Current read: Kosher Chinese

Kosher Chinese, by Michael Levy, tells the story of his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guiyang, PRC.  Guiyang is in the southern Chinese interior–east of Tibet, northeast of Burma, north of Vietnam.  Even though it’s a city of four million (larger than Seattle), it says a lot about China’s population that I’d never heard of Guiyang before now.  Guiyang has about the same population as New Zealand, and Levy spent two years teaching English in its schools from 2005-2007. I am sort of reviewing Levy’s book, and sort of adding my own observations as influenced by and derived partly from it, so I admit this isn’t a strictly disciplined book review. That’s why it’s free.

You’d figure that a semi-observing American Jew might have an interesting take on a country that doesn’t have many Jews, and as Levy makes clear, understands Judaism mainly through stereotypes.  In fact, the statements Levy reports hearing about Jews jumped out at me early on. If they came out an American mouth, we’d call them anti-Semitic. Racism evidently doesn’t carry the same fundamental stigma in China, and most of the stereotypes recited to Levy about his culture weren’t meant to offend, but put admiringly (which would not excuse them here).

Very good travel/adventure writing, as I see it, tells the story and lets the reader discover the comedy. Levy does a fine job of this. A small example:  some Chinese studying English, lacking a bit of context, are prone to choose English names for themselves that aren’t even actual names. When two female students introduced themselves to Levy as Shitty and Pussy, we got an amusing example. Must have been interesting for him to try and call on them in class with a straight face.  He was able to write about it with a straight face, and I’m not sure I’d have had as much discipline.

The rise of PRC economic muscle hasn’t reached a lot of the population, including areas like Guiyang.  When Maoist semi-socialism became ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ what that meant was ‘all the corruption, none of the safety net.’  Since corruption happens in all types of government, we may interpret ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as ‘capitalism.’ Authoritarian one-party capitalism, of course, but capitalism. Levy gives us a good look at how it’s working, with one’s connections and influence completely trumping merit or need.  If you’re connected and influential, you get taken care of, and you might be able to get rich.  If not, good luck.  I wonder if or when the Chinese will realize how deeply American their system has become; quite ironic when their education presents the U.S. to them as the ultimate exploitative capitalist plutocracy. (I take exception to ‘ultimate.’ )

The whole book was entertaining. If I had to pick the most informative and revealing aspect, it would be the central reason for Levy’s time in Guiyang:  education. The Chinese students Levy taught and spoke with affected (outwardly, at least) to believe everything they read in a textbook. The notion of critical thinking, to doubt or question textbooks or teachers, was more alien to them than Passover. We hear about this in the West, but it’s educational to have some firsthand description. It’s tempting to think that China’s demonstrated proclivity for copying, counterfeiting and imitating (rather than inventing, which was once a signature national quality) has a connection to this concept of education as indoctrination. I’d be wary of asserting it without broader reading, but it’s certainly got me thinking.

I think this book would get most people thinking.  Well worth the read.

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