On the first day of 2006, I left my bad luck tied to a tree outside a famous shrine in Tokyo.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting rid of, only that when my new friend, Ema, unrolled the tiny fortune and read it, she giggled nervously and said in accented English, “You unlucky this year,” then she pinched the corner of the paper between her thumb and index finger, waved it back and forth and said, “Is very bad, you leave it here.”

Preface – The People Who Are Special, Too

I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable. The particular version I found in my bowl on a warm summer evening in the summer of 2005 was an easy call. There were hundreds of them, red and pink, each about an inch long. They had however many legs it takes to make something “milli” as well as angry-looking pincers from both the front and back. They had been deep fried and were left moist with oil. The dish included long sugar sticks that one could lick and dip into the bowl. The millipedes that stuck would get sucked off the stick in what I had been assured was a delicious combination of sweet and sour. Nevertheless, I demurred.

“I cannot eat this,” I told my host, a middle-aged Communist Party official in a dusty blue jacket. We were two of the dozen or so people who had gathered at the center of Unicorn Hill Village #3—a tiny hamlet of perhaps thirty single-story houses constructed of cinder block and wood—to celebrate my visit and the arrival of the Peace Corps. We were sitting around a low, round table on fourteen-inch-high plastic stools. The millipedes glistened before me in a chipped porcelain bowl. The group stared on in silence as the village leader looked from me to the millipedes and back to me. He had a spindly frame and tanned skin that was drawn taut against his cheekbones. He looked like a Chinese Voldemort.

“Eat the food,” he grunted. His wife had made the millipede dish according to what my guide told me was “a very special recipe of the Bouyei people.” The Bouyei were a tiny, impoverished ethnic group concentrated in the mountains of central China. These were some of the very people the Peace Corps had sent me to live with, learn from, and—in theory—teach. My first meal in the village and I was off to a bad start.

“You can eat this,” my guide said with a nervous smile. “It tastes good.” He demonstrated for me, licking his sugar stick, dipping it in the bowl, and sucking off one particularly hairy millipede. “They’re sweet,” he explained, crunching away happily, “and Americans like sweet things.”

I nodded. “That’s true.” I groped for a polite escape. “But I’m a little different than most Americans.”

This gained me perplexed looks from both my guide and my host.

“I’m a Jew.”
Gasps. Widened eyes. Furrowed brows. Awkward silence. I said this last sentence in Chinese. “Wo shi youtairen.” The phrase, loosely translated, meant “I am a Person Who Is Special, Too.”

Why—oh why—had I said this? This was atheist, Communist China, after all. Didn’t Karl Marx say religion was the “opiate of the masses”? Had I just told my hosts I was a drug addict? And hadn’t Chairman Mao condemned religion as one of the “Four Olds,” a remnant (along with old culture, old habits, and old ideas) of the feudal past the Communist Party sought to destroy? I wondered if the arrest and deportation of a Peace Corps volunteer would make the evening news back home in Philadelphia.

As the silence around the table deepened and my face turned ever-darker shades of red, I marveled at the desperation of my religious mea culpa. I should have known better. I had, after all, already undergone months of Peace Corps training, sweating through seemingly endless hours of language classes, daily safety-and-security lectures, and occasional lessons in cross-cultural sensitivity. All of this, however, had taken place in Chengdu, the wealthy, relatively Americanized capital city of Sichuan Province, which was now a sixteen-hour train ride to the north. Chengdu had McDonald’s, Starbucks, and an IKEA. It was the China of Thomas Friedman and other American pundits touting China’s rise. I was now in Guizhou Province, the desperately poor, rural province in the dead center of China that would be my home for the next two years. Guizhou had . . . millipedes.

I was happy that my training was complete and I was finally on my own. I was happy to be in a part of China I had rarely seen covered in the American media. I was feeling like an authentic, trailblazing Peace Corps volunteer on an Indiana Jones adventure. Unicorn Hill Village #3 was no Temple of Doom, but this was far from my typical dinner.

