Friday, January 20, 2012

Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion

by Michael Levy

The author recounts his experiences as  an English teacher sponsored by the Peace Corps for two years in China’s heartland, the city of Guiyang in the relatively poor Guizhou province.  Until then a vegetarian who kept a kosher diet, he soon realizes that in order to get the full experience, he will have to eat as his hosts do: fried bugs, maggots, lizard wine, and maybe even dog stew.  Of course, he also adjusts to the culture shock in a variety of other ways, mastering squat toilets, understanding guanxi (arranging favors for influence), working in an education system that favors memorization over interpretation, and maneuvering around (and sometimes slamming up against) the blind assumption that authority grants validity.  It feels like home eventually, though he never joins in the ubiquitous smoking, or that particularly Asian predilection for cruelty to animals (one scene in which Levy confronts a man who is punching a bag of puppies is particularly memorable).

Written in a conversational, easy style, the book highlights all the absurdities of modern Chinese culture, trying to balance between old Communist ideals and the new capitalism.   All of Levy’s references are to pop culture (Jor-El, TRON, Carrie Bradshaw), which grates after a while and makes him seem rather simple at times, but he’s an honest narrator, examining his own assumptions and beliefs and giving real thought to how absurd his own ideals might seem to his Chinese students.  From his student who names herself “Shitty” in English because she likes its sound, to young girls who must leave school and work long days due to a lack of a few dozen dollars, this is a funny, informative, and even touching memoir. 

four stars

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