January 23, 2013

Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy

I'd like to join the Peace Corps someday.  And I had thought that if I did, I would very much like to serve in China.  So this was a good book for me to read, as it brought about some things about volunteering in China that I would never have thought about.  Plus, the author is just downright funny.

Michael Levy decides to join the peace corps and is shipped off to China where he is to be a language teacher.  There, he faces each day with students who are eager to learn, but not in a way he is accustomed to.  And to add to this, he comes from a Jewish background, which makes him a little different than the Americans the Chinese he meets have experienced before.  It makes him an oddity among oddities yet still able to have mostly positive interactions with his community.  Having come down from the strict rules of Mao, they are still finding their way in a new government in which things are very different for them.  But he makes numerous friends and even joins a basketball team.  And while there is some culture shock, he loves the job he is doing and truly enjoys the company of the people he meets (except for the guy who punches puppies).

This book is mostly about the people Michael interacts with.  From businessmen, to his basketball coach to the students, they all are different from him, but he is surprised to learn how different from each other they are as well.  Not only are some of them just trying to make a better life for themselves, they are experiencing new trends in their culture like popular music, the notion of romance, and holidays from other countries.  And while these may seem like silly things to be obsessed with, it's such a difference and such a freedom that wasn't there before that these are big things.  And I like the way he describes everyone as being so enthusiastic about things.  You rarely see someone get that excited for Christmas or pizza here that it's refreshing.  He has a few students that identify with the Communist party but he even describes them as being deeply intelligent with good points on a lot of topics and is fair to them even though their views differ from his own.  Actually that's about the best compliment (although there are many) that I could give Michael; he is exceedingly fair to everyone around him.

This is definitely a memoir and covers the two years that Michael spent in the Peace Corps.  While it made me rethink my China notion because of some of the customs there I might have trouble with (learning to eat dog, contests not being fairly won, not being able to exercise in some parts because of air quality) it still made me realize I want to be a volunteer, no matter where I would end up.  There are so many opportunities and learning experiences and while you may not be lifting people from poor living conditions in every case, you can still do a lot of other things like provide education and cultural understanding.  And sometimes that is just as important.  I do have to say the book was a little fast paced, I could have kept on reading it because I was so enthralled and it ended too soon for me.  Michael is a very funny guy and his humor comes out in his writing.  He isn't afraid to make fun of himself either, which is a very important quality.

A great Peace Corps memoir and one I would highly recommend.  If nothing else it made me aware that if I was to go to China, I need to work on my drinking in order to keep up with their social norms.  Drunk on one wine cooler just isn't going to cut it.  Four and a half stars from this reader for an enjoyable memoir.

Kosher Chinese
Copyright 2011
240 pages

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