Dr. Jones played it cool; I was desperate. Embracing my Jewish roots at that particular moment was a foggy-headed attempt to get excused from the table. I had never yearned so powerfully for a bagel.

“Jews can’t eat insects,” I mumbled, my eyes scanning for reactions from the men who surrounded me. “I don’t want to get into it, but there are a lot of rules for us . . .”

The tension seemed to mount until, quite suddenly, the silence was broken by a hoot from my host’s wife. Her cry was followed by smiles from others in the group, pats on my back, and even some applause.

“Comrade Marx was Jewish,” said a man sitting a few paces away from the table, staring at me intensely.

“So was Einstein,” beamed the man to my right, offering me a cigarette.

“You must be very clever,” said my guide, as the bowl of insects was removed from my side of the table, replaced by a dish of steaming meat.

“Why would the CIA send us a Jew?” mumbled Voldemort. I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly, but the raised eyebrow from my guide let me know I had, officially, just been accused of being a spy.

It was all a little bewildering, but I smiled like an idiot, happy to avoid the millipedes. I dug right into the mystery meat, and the men around the table quickly began eating their food as well. There was a toast to my health, then another to my success as a teacher, then another to American-Chinese friendship. We all got good and drunk.

I had passed the test. I was a Jew in the middle of nowhere, China.



Excerpted from Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy
Copyright 2011 by Michael Levy
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Family Truth

By Summer Block

Humor

Occasionally, I am Jewish. I am Jewish when watching Woody Allen movies. I am Jewish at delis and bar mitzvahs and seders and synagogues. I am Jewish when talking to a good-looking Jewish man. But I am never Jewish at Christmas.

What do I mean? It’s simple: my father is Jewish; my mother is not. By any reasonable standard then that means that I, along with my younger sister, am half Jewish. But somewhere along the way, my family simply decided that a mixed marriage meant that half of the children would be Jewish and half not. In other words, I am Jew, and my sister is a Gentile. The most remarkable thing about this conclusion was the ease with which it was accepted by everyone.

The origins of this strange myth are easy enough to trace.  My sister is the less “Jewish-looking” of the pair, with blue eyes that inspired envy in my childhood, fair freckled skin, and a charming Muppet nose. Growing up, her hair was a glittery translucent blonde above near-invisible eyebrows. Though no one would likely mistake me for Middle Eastern, as often happens with my dark-complected father, I do bear some traces of the Semitic – darker, curlier hair, brown eyes, and a nose that, if not prominent, would still be a challenge to fashion out of felt. In temperament, too, I have always been said to favor my father, and as a young child I consciously patterned my behavior on his amiable reserve and dispassionate intellectualism, while my sister shared my mother’s open heart, ready emotions, and inexplicable comfort with hugging. Does all that mean, then, that I am Jewish and my sister is not? Of course not: obviously none of us thinks this is actually true, but still, it’s an amusing thing to believe.

As an adult, I’ve adopted a dubious new schema. Instead of representing the Jewish half of my family, I have simply decided to be Jewish about half the time.When that handsome man asks me if I’m of the tribe, I usually respond by saying “Well, my father is Jewish,” a statement that is technically true but intentionally misleading when spoken by someone who was in fact baptized as a child. In fact, I grew up attending Christian churches—albeit progressive L.A. churches, laid-back, friendly, non-judgmental places that were a lot more about acoustic guitars and drum circles and scruffy beards and singing “Kumbaya” than sending anyone to hell–but churches just the same.

So why do I lie? Some of it, no doubt, is just the desire to appear different, or interesting, or ethnic, probably stemming from my time as the only non-Latino white person in my elementary school, who when everyone else brought tamales and kimchi on Diversity Day had to content herself with scones, a weak alimentary link to a long-ago English past.

But also, I like Judaism, I find it interesting. I like reading about whether or not giraffe meat is kosher, or about mechirah, the part during Passover when you pretend to sell all your dogs to Gentiles. Now I don’t keep kosher or pretend to sell dogs personally, of course, but it’s a great concept just the same.

