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The Quest For Kosher Among China’s Other Billion

Filed by KOSU News in Education.
August 3, 2011

The nation will soon observe the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, events that prompted many Americans to explore faith or military service. Educator Michael Levy felt a call to serve in a different way — through the Peace Corps. In 2005, he was sent to Guiyang, a remote village in central China.

He chronicles that journey in his new memoir Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching and Eating with China’s Other Billion.

In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Levy says he was initially surprised that China — a country regarded as a rising global superpower — even accepted Peace Corps volunteers. “One of the things that makes the Peace Corp unique is that it only goes where it’s invited,” says Levy. “When China offered the invitation, I think Washington, D.C., was excited to build a bond any way possible.”

Beyond China’s booming cities lives a massive impoverished community. “There are a billion people in China’s interior who are still living on a few dollars a day. That’s Guizhou province, the poorest province in China,” he says.

Levy reveals that the average income in the community where he volunteered was 100 U.S. dollars per month. That’s the stipend he lived off of as well. Most of Levy’s Guizhou University students were first-generation college students from farming families who had dreams of leaving the province for the economically booming coast. But he explains that the dream is tough to turn into reality, “Shanghai, Beijing — it’s out of reach for the average person in China.”

Keeping Kosher?

For Levy, the main challenge was negotiating when to yield to local customs and become a truly immersed community member … and when to assert his American ideals.

He says it’s the same dilemma many people experience when they’re invited to share a meal at someone else’s house.

“Maybe you’re a vegetarian and it’s meat; maybe you’re Muslim and it’s pork; or Hindu and it’s beef. Whatever it is, there’s always a moment in people’s lives when they have to decide, ‘am I going to be the best guest possible and honor this person’s effort and just eat it? Or am I going to bring my identity into this and push the plate away?’” explains Levy.

He says he decided to just accept what people prepared for him gracefully and even enthusiastically. He admits, “I was in a land of pork popsicles. And I gotta tell you this — it was delicious!”

A Spiritual Void

However, many of the Chinese people whom Levy encountered seemed to be left unsatisfied when it comes to spirituality. Levy recounts that in the 1960s, communist leader Chairman Mao did everything he could to tear down the “spiritual nervous system.” Mao had Buddhist monks physically beaten, temples demolished and sutras burned.

Levy says his students had never been encouraged to think about or discuss God, spirituality or religion.

One of his students, Jennifer, even told him, “You are lucky, because as an American Jew, you have something to believe in. But what can Chinese believe in? We do not have the God. We are losing all of our Chinese days, like Mid-Autumn Festival and Grave Sweeping Day.”

Levy says the Chinese government’s big challenge now is to rebuild some sort of spiritual tradition. So far, its chosen method is to construct Confucianism centers nationwide.

Rethinking Politics, Governance And Economics

Levy also came to understand that the Chinese have fervent patriotism despite the lack of democracy. And he says they consider the 1989 massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square as ancient history.

Now, in his teaching career in the U.S., Levy has unique advice for his American students who want to understand China. “Imagine that there’s a country exactly like the United States. Exactly the same size. It’s got the same cities. It’s got the same number of rich people and poor people. It’s just like us. And now add 1 billion peasants. That’s China,” he says. “If we added a billion peasants to our country, how much would that change our politics? How much would that change our understanding of economics?”

Levy says keeping that perspective helps him understand why the average Chinese person puts such a high value on stability. “They need a government that keeps things under control so they can keep growing … so this billion people can have something to hope for,” he adds. Otherwise, it’s chaos, says Levy.

Learning From One Another

Levy says that after his journey with the Guizhou community, he reads newspapers differently and takes a more global perspective on international issues.

When asked what he hopes he taught the Chinese, Levy responds, “I hope that they learn that Americans are not all fat, not all out to get them, and that there’s a big distinction between what our government does and what an average American wants or believes.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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