Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy

Mike Levy was a language-arts teacher from Philadelphia suffering from a crisis of faith post-9/11. Wanting to use his talents toward a Big Global Purpose, he found himself in the Peace Corps in 2005 assigned to rural Guizhou Province teaching English at the university in Guiyang, getting paid the same subsistence wage and living in similar apartments as the local professors, and figuring out everything on his own with no outside support, for a two-year tour.

The 29 chapters go by quickly in a conversational and often funny tone, similar to a Bill Bryson or Sarah Vowell travelogue. Outside of a few weeks' training in Chengdu, Mike doesn't get to travel outside Guizhou, but that gives us readers the chance to really settle in and view an area that will never see a Hollywood film crew or breathless Travel Channel documentary.

As Mike gets to know his fellow teachers, his students, and other local kids, we get to hear the personal stories and decisions from real-life people with real-life ambitions, problems, and responsibilities. Should a professor put substantial money into buying an apartment, and can she find a mate when she makes more than most men? Will a talented and dedicated masters-student from Guiyang, knowing she has no career future in her home province, be able to find a future in the costal cities? What will the fates be of twin sisters, bright and hopeful and thirsty to learn, but born as ethnic minorities and living with their grandmother because their parents have migrated to the coast to find work?

Guanxi and party politics, ethnic contrasts and Chinese stereotypes of Westerners are all shown matter-of-fact, but the people are never shown as villains, just everyday folks doing what they've been taught or repeating something they've heard. It's a refreshing contrast to sensationalized mass-media China reports that never take time to have an authentic conversation with citizens, or who never leave Shanghai / Beijing / Hong Kong.

For those of us with children from China, this book strikes a powerful nerve as we can easily see our daughters and sons in the situations Mike relates. Would my daughter have faced a childhood of having to collect plastic bottles for the recycling money, or working in a back-alley kitchen, sleeping on a cot because home is too far to walk and she couldn't afford bus fare?

My little girl has an unbounded future. Reading this book reminded me of how much of an honor it is to be her father, and how much I owe it to the kids left behind to make sure she has the ability to pursue any dream.

Kosher Chinese is a 2011 release, available in softcover at a retail of US$15. Well worth a read for adoptive parents, for travelers heading inland, and anyone wanting a better understanding of everyday life in modern China.


Standard blogging disclosure: this book was paid for with our own funds.