About ten years ago, my father began listening to the late-night radio hosts Art Bell and George Noory on the 10pm-2am show “Coast to Coast AM” and Whitley Streiber on the weekly “Dreamland” podcast. On these shows, callers report their direct experiences with the dreadful and the fabulous, while self-appointed experts (including a panoply of UFOlogists) opine on the hollow earth, alien implants, reptoids, astral projection, the Planet X, and the “coming global superstorm.” Over time, this harmless habit became a veritable obsession. My father now listens almost every night, then rises the next morning to fill my inbox with emailed links to sites advertising time machines and powerful magnetic healing devices.

Through it all, though, my father has remained as I’ve always known him to be—intelligent, rational, and bemusedly skeptical—but these traits are hard to square with his newfound enthusiasm for the Freedom of Information Act and its promised disclosure of the government’s secret Roswell files.

“Look, Dad,” I said, “I know you think all this alien stuff is funny, but do you actually believe it?”

“I believe it because it’s funny,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, but seriously, do you think all this stuff is true?”

My father looked at me and said, “You know, truth just isn’t that important to me.”

Apparently it’s not all that important to me either.  Anyone who has seen me nod appreciatively at a klezmer concert in July would be surprised to visit my home in December. Because despite any Jewish proclivities, I love Christmas. I love Christmas as much as I’ve ever loved anything, and I love every part of it, from the carols to the gingerbread. I have five labeled tubs of Christmas decorations in storage, and every year I drag them all out, then go buy a tree, design cards, hang wreaths and stockings and mistletoe, bake cookies, and make gifts by hand. I love Christmas—yes—even more than I love pretending to be Jewish.

This year my eighteen-month-old daughter is just beginning to get in on the action; she takes candy out of the Advent calendar, says the word “tree” on command, and kisses all of the Christmas ornaments individually every morning.

Recently one of my friends, a scientist, asked me whether I would tell Beatrice about Santa Claus and flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole when she was older.

Now we are a family that believes in science, in progress, in telling it as it is. We don’t use baby words for bodily functions or tell confusing bird-based myths about sexual practices – but Santa? Hell yes we’ll do Santa. We’ll do Santa like you’ve never seen.

“You don’t think it would be better to tell her the truth?” my friend asked.

“You know,” I told him, “the truth just isn’t that important to me.”

So, David, you recently got back from a long book tour; what were you reading in your downtime on the road? Any book(s) really blowing you away right now?

Have you heard of this book called Shit My Dad Says?  I love it a lot.


What’s making you love this book so much right now?

What do I love about the book? I was talking to Laurie about it tonight, as we walked around Green Lake. I really love how compressed the book is. I love how there is no space between the articulation and the embodiment of the articulation. I love how there are vast reservoirs of feeling beneath Justin’s voice and beneath the father’s aphorisms. The father is legitimately smart, even wise; he’s trying to teach his son that life is only blood and bones. Nothing more and nothing less. The son is trying to express to his father his bottomless love and complex admiration.


I have been aware of Shit My Dad Says as a blog. So there is a book out now also? What are the things about the book that you like? I thought the blog was pretty funny. The blog says they are getting a show on CBS. I wonder if the dad will slowly become aware of his minor celebrity status and become more self-aware, thus spoiling the main source of humor? The massive unselfconsciousness might be polluted?

Yep, there’s a blog posting, and it’s already become a TV show (bad, apparently) and a best-selling book. It sounds too easy–this guy just collecting vulgar wisdoms that his father says, but the book is actually kind of lovely. I love how Justin Halpern writes, and I love the mix between his father’s crazy truth-telling and the son slowly getting it. That is, the title is what it is because the son finally learns to embrace the rude vitality of the father. Also, the book is, to me, hugely about Vietnam—the father was a medic in Vietnam–and to me, based on a single crucial scene, it’s not inconsiderably about the father endlessly processing that violence, that anger. It’s also hugely about being Jewish in America–again, very obliquely, mentioned just once; it’s about the father teaching the son how to be Jewish and male in America, which is a complicated thing.


