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Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion Paperback – July 5, 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this lively memoir of serving in the Peace Corps in Guiyang, China, Levy explores a society in flux—while mining the entertaining if familiar terrain of cross-cultural misunderstandings. He struggles to explain English terminology to students who unknowingly translate their names into expletives, is coerced into eating the specialty at Dog Meat King, and finds that the community distrusts him not merely because he is American, but because he is Jewish. But Levy turns his perceived otherness to his advantage, earning the nickname "Friendship Jew" and being tapped to lead a student organization, the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, a rare extracurricular activity in a culture Levy finds devoid of such opportunities. "There were no glee clubs, school newspapers, yearbooks... expressions of creativity were mere distractions, as was critical thinking." Pop culture references abound: Sex and the City, Star Wars, The Matrix are all name checked as if to suggest that Levy is grasping for familiarity in a foreign land, but their ubiquity becomes tiresome. Humor works best when Levy uses them to point to matters of deeper significance, such as the Westernization of China. As one of the local teachers encapsulates it, "Wal-Mart is the future, and Chairman Mao is the past." Interested readers would do well to check out Peter Hessler's Peace Corps memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. (July)
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Review

“A funny and informative account of life in Guizhou province, deep in the heart of China. As a Peace Corps volunteer, Michael Levy came to know and love a part of the country that few visitors see, a world away from Beijing and Shanghai.” ―Peter Hessler, author of River Town and Oracle Bones

“As a Peace Corps volunteer, Michael Levy taught for two years in a corner of China overlooked by tourists and correspondents. Kosher Chinese is a heartfelt, engaging memoir that captures at once the poignancy and humor of daily life in the new China. Levy's narrative balances his own acclimation to China with his students' acclimation to university life, and independence. This is what it feels like to be immersed behind the headlines--for Levy, it came to feel like home.” ―Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

“Michael Levy is the tour guide to the real China we all long for. Funny, insightful, full of warmth and wit, Kosher Chinese brims with interesting characters and scenes, and it marks the debut of a fresh new voice in American writing.” ―Bruce Feiler, author of Walking the Bible and The Council of Dads

“With intelligence and zesty good humor, Levy tells the story of his sojourn as an ESL teacher in Guiyang… A rollicking, thoroughly refreshing debut.” ―Kirkus

“As in Peter Hessler's River Town…and Peter J. Vernezze's Socrates in Sichuan…, Peace Corps experience is the inspiration for Levy's cheekier and freewheeling but insightful adventure story.” ―Library Journal

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Original edition (July 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805091963
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805091960
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #263,370 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a memoir of an American who travelled to Asia to teach English. I've done two tours of this duty myself and am always happy to have the chance to compare notes with another veteran. (I haven't lived in Seoul in years; it's mostly laziness that keeps me from updating my hometown on here, but a small part of my heart is still there, and it beat quite strongly as I read this book.)

The gold standard for such a book is River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.) by Peter Hessler, who has contributed a blurb endorsing this book to the promotional material. (Hessler journeyed into the interior of China with the Peace Corps in the mid-90s; Levy did so a decade later, and while the two volunteers did not serve in the same regionk a side-by-side comparison of the authors' experiences is a useful way to track China's rural development in the intervening years.) It's a tearfully poignant tale of cross-cultural friendship and a chronicling of an ancient society in transition.

As for this book, the rather flip title and especially the kitschy cover illustration had me worried that this would read more like a cheap parody. But one shouldn't judge a book by its cover; it wasn't long before I realized that Kosher Chinese is, both intellectually and emotionally, every bit the equal of River Town. And that's high praise indeed.

The book strikes a slightly goofy tone, especially in the opening chapters, but that's only because the author is faithfully recounting his first impressions of a new culture; and when one is making the acquaintance of a society quite different from one's own, there are many times when one must simply bow to the absurd.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Much in the tradition of "Iron and Silk", Michael Levy has written a very good first hand account of teaching English in China. Through his stories and the people he meets, the reader gets a good sense of what modern China is like. I liked the fact that the book focused on a part of China that is not the eastern 1/3 that we always here about. Shanghai and Beijing are very different from the rest of China. The book is funny too. For me, having travelled to China, I liked that the author talked about how there are no such things as a line in China, its is very Darwinian to wait on line in China. I also liked that he too noticed that the Chinese love John Denver and Take Me Home Country Roads. There are plenty of books out there where an American goes to China and is a fish out of water. Some are really good: Salzman Iron and Silk or China Road or River Town. And some are not. If you like this genre of travel narrative, you will like this book. The only problem that I have with books like this is the timing. The author was in China in 2005 and 2005 China is very different than 2011 China. For that, I recommend reading The Last Days of Old Beijing or China Road, two first person fish out of water narratives of China that are more up to date. Regardless, this was a great book to read.
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Format: Paperback
It's a tightrope, really, to write compassionately but not condescendingly about people in a culture radically different than one's own. And this writer pulls it off in grand style, writing with self-awareness and in a way that expresses respectful interest in even the characters at the edge of the story, such as President Bill. He conveys his curiosity, and yet he avoids voyeurism: not an easy feat.

All this said, it is a funny and poignant story. Here is a teacher who wants to give his best in a system where his methods and aims are, to put it mildly, out of step with the prevailing idea of pedagogy. And here is a human being intent on establishing genuine relationships while holding on to his own values, if not the precise rules, of his own culture. For such a gentle story, there is a surprising amount of tension.

In the end, the author is able to draw together disparate threads such as basketball, post-modern literature, and rural poverty. It is a strangely cohesive story, a crazy quilt held together by the author's frame of reference and point of view. I enjoyed it and, at a time when China's prominence is poised to eclipse the USA's, I learned from it.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Being the same age and similar background to the author, I was eager to experience China through his eyes (we even both attended Cornell at the same time though I never met him). Michael Levy did not disappoint in this book. He dives right into his first uncomfortable experience, describing how he didn't want to eat millipedes because he was Jewish ,or in Chinese, "A person who is special too". His hosts finally get it---just like Komrade Marx and Albert Einstein!

The book proceeds through his amazing experience in China. He specifically lived in a small village, and experienced the generational shift from pure communism to "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics". While the older generation relies on government-provided everything, the younger generation frets about getting jobs, buying houses, and getting mortgages. He discovers a studious people who can learn and memorize every aspect of a subject, but lack the critical thinking ability to question if everything written in their books is true. And while American sensitivites view all Chinese the same, Levy documents the class struggles and ethnic racism that cuts through Chinese society.

All the while, we join Levy as he becomes a part of the people he teaches (he even tries dog meat!). The book is full of great analogies to familiar Western Media (Lost, The Matrix, Star Wars, Left Behind) and humor over how he handled uncomfortable situations (like a student giving herself an English name that referred to a part of the female body).

The book is a quick read, but I learned a surprising amount from such an entertaining book. I highly recommend it to you for learning a bit about China and for enjoying a unique perspective on the country.
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