Two years in the Peace Corps in a remote Chinese city.
Michael Levy's account of two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the remote city of Guizhou is a wonderful book. Levy is a gifted storyteller who thinks seriously about the social and political climate of China while making you laugh out loud. He ponders his identity in China: Is he a symbol of something or a successful English instructor or a "Friendship Jew"? (The Chinese remind him again and again that Marx and Einstein were Jewish.) One cynical teacher tells him that China just takes what it needs from you, and this leads Levy to speculate about his contributions to the people he serves.
And what does China want? Levy's natural affability leads his students and colleagues to confide in him their fears about the future -- and so eloquently! One grad student, influenced by course readings in Eliot and Hemingway, tells him, "I do not like this school, but [my parents] have insisted that I stay. I really don't know who to follow, but I do not trust myself to be my own guide."
The theme emerges among China's young people that in a society without the spirit of Communist self-sacrifice, without spirituality, without tradition, there is a sense of meaningless drift. Deng Xiaoping told his people that "to be rich is glorious," but in today's China, this goal has created a widespread feeling of being left behind. As Levy's departmental supervisor confesses, "Life is always changing. There is no way to understand anything."
Despite frequent moments of anomie, "Kosher Chinese" is a hilarious book, and Levy's opening line sets the tone: "I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable." What do you do when your hosts have prepared a local delicacy -- served in a sugary syrup, no less -- to celebrate your arrival? Levy is determined to adapt to local customs, to be a successful Peace Corps worker, but must this entail an important dinner, some pages later, at Dog Meat King? "Could I cross this culinary Rubicon?"
I laughed at Levy's perplexity here; I laughed when a group of Chinese businessmen waiting for a squat toilet heard him humming "Country Roads" and joined him in song; I laughed throughout Levy's adventures. Move this book to the top of your leisure reading list. You will learn a lot about China through the insightful and amusing narration of a sharp and sometimes geeky guy from Philadelphia.
Levy includes lots of references to the "Star Wars" saga, "Big Love," NBA basketball, boy bands and so on -- the better to comment on China's emulation of the West. Pass the bugs, please.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.CHINA