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.

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.