Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 7/5/2011
I admit an aversion to reviewing memoir. Why would publishers ever use this disclaimer? The material in this book comes from the memory and notes of the author.
How reliable can the facts in any memoir ever be?
So, I pick up a copy of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching and Eating with China’s Other Billion by Michael Levy.
And, the first line compels me to read on:
I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable.
In this witty memoir, Levy recounts his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Guizhou. The provincial capital, Guiyang, is unknown to many visitors and far from the wealthy coastal cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong and the political center of Beijing.
A vegetarian and observant Jew, Levy struggles to forgo kosher and eat like his omnivore hosts. A curiosity about China and a desire to do good overcome his initial queasiness at sampling culture and living among China’s other billion.
Instead of taking us on a hike through breathtaking scenery, Levy tells us of his ordinary and personal trek through the custom of building relationships and clout, guanxi.
Upon arriving in China, Levy tries to rely on his ancestry to make friends. Communist Party members know that Comrade Marx was himself a Jew. Being American also has its advantages and he soon becomes the expert on matters of romance, real estate and basketball.
Students and colleagues at Guizhou University hold Shabbat club on Friday evenings, so Levy can partake in challah and prayers over wine. But, being a member of the Tribe will only take him so far.
Before he realizes, Levy is consuming twice-fried pork and chicken feet.
“I would eat and drink anything put in front of me on a plate, in a bowl or filling a cup,” he writes.
A quick read on the rituals of the Chinese banquet, he is soon toasting, “Ganbei!” and drinking everyone under the table, including the university’s president, Lu Ping.
President Bill, as he liked to be called by others, pours his drunken heart out to Levy, “You must teach the students to think.” Levy agrees and gets a pat on the back with another glass of Maotai to empty.
Immediate cred for out-drinking the top official at Guizhou University?
From getting his fortune told at Li Mei’s Advice House to avoiding the “Three Ts” in conversation—Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square—Levy learns quickly that relationships in China take precedence over everything else.
Levy navigates the high-stakes testing angst of his students and even deeper identity issues that have sprung from the success of capitalism in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
In search of Parmesan to make pizza, Levy asks a young colleague: “Do you think it is strange that your city has a Walmart next to a statue of Chairman Mao?”
Her curt response: “Walmart is the future, and Chairman Mao is the past.”
Not satisfied with her answer, she explains more openly:
What can he help me do? Can he find me a husband? A better job? Of course not. I realize that just as Chairman Mao cannot inspire me or teach me, neither can capitalism.
Levy steers past cultural obstacles teaching English in Guizhou as well as the chaotic lines at bus stops, clinics and banks. The laws of the jungle rule here and there is no first come, first served etiquette when waiting for service.
“I had grown to love the scrum,” he admits.
Elbowing and kneeing his way past elderly women and children to board a bus:
I was glad I wasn’t wearing my Peace Corps T-shirt.
Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy is a worthwhile read with some amusing yarns that may or may not need fact-checking.
Category: Nonfiction, Memoir