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.

Lowest common denominator might be an important mathematical concept, but as a human intelligence leveler, it’s kind of gross. Warning labels on products are one thing—if telling a person not to eat bleach is going to save that person’s life, then I guess we need to do that. But do we need to explain EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE as if EVERYONE is a bleach-eater?

For instance, voicemail: how long have we had that? Decades? And before that, we had answering machines. And before that we had secretaries and answering services and post-it notes and “While You Were Out” pads and scraps of paper ripped from a page in the back of the TV Guide (remember when we still read the TV Guide?!) that you could write a name and number on and stick to the refrigerator door with a magnet. Essentially, there are no longer any living humans who know how to use a telephone but are also at a loss for what to do when there’s no answer.

So how come we have to wait for some computer asshole to explain it, step-by-step, EVERY TIME?

The person you are trying to reach is not available to answer the call.

Yeah, I know, lady. Zip it and get to the beep, already.

Please leave a message after the tone…

Who still needs this? As a people, we’re on top of this, right? I mean, we’re not afraid someone might panic and hurt themselves, like, “Oh, shit! I think Andy’s dead! His phone just rings and rings, and then nothing! Do you think something terrible has happened?! OR, what if this is all a dream? WHAT IF I’M THE DEAD ONE??! Someone help! AN-DEEEEEEE!!!”

When you are finished with your message, hang up…

Are you fucking kidding me?

Or press 1 for more options…

Really? How many more options do I need? I mean, it’s the twenty-first-fucking-century, man. We’ve got pretty much all of our bases covered. Dogs and monkeys have flown to the moon. Women give birth to fourteen babies at a time. We’ve got text, email, and GPS tracking with us everywhere we go, always! What fucking MORE OPTIONS could you possibly offer me? Text my phone number? Why?! So we can pretend we have BEEPERS? No, thanks. I’m all set.

I’m just saying, no one is going to die from not knowing how voicemail works.

You know what else isn’t hard to figure out? Eating food. And yet, we’re still explaining it to folks. I once had a copywriting assignment for a 3” sticker, explaining that a particular sandwich was microwavable. But they didn’t just want a simple “Heat me!” blurb.

We need it to specifically tell them to use the microwave.

As opposed to just holding it up to the sun?

We need something that literally tells them to take the sandwich TO the microwave, put it inside, heat it, then eat it.

Because they may see the sandwich, the microwave, the sticker that says “Microwave me!” and still be confused?


Seriously? Is there someone alive who thinks, “I’ll just throw this sandwich in the general direction of that heat-box and it’ll warm itself up. Wait, what? I have to physically move from here to the counter? Using my arms and legs?!! I have to put it INSIDE the oven to heat it? This is SO confusing! If only there was a User’s Manual or a diagram or something. What am I, some sort of Einstein over here? I don’t have a degree in physics! I don’t know how heat works! I thought maybe I could just pick the microwave up, bring it over to this aisle and SHOW IT to my sandwich—just threaten the shit out of my food until it gets hot. Why can’t I do that? I thought this was a CONVENIENCE store!!!!”

To answer my own question, no—there is no one alive who thinks that. And if someone really is that stupid, DOES HE EVEN DESERVE TO EAT OUR FOOD? I mean, shouldn’t we conserve resources for someone who can convert that food into productive energy? Why am I creating the Encyclopedia of Heating a Sandwich over here, when this goober is wasting oxygen, willy-nilly? I can’t figure the math on how a person that needs to be told to walk over to a microwave in order to use it isn’t too dumb to figure out chewing and swallowing without explicit instructions.

Oh, that’s probably a good idea. Do you think we could fit that on the sticker?

Look, I’ve worked retail—I know people, in general, can be extra lazy and stupid when they want to be. But pandering to that absence of brainpower is such a chore. Imagine if we just DIDN’T DO THAT. Imagine if we forced people to pick up the pace and evolve, already. I’m willing to bet that phone calls would somehow still be returned, that sandwiches would still be warmed, and that shows like According to Jim would never, ever get aired. If we spent less time explaining how shampoo and airplane seat belts work we’d have more time for napping and not watching reruns of According to Jim. If we could just all agree that wet bridges are slippery, that black socks shouldn’t be washed with white shirts, that we won’t leave poop where we walk and that Jim Belushi is terrible, we would have so much more time at our disposal—time to solve real problems like hunger and the deficit and where to bury Jim Belushi’s murdered corpse.

Maybe it’s unfair for me to discriminate against those who are not as quick, but it’s not like I’m especially gifted. Even at my stupidest, I’ve never once needed to be told how to cook canned peas (TAKE THEM OUT OF THE CAN FIRST, I’M PRETTY SURE). Dummies have a whole series of books (haha! books!) dedicated to their needs. Let’s stop giving them EVERYTHING.

Instead, let’s take back Dummy Territory and replace it with some information that’s actually helpful. Like, instead of heating instructions, that sandwich sticker could just say, “RETHINK BANGS (it may not be the best look for you).” Maybe instead of “Wash with like colors,” that tag on your shirt could explain the benefits of a Money Market savings account. Or perhaps that lady voicemail robot could warn you that “Greg is going to tell EVERYONE how far you let him get tonight.”

You know, real useful shit.

It’s just a suggestion. I’m happy to discuss it further if you want to give me a call. If I don’t answer, you know what to do (tell Greg to keep his fucking mouth shut).

DISCLAIMER: If one is to set out on a Einsteinian quest for a unified theory of the first-person singular, one must be mindful that the good professor failed in his attempt to develop a unified theory of the nature of the physical (read: physics). That an effort to theoretically unify the first-person singular should somehow escape a similar fate is an unlikely and remote possibility. (Some might say, a folly.) Let the pilgrim be forewarned.

Despite my titanium hip, and the foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this 55 year-old aging-athlete’s body, I (still) like walking. It does not escape me that my ancestors trekked from the savanna plains of Africa over 100,000 years ago and never stopped. It comforts me that, as a species, we have walked virtually everywhere, planting our feet on most every single spot planet earth has to offer.  It comforts me too, that despite the automobile and the jet, the boat and the train, our first inclination is to get up and walk. I do not take walking for granted. Over the years I have occasionally been in traction, on crutches, in pain or in some other way disposed of my ability to walk. When this has happened, I pretend that I will never walk again. I do this, like thinking of sickness when I am perfectly healthy, as a way to remind myself not to take walking for granted. (This is not unlike the Buddhist practice of going to the cemetery to remind oneself that one day it will all come to an end.) There are a lot of people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this.