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The Quest For Kosher Among China's Other Billion

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Tell Me More in will soon observe the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, an event that prompted many Americans toward faith or military service. Educator Michael Levy felt a call to service in a different way – through the Peace Corps. He was sent to Guiyang, a remote village in central China.

He documents that journey, which began in 2005, 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 surprised that China — a country generally regarded as a rising global superpower — even accepts Peace Corps volunteers.

He says Peace Corps is unique because it only goes where it gets invited. “When China offered the invitation, I think Washington D.C. was excited to build a bond any way possible,” adds Levy.

What many Americans may also not realize is that beyond China’s booming economy 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 of a community member is $100 USD per month. That’s the stipend he lived off of as well. Most of Levy’s Guizhou University students came from farming families, were first generation college students, and had dreams of leaving the province for the economically booming coast. But he expresses 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 personally, the main challenge was negotiating when to yield to local customs and become a truly immersed community member...and when to insert his American ideals.

And many of us get a taste of this dilemma when being served food at someone’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?’” Poses Levy.

He says he decided to just accept what people prepared for him – accept it 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 Chinese seem to be left unsatisfied when it comes to spirituality. Levy explains that in the 1960s, 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 have 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 is to rebuild some sort of tradition. So far, it’s choice method to return China to its old values is to construct Confucianism centers nationwide.

Rethinking Politics, Governance And Economics

Levy also came to understand that the Chinese have fervent patriotism that may puzzle many Americans. And he says they consider Tiananmen Square as ancient history.

And when it comes to teaching Americans about the China, Levy tends to tell his students, “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 one billion peasants. That’s China.

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 this billion people can have something to hope for,” he elaborates. Otherwise, it’s chaos, says Levy.

Cultural Exchange Of Ideas

Levy says that after his journey with the Guizhou community, he reads newspapers differently...and that when Americans get caught up in problems in narrow ways, he takes a more global approach to those same 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. To see more, visit

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