This month’s travel book review is Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China’s Other Billion. In 2005 the Peace Corps sent Michael Levy, a kosher adhering follower of Judaism, deep into China’s heartland to teach english to China’s other billion, the ones not in the costal metropolises popularized by the American media. As mythical and suspect as a unicorn, a young Jew in China draws attention and his expertise soon extends beyond english teacher into the resident expert on Judaism, the West, romance and being a local basket ball star. This observant, humorous and often poignant travelog of Levy’s attempts to better understand life in rural Guiyang, China while trying to guide his students through the changing society and westernization of the “New China.” He takes the reader along as he overcomes vast cultural differences to become friends with his students.
Levy’s first encounter in his new home involves several Communist party officials, a bowl of fried millipedes with “angry-looking pincers from both the front and back”, and the host/ husband of the preparer of the dish. Levy in his limited Chinese tries to explain that the insects are not kosher. After several anxious moments one of the party members realizes that he is “like comrade Marx” and “Einstein” (both Jews). The bowl of insects are replaced with steaming meat as his host ponders aloud “why would the CIA send us a Jew?” Some of the humorous situations include struggling to explain the complexities of western life and english terminology, with students who have self-imposed english-language names, a few of which are particularly foul expletives. He becomes the leader of the “Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club” a metaphor for the crazy mishmash of culture and struggles to understand a vastly different and changing land.
While mostly humorous, Levy also captures the lament of older Chinese recognizing the intractability of Chinese teaching methods based on rote learning. During an all night drinking event with government officials (a common affair as most business is done over a lengthy evenings of food and alcohol) an unguarded official ruefully observes, “no Chinese citizen has ever won a Nobel Prize.” This is especially timely given that more and more US school systems are teaching to the requirements of standardized tests. By shifting to a memorization and test taking style of education (the same as Chinese schools), we are limiting our creative edge over the east. Instead of eliminating arts and extra curricular activities we should be engaging them to foster critical thinking and creativity in our schools otherwise when China discovers a way to teach creativity they will surpass us. Ironically enough five years after Levy’s experience, a Chinese national did win for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” and was promptly rewarded with an eleven-year prison sentence.
Kosher Chinese is a revealing look at the dual personalities of a China emerging into the modern world and the everyday students and families finding new ways to cope with the mixed signals this brings.
Safe Travels and good reading,
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