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 11th 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 

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

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.

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MICHAEL LEVY is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion (Henry Holt, July, 2011), a memoir about his experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in western China. Mike is currently teaching at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, New York. He returns frequently to China to check in on his students and visit the basketball courts where he momentarily attained stardom. While in the United States, he keeps strictly kosher. While in China, he eats anything with four legs except the table.

One response to “Michael Levy: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. I can’t wait to read your book. It sounds fascinating. I particularly enjoyed your comments above about American (and add to that the rest of the world) perceptions of China. It’s true – nobody outside China seems to have any fucking idea about this place. I didn’t before I came here, and I like to think I’m a little open-minded. It’s just a beautiful country and every day is a learning experience.

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