Michael Levy. Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. New York: Henry Holt Company, 2011. 256 pages.
China’s burgeoning middle class and growing economic power is all over the news these days. But there’s more–about a billion people more–to the large Asian country than Beijing and Shanghai. IN KOSHER CHINESE, Michael Levy shares insights into “China’s other billion” gleaned during a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English at Guizhou University, an undistinguished university in a glamourless city smack dab in the middle of the Chinese version of the Great Flyover.
Levy’s a fun and insightful narrator. He does a great job of depicting the culture shock of arriving in China; a kindly grey-haired woman sitting next to him on his Beijing-Chengdu flight offers him one of her spicy chicken feet. He declines, she belches politely, and later “smiled and spit out a chicken talon.” That’s not exactly the kind of fast food you’ll see riding SEPTA. He walks the fine line between devolving into out-and-out farce when describing some of his students’ initial difficulty with English and the Chinese twists on American popular culture and being overly serious. It helps that the book’s chock full of pop culture references that give the American reader something familiar as an occasional touchstone.
In a part of China where any Westerner is a curiosity, Levy is a double attraction; initially unsure how his hosts will react to his being Jewish, he finds it actually puts him in high regard, since both Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, as his hosts continually remind him, are Jewish. He even takes part in a student club that meets Friday nights to explore Jewish cuisine and culture.
Levy tackles many important subjects in this memoir, including US/China relations, the fish-out-of-water experience of a Peace Corps Volunteer, and life in central China, but to me the center of the book was China’s underlying identity crisis. As several of his students point out, China’s in a precarious predicament: cut loose from the “iron rice bowl” of Maoism that stifled opportunity (to put it mildly) but provided security, and unmoored in a society that now values accumulation but isn’t quite laissez faire or politically free. Though China’s more prosperous than it was, many of his students feel a great lack of something–direction, meaning–in their lives.
In KOSHER CHINESE, Levy does a good job of sharing his experiences teaching and living in central China. It’s a book that’s sure to teach all readers something. I’d particularly recommend it for those who might be interested in serving in the Peace Corps or doing a similar stint themselves, and those curious about China, even from just a business perspective.