Today, Benjamin takes up a spirited memoir.
Mike Levy’s autobiographical work recounts his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in central China from 2005 to 2007. Levy’s engaging writing and wonderful adventures make the book a quick and entertaining read. His tale is amusing, disturbing, heartwarming, and revealing.
Few Americans know much about most of China. What we generally learn is through the Western media and about urban areas. China has large, modern, cosmopolitan cities that make the news as they grow in economic strength, population, and international importance. The majority of the country, however, is rural and less advanced. This is where Levy lives for two years. After a two month crash course in Chinese, the author is shipped off to teach English at the local university in the city of Guiyang. There this Jewish boy from America learns how the other billion Chinese live their lives. During his time in China, Levy plays on a basketball team, teaches English to undergraduate students, leads a graduate seminar on classic American literature, befriends a local peasant family, and, through no fault of his own, becomes the Ann Landers of Guiyang.
As probably the only Jew anyone in Guiyang has ever met, Levy is instantly the full-blown expert on his religion. His social status is raised by the fact that Marx and Einstein were Jewish. Soon his expertise extends far beyond Judaism, as he is asked for input on buying real estate, dating, celebrating Christmas and any topic the people surrounding him feel he has experience with because he is an American. Mike Levy manages to take nearly everything in stride, from squat toilets to uncompromising prejudice. As an outsider he is frequently viewed as a rich information source. At the same time, when his knowledge or advice contradicts what his Chinese friends must believe, Levy finds his opinion dismissed. Levy encounters traditions that include superstition, dedication to communist dogma, acceptance of government propaganda, the desire for a better life, and a resignation to make do with less. He sees both the genuine humanity of the people and their extraordinary contradictions.
Before the end of the book Levy admits he has gone native. He no longer wonders what he is eating. He accepts that often contest winners are predetermined based on their position in the community, not on merit. While he does not always like what he sees, he accepts that people do the best they can with what they have and that is simply how life is for the people of Guiyang.
Kosher Chinese is a wonderful story of exploration, discovery, adventure, and friendship. Fun to read, the book illustrates a part of China that is not frequently seen, yet clearly exists. Anyone interested in learning more about the Chinese people through the humorous and lighthearted writings of a good-natured Peace Corps volunteer will certainly enjoy this memoir.
Check the WRL catalog for Kosher Chinese