levy enjoys a game of Mahjiang with local youth.

Michael Levy enjoys a game of Mahjiang with local youth.

Courtesy Of The Author
Michael Levy documents his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in his new memoir. i i

Michael Levy documents his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in his new memoir. Henry Holt and Company hide caption

itoggle caption Henry Holt and Company
Michael Levy documents his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in his new memoir.

Michael Levy documents his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in his new memoir.

Henry Holt and Company
Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching and Eating With China's Other Billion
By Michael Levy
Paperback, 256 pages
Henry Holt And Company
List Price: $15.00

Read An Excerpt

The nation will soon observe the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, events that prompted many Americans to explore faith or military service. Educator Michael Levy felt a call to serve in a different way — through the Peace Corps. In 2005, he was sent to Guiyang, a remote village in central China.

He chronicles that journey in his new memoir Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching and Eating with China's Other Billion.

In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Levy says he was initially surprised that China — a country regarded as a rising global superpower — even accepted Peace Corps volunteers. "One of the things that makes the Peace Corp unique is that it only goes where it's invited," says Levy. "When China offered the invitation, I think Washington, D.C., was excited to build a bond any way possible."

Beyond China's booming cities lives a massive impoverished community. "There are a billion people in China's interior who are still living on a few dollars a day. That's Guizhou province, the poorest province in China," he says.

Levy reveals that the average income in the community where he volunteered was 100 U.S. dollars per month. That's the stipend he lived off of as well. Most of Levy's Guizhou University students were first-generation college students from farming families who had dreams of leaving the province for the economically booming coast. But he explains that the dream is tough to turn into reality, "Shanghai, Beijing — it's out of reach for the average person in China."

"Sweet and Sour Inside Out Fish" is a local favorite in Guizhou.

"Sweet and Sour Inside Out Fish" is a local favorite in Guizhou. Courtesy Of The Author hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Of The Author

Keeping Kosher?

For Levy, the main challenge was negotiating when to yield to local customs and become a truly immersed community member ... and when to assert his American ideals.

He says it's the same dilemma many people experience when they're invited to share a meal at someone else's house.

A banquet meal at a village in Guizhou. i i

A banquet meal at a village in Guizhou. Courtesy Of The Author hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Of The Author
A banquet meal at a village in Guizhou.

A banquet meal at a village in Guizhou.

Courtesy Of The Author

"Maybe you're a vegetarian and it's meat; maybe you're Muslim and it's pork; or Hindu and it's beef. Whatever it is, there's always a moment in people's lives when they have to decide, 'am I going to be the best guest possible and honor this person's effort and just eat it? Or am I going to bring my identity into this and push the plate away?'" explains Levy.

He says he decided to just accept what people prepared for him gracefully and even enthusiastically. He admits, "I was in a land of pork popsicles. And I gotta tell you this — it was delicious!"

A Spiritual Void

However, many of the Chinese people whom Levy encountered seemed to be left unsatisfied when it comes to spirituality. Levy recounts that in the 1960s, communist leader Chairman Mao did everything he could to tear down the "spiritual nervous system." Mao had Buddhist monks physically beaten, temples demolished and sutras burned.

Levy says his students had never been encouraged to think about or discuss God, spirituality or religion.

One of his students, Jennifer, even told him, "You are lucky, because as an American Jew, you have something to believe in. But what can Chinese believe in? We do not have the God. We are losing all of our Chinese days, like Mid-Autumn Festival and Grave Sweeping Day."

Levy says the Chinese government's big challenge now is to rebuild some sort of spiritual tradition. So far, its chosen method is to construct Confucianism centers nationwide.

Rethinking Politics, Governance And Economics

Levy also came to understand that the Chinese have fervent patriotism despite the lack of democracy. And he says they consider the 1989 massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square as ancient history.

Michael Levy is shown with his students from Guizhou University. i i

Michael Levy is shown with his students from Guizhou University. Courtesy Of The Author hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Of The Author
Michael Levy is shown with his students from Guizhou University.

Michael Levy is shown with his students from Guizhou University.

Courtesy Of The Author

Now, in his teaching career in the U.S., Levy has unique advice for his American students who want to understand China. "Imagine that there's a country exactly like the United States. Exactly the same size. It's got the same cities. It's got the same number of rich people and poor people. It's just like us. And now add 1 billion peasants. That's China," he says. "If we added a billion peasants to our country, how much would that change our politics? How much would that change our understanding of economics?"

Levy says keeping that perspective helps him understand why the average Chinese person puts such a high value on stability. "They need a government that keeps things under control so they can keep growing ... so this billion people can have something to hope for," he adds. Otherwise, it's chaos, says Levy.

Learning From One Another

Levy says that after his journey with the Guizhou community, he reads newspapers differently and takes a more global perspective on international issues.

When asked what he hopes he taught the Chinese, Levy responds, "I hope that they learn that Americans are not all fat, not all out to get them, and that there's a big distinction between what our government does and what an average American wants or believes."

Excerpt of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching and Eating With China's Other Billion

Preface

The People Who Are Special, Too

Michael Levy documents his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in his new memoir. i i

Michael Levy documents his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in his new memoir. Henry Holt and Company hide caption

itoggle caption Henry Holt and Company
Michael Levy documents his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in his new memoir.

Michael Levy documents his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in his new memoir.

Henry Holt and Company

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.

Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching and Eating With China's Other Billion
By Michael Levy
Paperback, 256 pages
Henry Holt And Company
List Price: $15.00

"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. "Woshiyoutairen." 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: Living, Teaching and Eating With China's Other Billion by Michael Levy. Copyright 2011 by Michael Levy. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved.

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