The blog entries all look like about the length of a Twitter post. Is the book set up that way, too? From what I’ve seen of the blog, the whole thing comes off as a very vulgar, un-PC version of something like La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims or Pascal’s Pensées: raw aphorisms that all seem to have some sort of brutal truth at the core. Does the book layout look at all like the blog–a bunch of 200-character bursts?

Yep. I think each entry is meant to be 140 characters or less: the length of a tweet. I love how it just cuts to the chase. How short all of the sections are–how it tries to have as thin a membrane as possible between author and reader and writer, and I love how it’s essentially a tape recording of the father’s best lines, overdubbed with very brief monologues by the son. To me, it’s almost a model for what writing can be now. It’s not great or even good, probably, really, finally, but above all it’s not boring. Which is everything to me. I compare it to the excerpt in the NYer recently of Franzen’s new novel. I couldn’t read past the first paragraph’s high-church sonorities, which have zero to do with life now lived.


The analogy of the tape recording of the father with color commentary by the son is a good one. I like that sort of double-layered narrative. It almost sounds like what I love about a really well-done sports broadcast. You have the main voice calling out all the detail as it happens, and then you have the color-commentator adding a less specific, wider view on events.

That’s a great analogy, but I’d change it more to the father is the action on the field, then the son is the announcer trying to explain it, analyze it, get it.


So are you seeing Halpern’s book as a pretty much flawless work?

The only mistake in the book is the last ten pages, and it’s a serious one. The mask comes off, and everything goes badly sentimental.

Till then I love the book.


That is interesting about the last 10 pages. I wonder why Halpern makes the sudden change at the end? Is it because he felt that a book needs a “book-ish” ending? Or maybe it was editorial advice?

It’s a terrible move. Almost certainly derived from editorial advice.  In many ways it ruins the book, as does the sit-com.


Do you think Shit My Dad Says could be a glimpse of a new form of book born out of the Myspace/Facebook/Twitter realm? Halpern’s instinct was to make a blog first. The book seems to be a secondary recasting of the blog. Before this conversation I didn’t know it was a book. To me it was a blog people kept telling me about.

I do think it suggests that you can be living as an unemployed screenwriter in San Diego and six months later you’re a best-selling writer. I love that.


Do you think Halpern put the book together by harvesting and editing down the blog posts that had built up over a stretch of time? Or was the blog part of a more deliberate plan, and the book was always the end goal? For some reason I find the latter scenario more artistically appealing, maybe because it starts to feel more like organic folk art. Also, do you think a book like this shows that the social networking, web-log impulse can lead to good literature?

I definitely don’t see it as a deliberate plan. If it is, I’ll kill myself. Can social networking, blogging generate great books? On very rare occasions such as this, yes. Justin Halpern has said that he was collecting notes for a screenplay, then of course the notes became tweets, tweets became blog, website, book, etc. That’s crucial for me: the notes for the book are the book, are the better version of the book than any too-considered book.


As I mentioned above, I find it interesting that I was told about Shit My Dad Says by a handful of people, but always in terms of it being a blog I should check out. It might be because the book has been out only a few weeks. But it makes me think about the fact that in the course of everyday discourse at work and in conversations with friends, I’m almost always being urged to check out blogs, YouTube videos, the odd TV show episode or movie now and then, and sometimes podcasts. Books are probably the furthest down on that list. Books don’t seem to occupy the “fun zone” (for lack of a better term). The word-of-mouth recommendations I get from friends are usually some sort of oral endorsement about how great something is and how I really need to have a look because I am missing out on the fun. That is how I found out about Shit My Dad Says. Someone said, “Have you ever read [the blog] Shit My Dad Says? It’s hilarious. This kid just records all the crazy stuff his dad says, and his dad says some real messed-up stuff.”  I’ll wager a million dollars that I’ll never have one of these folks come up to me and say, “Hey, have you heard of this book Shit My Dad Says? It’s great.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems far less likely to happen.

