“In September 2005, the Peace Corps sent Mike Levy to teach English in China’s heartland. His hosts in the city of Guiyang found additional uses for him…”
Those couple of sentences on the back of Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese: Living Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion were enough to make me feel that despite its Rp 175.000 price tag, this book was going to be worth all of it. I didn’t even think twice. There were two copies on the shelf; I decided on the one with less cracks on its spine. And with a swipe of my HSBC credit card, a copy of Levy’s biography/travel writing officially became the newest addition to the robust China Studies section of my personal library.
What a coincidence, I figured.
A week earlier, I had received an invitation to take part in a China-ASEAN Symposium in Guiyang. I had never been to Guizhou before; it never crossed my mind. I’ve had dreams of going to Tibet, Gansu (Tibet’s next door neighbor), or probably even Jilin in the northeast. But Guizhou somehow had never registered in my long “To Visit” list. And so, just like my decision to buy Levy's book, I didn’t think twice before accepting the invitation.
Like many foreigners living in big cities in China, my three and a half years there were spent mostly trying to discover Beijing (in itself a gargantuan city) and take trips to China’s coastal, eastern, and more modern parts. I did visit Chongqing and Chengdu, but these were hubs of China’s western economic development. So, while the pace of life there was slower than in Beijing or Shanghai, there were enough Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Audi dealerships to make sure that I always felt strongly the imprint of westernization, or globalization, if you may. Probably my trips to Xinjiang and Ningxia would be the furthest I’ve ever been away from the glitzy glamour of China’s “peaceful rise” and economic prowess.
And so, what should I expect from Guiyang? I’m willing to let myself be surprised next week when I actually set foot there. Then again, there have been many times when nothing could’ve prepared me for any particular trip in China. I remember the time when I went on a familiarization trip (paid for by the Chinese Ministry of Trade) to Xuzhou in Jiangsu Province, thinking all the time that I was going to Suzhou, the more popular city of the same province. I can’t forget the shock on my face when discovering this the next morning. The funny thing was that I would later find out that I hadn’t been the only foreigner in the group to make this mistake.
Therefore, I made the choice to seek guidance from Levy’s book, which described the lives of “the other billion” Chinese. Which other billion? The other billion whose lives rarely make it to the western media. These are the people who, in 2005, remained beyond many western pundits’ frame of reference. They are not whom we refer to when describing China’s economic boom and reform. We know little about them; and thus, it is almost certain that they would most likely know little about us. Of course, that’s until one of them show up to a coffee date wearing the latest Prada knock-off, putting away her iPad, while humming to Justin Beiber’s “If I Was Your Boyfriend”.
Indeed, during my stay in China, I experienced enough of this supposed gap between globalization and tradition, between modernity and backwardness, between those who continue to live by Mao’s tenets and others who prefer to realize Deng’s vision. I only had to turn the corner from my apartment to understand the stark contrast in livelihoods between my perfume-smelling neighbors and those living in makeshift houses in the outskirts of Beijing. However, in spite of all of this, I knew very well that I lived within the comforts of Beijing’s abundant resources, facilities, and services. I had in my power to turn away from discomfort if I ever wanted to. And I knew enough foreigners to live in a bubble and be shielded from China’s other reality.
However, looking back, I do realize that I’ve been in too many foul-smelling toilets and seen too many scary traffic accidents to know that China is a place of two faces. And that, while there is a Shenzhen that is as modern as any city in America, there is also a Guiyang that is probably a few light years behind. Realizing this, I felt that Levy’s book would somehow provide me with yet another eye-opener into the Chinese way of life.
Kosher Chinese was an easy read; I finished it in 3 days, mostly during breaks at work. It was a fun and insightful account of life in a part of China that I don’t really know. Levy lived a life completely immersed in Chinese. He spent days after days with his students, who would confide in them the many challenges they faced in life. He ate many local delicacies, which I never dared going near. And although he never mentioned any romantic episodes throughout the book, I find it a bit difficult for anyone to have never been in any way allured by the beauty of almond-shaped Chinese eyes.
I may have travelled to more places in China and lived there longer than Levy, but I enjoyed each and every one of the stories Levy recounted. Probably because Levy never tried to sound smart, teaching his readers in a patronizing way. His humor seems to come from the views of a generation of westerners that I feel a belonging to. A couple of times, I couldn’t help giggle to myself while reading the book on my taxi rides to work. Sure enough, the book was as much a lesson on the Chinese people as it was a confirmation of the similar experiences I had lived through before.
One of my favorite chapters talked about Levy’s frustration when trying to communicate in Chinese, particularly with those who just didn’t seem to have any patience in understanding his non-native accent. No matter how hard he tried to churn out the tonal sounds of each syllable, the Chinese people would simply respond with ta ting bu dong, he doesn’t understand. That encapsulated part of my life in Beijing, one of the most frustrating things about living in China. Of course, that was until I began to learn the local drawl; something that I learned during drunkard nights coming out from Vics Nightclub. Yet, somehow I have a feeling that the people in Guiyang would hardly understand my poor, accidental lao bei jing accent.
I also enjoyed Levy’s account of the ignorance, or lack of knowledge, that many Chinese seem to suffer from. Yes, many know about Celine Dion and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And yes, many know how important China is becoming in the global community. However, many also believe that life in the West is simply decadent, dangerous, and unfulfilling. Many generalize about things outside of China, like how Jews are superior in many things, and that Africans are not in many others. Not many either knows the difference between Indonesia and India, or whereabouts Indonesia is in comparison to Malaysia. Whenever I meet people like these, I instantly recognize that maybe those westerners preaching about the dangers of China’s rise is probably over-shooting their calculations.
All in all, as I finished reading the last emotionally charged chapter, I was happy to reconfirm that, yes, it was a book worthy of its price tag. And as I pack my clothing for that trip to Guiyang, I realized that I would never be able to experience Guiyang the way Levy did. I will be staying in Guizhou University’s accommodation for foreign visitors, probably a far cry from Levy's local apartment. I will most likely be chauffeured around, and shown the nicer places in town. And I will be surrounded by foreigners (as lost I would be) and locals who’d probably bend their backs over just so that my 5-day stay would be comfortable.
Nevertheless, I am happy for this introduction to the city. And that maybe, while seeing the city differently, I’ll be able to take in as many lessons as Levy had during his two year stay there.
(PS. Click here to check out Mike Levy's blog)