Q&A with Kosher Chinese author Michael Levy
In September 2005, the Peace Corps shipped Michael Levy to Guiyang, the largest city in southern China's relatively rural Guizhou Province. He didn't speak Chinese, but he tried to immerse himself in the culture during his two and a half years there, and while he arrived in Guiyang as a vegetarian who kept kosher, he dropped both to eat more like a local. Levy has since written a memoir about his time in China, Kosher Chinese, and yesterday he talked about the book during an author signing at the Tattered Cover.
Here's what he had to say:
How would you describe your relationship with the people of the community?
My relationship was pretty complex. I was a teacher, friend, colleague -- a Wal-Mart Santa Claus at one point. That was a crazy story [more on that later]. I was on the university basketball team; they sort of recruited me to be the one foreigner on the basketball team. But mostly I was just a member of a community, and I was as immersed as I could be.
Did you ever feel fully involved in the community?
That is kind of the subtext of the title of the book, Kosher Chinese. I really wrestled with my identity as an American, as a Jewish-American, and then as someone who really wanted to learn from that place.
There were moments when I found that I was speaking in Chinese and getting along with all my students and colleagues. There were moments when I thought, "I did it, I'm totally immersed! And there were other moments when I felt like a complete fish out of water."
Could you describe the Wal-Mart Santa Claus episode?
Well, there's a Wal-Mart in Guiyang, and one of my students, her dad was a manager there. He wanted to do a promotion and found out there was a foreigner in town, and he thought that this could be the best promotional event: We can bring Santa Claus to Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve and people can come, look at Santa and shop. They somehow got a costume. I wore the beard and ended up in this Wal-Mart running around the aisles, more or less with people chasing me. It was a really weird event and really fun.
What was eating like in Guiyang?
It was totally delicious. A lot of it was stuff I had never eaten, and when I went to China, I was a vegetarian who kept kosher. But I really wanted to be part of the community, and I knew that food would be a crucial part of being a good guest.
The typical food in Guiyang is sour and spicy. They had some pretty delicious spices, a lot of chicken and pork. I ate like an animal. No, that's the wrong way to put it. I ate everything that was served and I was always happy.
What were some of the dishes you were eating?
My favorite dish was bean hot pot. It's a round table with the center cut out and a big fire in the middle and you put a big pot in it, and you chuck anything you want into this boiling broth. And I would get anything from pig skin to tofu to fish eyes -- stuff Americans would definitely think of as being a little bit out there.
But the difference between the average eating habits of my friends in America versus my friends in China -- or Guiyang, at least -- is that they don't waste anything. Every part of the animal is eaten, and every kind of animal is eaten. In a way, it's almost environmental, since they don't waste anything.