I think that’s crucial. The book as object is, as you say, not part of the “fun zone.” Book culture is dead. Books, if they want to survive, need to figure out how to coexist with contemporary culture and catalyze the same energies for literary purposes. That’s what I try to do. Those are the books I love, read, teach, and try to write. Eg, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries, David Markson’s This is Not a Novel, Leonard Michaels’s “Journal.” They’re all more literary versions of Shit My Day Says, but they all have that cut-to-the-bone, cut-to-the-chase quality. “This is how we write now.” At least it’s how I write and read now.


It just seems that 20-something and 30-something people I am in contact with are much more open to a new reading experience when it is a blog. I know there have got to be a hundred complex reasons as to why that is, but none of them change the fact that these folks, these non-literature-heads are reading. They haven’t stopped reading; they just don’t get as excited about the book form. I wonder if this is because the blog form is so much easier, immediate, low-time-commitment, non-homework-ish, and of course free?

Crucial for me are the immediacy, the relative lack of scrim between writer and reader, the promised delivery of unmediated reality, the pseudo-artlessness, the nakedness, the comedy, the real feeling hidden 10 fathoms deep.


I think for the most part we can rule out cost as a factor, because these same people don’t hesitate to buy a CD even if they could download it, if the spirit moves them enough or if the artwork is cool enough or if the significance of the release is high enough. I think the reason for these media habits has more to do with low time commitment, and also the feeling that with a blog they are getting something “rawer,” more unfiltered, more direct from writer to reader.

That’s so much what I argue, of course, throughout Reality Hunger. For instance, this new book about David Foster Wallace, called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. David Lipsky spent a couple of weeks with Wallace 14 years ago, then 13 years later he went back and excavated the notes. The book pretends to be just a compilation of notes, and maybe that’s all it is, but to me–this might be way too generous of a reading–it’s a meditation on two sensibilities: desperate art and pure commerce. Lipsky, I hope, knows what he’s doing: evoking himself as the very quintessence of everything Wallace despised.


I don’t think that these media-use habits that we’re talking about mean the book is obsolete. I think it means that we as writers are somehow missing a new element. It could be that a book is just less inherently immediate and raw because it has to go through the old-fashioned labyrinth of the publishing industry, and even when the book is printed and ready to go, you have to either go down to a store to get it, or have it shipped to you via Amazon. But I think this is a constraint that we writers can work around. I think it’s just a challenge for us–to give the book that “live” feel, that up-to-date, awake, aware, instant feel. There will always be a place for, say, the traditional novel that is read on the beach on vacation or chapter by chapter at bedtime for a month as a means of entertainment and escape. But there is this whole other, newer form of reading that most books being published today don’t have an answer for. Even achieving a happy medium between the new and old reading experience would be a great breakthrough. To me a book like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets has that sizzle on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. It’s boiled down to the bare elements, stripped down to just the basic notes (in both senses of the word).

That’s what I’m aiming for. The paragraph-by-paragraph sizzle is everything to me. Fusselman, Gray, Michaels, Nelson, to take just a few examples—-these books books have an extraordinarily artful “artlessness” that is to me crucial to contemporary art.


I have been taking notes and collecting quotes for nearly 2 years, all for this future book that I hope will materialize at some point. But every time I attempt to turn the notes into the book, I hate the results. It also doesn’t hurt that I love all these books, like The Pharmacist’s Mate, that are collections of scraps laid out in a pleasing manner. I think my love of this sort of structural style definitely nudges me towards the notes staying notes, or you could say “the book” staying notes. Really what I have built is a database of little meditations, riffs, metaphors, and quotations. I even find my notes on how the book should be structured to be full of energy, because it is an outline of my massive aspirations for the book, most of which I have no hope of actually pulling off. It almost feels like my book wants to be about the planning of a book. A hypothetical literature that can’t exist under earth’s current gravity. So, yes, I am with you all the way regarding your interest in these sorts of books.

The notes are the book, I promise you.