NEW YORK (Reuters) - Galvanized by the September 11 attacks on the United States, Michael Levy joined the Peace Corps and found himself on a plane for central China.
His misconceptions about Chinese people, and his vegetarianism, fell by the wayside as he labored to learn the local dialect and stay open-minded when asked to try unusual foods such as millipedes.
Levy also struggled to navigate the region’s tricky politics, which affected every aspect of life from singing contests to basketball games.
In the new memoir, “Kosher Chinese”, he explores the lighter side of his years in Guiyang, such as eating dog and fighting his way onto crowded buses. On a more serious note, he examines disturbing stereotypes and some reasons behind China’s patriotism and national pride.
Now a history teacher in Brooklyn, Levy spoke with Reuters about being the only Jewish person in the province, some embarrassing language mistakes and what he learned about his assumed Chinese name.
Q: Why did you name your book Kosher Chinese?
A: “Boy, was that a process. The title is trying to express all the strange juxtapositions that I experienced — a tall white guy in western China ... a Jewish guy in a place where they’ve only met missionary Christians ...
“The place these conversations took place was the dinner table. And often (these discussions centered around) food. So the title is about bringing all that together.”
Q: When you returned to the States, did you begin keeping Kosher again?
A: “I’m such a lapsed Jew. Food is such an important part of life and it’s a journey. Right now, I’m in this state of flux. People get so freaked out by some of the stuff that is eaten in China, and to me it’s not that big a deal.”
Q: Except for a dog-meat incident — didn’t you have a fainting spell?
A: “Right now, I could say it doesn’t faze me, and that is so horrible to my mom. She really gets uncomfortable when I say that. She has three dogs. I have a dog. I’m a dog lover. I guess I’m also a chicken lover or a pig lover. I love animals and I still eat them. I haven’t figured out what I should do with my diet, but I really do think it matters.”
Q: What other issues did you face in China?
A: “China was a real challenge as a Jew. Many of the most important Jewish prayers need 10 people, or 10 men if you’re Orthodox. I was the only Jew in the province, so it was spiritually lonely. Coming back to the States I’ve been happy to be back in places where there is a Jewish community. And yet I’m still going to Chinese restaurants and eating pork ... I’m having an identity crisis.”
Q: Your students took English names like Jennifer. Did you take a Chinese name?
A: “Levy pretty easily becomes Li in Chinese (and I thought,) ‘I know a Li because I’ve studied a little Chinese history.’ So, I said to my Chinese teacher, ‘Would you name me Li Lisan?’
“I was very proud of that name. Finally I started to learn more about this person whose name I had adopted. And I learned that he was verboten. He was thrown out of the party. He was a radical. Chairman Mao hated him. And that was my name!
“It was like naming yourself Benedict Arnold in English. But everyone was forgiving. They were just happy that I was trying to immerse myself in Chinese culture.”
A: Were there other funny language mix-ups?
Q: “I really wanted to learn the slang. I didn’t learn perfect Mandarin. I learned the dialect. That made for great conversations with every type of person - ‘Oh, you know the local dialect! That’s so cool!’ But I would screw it up sometimes.
“One time I was eating hot pot with a bunch of my friends and I tried to order meat balls. I took the word for ‘meat’ from one sentence that I knew and ‘ball’ from another sentence and put them together and created the slang for breasts.
“And, you know, that’s a little awkward, especially when you’re sitting around with colleagues and they’re laughing and the waitress is running away red in the face.”
Reporting by Chelsea Emery; editing by Patricia Reaney