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

by Michael Levy

Henry  Holt & Company | 2011 | 240 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

book cover

Fun and Games in China

Most HR people will tell you that one of the most difficult tasks we encounter is the one assigned to me (“You’re HR; you do it!”) back in 1985: to tell an employee that she has B.O.  This was not a mild case either – fellow employees insisted they could not work in the same room.  They couldn’t breathe.  They suggested to me that maybe it was her exotic diet, too much curry in her food, and did those people really bathe as often as Americans?  Oy vey, I thought, I better intervene before this turns into an international incident or, more likely, a human rights discrimination case.

I brought the young lady into my office and asked casually about her morning routine.  I suggested that a morning shower was a good idea.  I inquired about her commute.  Well, she told me she took the train to our Long Island town and then proceeded to walk the two or three miles to the office.  Aha!  Eureka!  So I had the cause – perhaps – now to communicate as delicately as possible what the problem was.  I don’t remember my exact words all these years later, but I remember her exact words:  “I don’t get it.” 

All I could think was how many different ways are there to tell someone they stink?!  I prayed – not for the last time in my career – for the floor under my desk to open up and swallow me.  I looked at the floor and saw that wasn’t going to happen.  I started in again.

I was reminded of this incident on page 55 of Kosher Chinese when Mike Levy, Peace Corps Volunteer in rural China in 2005, is faced with telling a sweet college student why the English name she has chosen for herself – Pussy – is not a great choice.  She doesn’t get it either and the resulting conversation is laugh-out-loud funny.  And then he’s confronted with Moron and Shitty, who insists she likes the sound of her name.

At this point in the book, I was hopeful – could Mike Levy be another Bill Bryson?  Only A Walk in the Woods gets me hysterical, giggling and snorting no matter where I happen to be reading.  But alas –

Mike is a genial narrator who shares his two years in Guiyang with us.  He’s 29, has taught in the U.S. and now is assigned to teaching ESL classes to both undergrads and graduate students.  He’s tall, reasonably athletic and willing so he’s drafted onto the basketball team.  He’s curious so he wanders into a village of Chinese ethnic minorities, deemed “dangerous,” and makes the acquaintance of some adorable elementary school students whose lives he tries to enrich.  And finally, because he’s Jewish, secular but observant of kosher rules, he creates a Friday night ritual with some of his students whose knowledge of Jews does not extend beyond Einstein and Marx.

Mike determines to open up the minds of his students, get them talking freely.  He immerses himself in local culture, overcoming his squeamishness, meeting his students more than halfway, eventually digging into delicacies like fried insects, dog meat and (ready for this?) deer cock wine.  They are patient with him, explaining that China now practices “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” though most of them are not completely sure what this entails.  Sadly, they realize that they have very limited prospects, living in a rural area rather than in Beijing or Shanghai.  More than one professes to feeling extremely lost in today’s society and turn to him for counsel on matters ranging from real estate to love matches.

Often Mike corrects his students on factual detail: No, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is not Jewish.  But they won’t brook correction; the standard reply is, “We read it in a book.”  Just when he starts to feel superior about American culture, they point out some of the hypocrisies as they see them: American capitalism is all about power and money, the power is in the hands of the corporations and the rich, voting is not important because George Bush can’t run for another term anyway so there is nothing to hold him to the law.  We see the immense gulf in understanding and communicating.  “Every explanation required a definition; every definition required a history lesson; every history lesson required an interpretation. Why didn’t’ the FBI follow the law?  What was the law?  What did the Patriot Act actually say?  Was it constitutional?   There wasn’t time to give Shitty a lesson on the separation of powers, or tell Kitten about Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.” Anyone who has ever traveled abroad and interacted with the natives has experienced this kind of culture gap though here it is more pronounced than usual. 

This book is deceptively simple, a good read, charming and funny, but also one that gives the reader much to mull over.  This reader wished for a bit more in the way of confidences: Mike tells us he’s attracted to a few women, actually lusts after them, but never mentions whether, in two years, he has any romantic adventures.  Surely, that would have added to an understanding of the Chinese culture! 

So we’re to believe that teaching and playing basketball and drinking great quantities of liquor, a social necessity, are enough to keep him happy.  I didn’t buy it.  Something’s missing from this story and it detracts from the whole.   He’s a red-blooded American male in his prime – he needed to at least comment on his lack of romance, if that’s what it was. 

Another quibble:  the title!  It’s really silly and attention getting, but a misleading distraction.  An East Coast middle-class American lands in an alien landscape and finds he has as much to learn about their way of thinking as he has to teach them about his own.  By his own admission, he’s a secular Jew, a sometime agnostic who enjoys the rituals and traditions of Judaism – ok, but so what?  Would his experiences have been that different if he had been a Christian from Kansas?  Fuhgettaboutit!  Mike, next time, give us some juicy details so we can really understand the East-West divide!

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