MICHEL MARTIN, host: Of course in this country we've had our own experience with terrorism. And, in fact, we will soon be observing the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And like many people, we plan to reflect on all the ways that 9/11 changed the country and ourselves.
We already know that many people felt a call to faith, others a call to service, perhaps in the military. Our next guest felt that call to service in a different way. He decided to join the Peace Corps. And to his surprise, was sent to a rural village smack in the middle of China, where among his many challenges was trying to figure out how to keep kosher.
Michael Levy writes about this dilemma in his hilarious new memoir "Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion." It chronicles his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer starting in 2005. And he's with us now from our studios in New York. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
MICHAEL LEVY: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: So, why did you decide to join the Peace Corps after 9/11?
LEVY: On September 1st, 2001, I moved to the Upper West Side, and I moved from Jerusalem, where I had been studying in a yeshiva. So I moved out of one frying pan and sort of into another frying pan. And like a lot of people in New York at the time, I felt helpless. I was angry and I wanted to do something. And I didn't know what to do. I wasn't going to join the Marine Corps. I get woozy if I stub my toe. So I'm not tough enough for that.
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MARTIN: So it wasn't a good choice for you.
LEVY: That would not have been a good choice. But I had heard of this thing called the Peace Corps. And the more that I read, the more I felt that it was a way for someone with my temperament and my set of values to do service to my country.
MARTIN: I think it's a surprise to many people that Peace Corps volunteers are serving in China. I think we're used to thinking of China now, as kind of a rising economic power, flexing its muscles on the international stage in matters of diplomacy, for example. So I think it is surprising to many people that China accepts Peace Corps volunteers. Was it a surprise to you?
LEVY: It was. And, actually, the word accept is a perfect one to use, Michel. Because one of the things that makes Peace Corps unique is that it only goes where it's invited. So, when China offered the invitation, I think that Washington, D.C. was excited to build a bond in any way possible. Now, of course, we see in the media that it's a rising country - that's a really important story. But there's a billion people in the interior of China who are still living on a couple of dollars a day.
MARTIN: And that's where you went.
LEVY: That's where I went. Yeah. If you dropped your finger right in the middle of a map of China, you're going to hit Guizhou province.
MARTIN: So tell us about Guizhou province. You said it is the poorest province in China.
LEVY: Yes. It's the poorest province in China. As per Peace Corps policy, I was given a stipend that put me right at the average level of my community, which was about $100 a month. Most of my students at Guizhou University came from farming families. Just about all of them were first generation college students. And for most of them, the hope - well, it was more of a dream, really, was to leave the province and to get to the coast where this boom is taking place.
But now it's a few years later, many of them have graduated and it's out of reach. Shanghai, Beijing - it's really out of reach for the average person in China.
MARTIN: And what are the immediate challenges for you? You know what? I'm not going to get into too much detail about the immediate challenge for you when you got there because a lot of it has to do with toileting, so I'll just leave it at that.
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MARTIN: But food was a challenge because you'd been living in Jerusalem, you had been attending yeshiva, it's reasonable to assume you kept kosher.
LEVY: Well, ah. Yes. Yes. Here is the central theme. And this is something that you don't have to go all the way to China to have this problem. If you, Michel, go to dinner, maybe you're vegetarian and it's meat. Maybe you are 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 efforts and just eat it or am I going to bring my own identity into this and push the plate away?
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I really, really struggled with this every day. But what I decided to do was be a good guest. And my definition of being a good guest is to accept what is prepared with grace.
MARTIN: Which was immediately tested.
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LEVY: It was tested every day. I was in a land of, like, pork popsicles. And I got to tell you this - it was delicious.
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MARTIN: OK. I'm really not - the pork isn't what was getting me. It was the millipedes.
LEVY: Yeah. The millipedes.
MARTIN: The millipedes.
LEVY: Well, every day I was having a little bit of an identity crisis. But I really did from the very beginning try to make a commitment to not being the ugly American. And to listening and to learning and to trying to become as much a part of the community as possible. And that's really what Peace Corps asks its volunteers to do. And I don't know when we're supposed to impose our own ideas. I mean, politics included, you know, if we're talking about democracy in China or when I'm just supposed to say thank you, I'll try this. It's not usually what I eat, but I'm going to give it a go.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
I'm speaking with Michael Levy, the author of "Kosher Chinese." It's his memoir about being a Peace Corps volunteer in China.
You learned a lot of interesting things about China in a way that when you came back you realized that many people's perceptions of China as this kind of aggressive, you know, elbows out, my way or the highway is not universal. In fact, that a lot of that is on the edges. In fact, you make this point that one of the officials at the school you were teaching said, if I were to only go to New York and San Francisco, would I really understand the United States?
MARTIN: Which is a powerful insight. So tell us a little bit more about what the difference is between the perception many Americans have of China and the other billion, as you put it.
LEVY: Right. So that was the president of Guizhou University who asked me to call him President Bill because Bill Clinton was his hero, which is a little bit bizarre. But his point was if we only read The New York Times, we're going to understand Shanghai and Beijing. We might understand Tibet and the Dalai Lama. But that leaves out a billion people in the middle and those were the very people that I was getting to know every day.
The other billion are defined by a lot of things. But the part that came up the most for me was a real spiritual emptiness. In the '60s, Chairman Mao did all he could to sort of tear out the spiritual ecosystem or the nervous system. So Buddhist monks were beaten, temples were torn down, sutras were burned. And my students, they've grown up in a China where it's not that oppressive, but they've never been encouraged to think about God or spirituality or religion. They've never had the chance to talk about it.
MARTIN: You write about this. You say one of your students, Jennifer, said, 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. Do you think that's a widespread view?
LEVY: I think that it's very widespread. I think that the big challenge for the Chinese government - and I think that they know this - is actually to rebuild some sort of tradition. And what's interesting is the Chinese government has been promoting Confucianism as a return to Chinese values. So there's Confucian centers being built all over the country.
I don't know what will give Jennifer meaning in her life. But it's depressing to me to see how many of my friends and students in China are really drifting.
MARTIN: You also, though, came to understand a real patriotism that I think many Americans are puzzled by. For example, I think many Americans have this notion that democracy is so great. You know, our way of life is so great. Why doesn't everybody want what we have? What you came to understand is there's a really kind of nuanced view of democracy. It is not what we would think. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
LEVY: When I talk to my students here in the United States and I want them to understand China, I say, 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 one billion peasants. That's China. 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?
I think that thinking of it that way helps me understand why the average Chinese person so values stability and says, what we need is a government that keeps things under control so we can keep growing slowly, maybe even quickly at this point, but so that we can keep growing so that this billion people have something to hope for, because without that hope, chaos is perhaps the result.
MARTIN: So, how does that make you see Tiananmen Square differently?
LEVY: I see it the same way I see the Kent State massacre, which most Americans my age don't even know about. It's ancient history to most Chinese. A couple people, you know, got out of control. The government did what it needed to do to keep things stable and now we've moved on.
MARTIN: Well, what do you think you learned from your Peace Corps experience? And what do you think your students learned from you?
LEVY: I just have a much more global view of the problems that we get so caught up in in a smaller way, and I think that that's a mistake.
MARTIN: And what do you think your students learned from you?
LEVY: I hope that they learned that Americans are not all fat. That Americans are�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.
MARTIN: Michael Levy is the author of the new memoir, "Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion." He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Michael Levy, thanks so much for joining us.
LEVY: Thanks, Michel, I'm a big fan.
MARTIN: And what are you having for lunch?
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LEVY: I'm going to have a bagel.