Q&A With Mike Levy
This book describes a China very different from the one in the news. What do you think are our biggest misconceptions about China?
The president of Guizhou University once asked me if he could understand America if he visited New York City and San Francisco, and then went home. Could you imagine how profoundly skewed his ideas of American politics, food, culture, landscape (etc), would be? But, he told me, this is exactly how Americans view China. He's right, especially for those of us who learn about China from someone like Thomas Friedman, a pundit whose coverage of China is way off. It's as if the billion average Chinese in the middle of the country don't even exist. Guizhou and the surrounding provinces are totally invisible (unless there's a natural disaster or a riot). Kosher Chinese is an attempt to fill in this massive blind spot.
What are our misconceptions? First, there's the religious aspect of life in China. I had more conversations about spirituality in two years in China than in two decades in the U.S. Second, there's politics. Chinese love their government, and for good reason. They have no interest in what we would call democracy. Government, my students often told me, is for the experts in Beijing. They've given three decades of incredible economic growth, after all! At a time when the approval rating of the American Congress is something like 9%, it was amazing to live in a place bristling with unbridled patriotism.
You now teach at a private school in Brooklyn, NY. What are the biggest differences between how American and Chinese children are educated?
On the one hand, the stereotypes can be all too true: Chinese students do, indeed, spend epic amounts of time studying for tests, particularly the gaokao (their version of the SAT). My students in Guiyang spent all of high school cramming for this test, the only factor in their college admissions. That's' 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for four years. My students in Brooklyn might spend 15 minutes a night on the homework I assign; after that, it's off to basketball practice, then play rehearsal, then gchat/texting till bedtime. So you do get the robot-Asian myth coming true, and the distracted, super-social American teen-myth as well.
A lot of Americans are worried that we are losing our competitive edge, and they often point a finger at our school system. Maybe we need more seriousness, more competition, more tests. Maybe we need to be more like China. People who read Kosher Chinese will have a much more three-dimensional understanding of what this would mean—and after teaching in both school systems, I would say the Chinese way is absolutely NOT the answer.
What drove you to join the Peace Corps?
Actually, it was September 11 that was the first impetus. I moved to New York for graduate school on September 1, 2001, and experienced ten days of New York as I had always imagined it. I was in heaven.
I woke up on that fateful Tuesday morning, and ended up watching smoke rise over downtown Manhattan. I remember feeling helpless, frustrated, and confused. I wanted to do something. Joining the Marines wasn't in the cards: I'm a bit too old, and get woozy when I stub my toe. But I am a fairly patriotic guy, and I did want to serve my country. The Peace Corps started making a lot of sense.
The more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me. I would serve. I would express my patriotism in a way that was fully in line with my values. I would help heal my own feelings of political impotence. I started the paperwork about a year later, and not long after that, I was on my way to China.
You ended up with the unlikely nickname "Friendship Jew." What role did you expect your Judaism to play in Guiyang – if any?
I had no idea what I was getting myself into—none. I didn't speak any Chinese when I left, I had never been anywhere in Asia, and I would not have been able to find Guiyang on a map. It was a leap of faith.
I assumed it would be a long time before I spun a dradel or ate kugel, but I really wasn't sure. And it didn't bother me. Guiyang had had a few Americans living in town before Peace Corps arrived, and all of them had been evangelical Christians on covert missions. That sort of work is illegal in western China, but people are only deported for really egregious political-religious acts. (In my time in Guiyang, one American got shipped out for crossing an invisible line).
The result was that most of the folks in Guiyang thought all Americans were right wing Christian missionaries. It was depressing. And a lot of my Chinese friends and students were genuinely scared of religion. It was hardly their fault: all they had ever heard about God came from Communist propaganda or creepy preachers who often doubled as sex-tourists.
Judaism was a sort of neutral way to talk about a lot of things Guiyang needed to talk about: American diversity; non-extremist religious faith; Woody Allen.
Some of the best passages, and times it seems, surround food and meals. What caught you most off guard about eating with China's other billion?
Can I just say that not a day goes by where I don't yearn for food from Guiyang? I really miss it. It's true that it took two months before I could eat a meal without experiencing almost immediate, bowl shaking diarrhea, but once my system acclimated, I was in culinary heaven. It's nothing like American style Chinese food. There's a lot of pork, even more hot pepper, and oceans of vegetable oil. The most popular local snack is called siwawa, or "dead baby." But don't worry—the name has nothing to do with the snack (it's a sort of veggie burrito).
The biggest surprise was the food etiquette. Every meal was like a Passover Seder: talking, laughing, drinking, sharing, and stuffing myself. I really got used to a beer with lunch, and a few shots with dinner.
We are what we eat. I know that now more than ever. And we are how we eat. People in Guiyang ate to build friendships, to show respect, and to grow closer. There were never any prayers said over meals, but it was clearly the most meaningful time of the day for many of my friends.