July 5, 2011
Fried millipedes and life in China
The best way to tell if a city has a sizable Jewish population, as my father used to say, is by the number of good Chinese restaurants.
The same cannot be said of China itself, of course, which has a billion Chinese but hardly enough Jews to make a minyan. Still, the undeniable affinity between the Chinese people and the Jewish people is very much in evidence in “Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China’s Other Billion” (Holt: $15) by Michael Levy, a funny, endearing and fascinating account of his sojourn in China, where he quickly earned the nickname “the Friendship Jew.”
The Peace Corps sent Levy to China in 2005 to teach English in the city of Guiyang. From the outset, as we learn in Levy’s utterly winning book, he suffered a kind of continuous culture shock. When he was offered a bowl of deep-fried millipedes, it was less a matter of kashrut than visceral revulsion that put him off — “I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable” — but he played the kosher card: “I’m a little different than most Americans,” he demurred. “I’m a Jew.” He quickly discovered that his Jewish identity had some interesting resonances in a communist country.
“Comrade Marx was a Jew,” said one of his hosts. “So was Einstein,” said another. And a third man observed: “Why would the CIA send us a Jew?”
When Levy dreamed of China, he confesses, he dreamed of “rice paddies and kung fu, egg rolls and Chairman Mao.” When he landed in Chengdu, what he found was a “an unregulated,
crony-capitalist dream, generating a thick, pore-clogging smog,” a totalitarian country where some 40,000 full-time Internet censors are at work to maintain “the Great Firewall of China,” and a place where one quickly needed to master the niceties of the “squat toilet.” He is soon eating pork dumplings, which represents a compromise of his vegetarianism rather than his Judaism, and when he eyes the tantalizing hemline of one of his fellow teachers, he writes, “I had unkosher thoughts.”
Levy allows us to understand the twists and turns that both separate and unite America and China. A communist official tells him, “Chinese women want to ‘become white like Michael Jackson.’ ” The town where he is assigned to teach, he discovers, has not one, but two Walmarts. On his first day of class, his students debate among themselves whether he is a “foreigner” or a “foreign devil.” When asked to choose English names to use in class, one student calls herself by the colloquial English word for a young cat, which occasions a frank discussion of American euphemisms and their Chinese equivalents; the young woman eventually chooses a synonym: “Kitten.”
He is quickly recruited to serve as leader of the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, which serves as an occasion for some lively cultural exchanges, some highly inventive culinary adventures and much practice at what he calls “Crazy English.” He joins a basketball team and learns how the hot-button issue of Taiwan can affect the world of sports. He is much sought after for advice on everything from relationships to real estate, and for information on all aspects of being American and being Jewish. Indeed, the fact that he is Jewish is a matter of intense interest among his Chinese acquaintances, which helps to explain why one best-selling book in China is titled “Jewish People’s Secrets for Success.”
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Levy is playing for laughs or if his experiences in China were as comical as he makes them out to be, but there are plenty of moments of laugh-out-loud humor in “Kosher Chinese.” Levy is still working as a schoolteacher, but he would make a gifted sitcom writer. When asked to describe how Christmas is celebrated in America, for example, he tells his students how American Jews engage in “the yearly ritual of spending Christmas Eve in a Chinese restaurant.”
“Is that because Comrade Marx was Jewish, and China upholds his belief?” asks one Chinese student.
“No,” answers Levy. “It’s because everything else is closed.”
Thus does Levy earn his nickname, “Friendship Jew.” Indeed, he succeeds in charming the reader just as he charmed his friends, colleagues and students in China. “We Chinese cannot trust a person until we have been drunk with them,” one young man tells Levy. “It’s only after much drinking that we can see each other’s true minds.” That’s exactly how I felt about Michael Levy after the pleasurable and sometimes uproarious experience of seeing China through his eyes.