Michael Levy (China 2005-07) today is a teacher at the expensive and fancy St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. His writing has appeared in Adbusters, In These Times, and the Forward and will be featured in an upcoming anthology of writing from Peace Corps Volunteers, Peace Corps at Fifty: Anniversary Story Collection.
I heard about his memoir of China entitled, Kosher Dog Meat and emailed him about his book. Here’s what he had to say.
Mike, where are you from?
I was born in Chicago, Illinois a few blocks from Wrigley Field. My family moved to Philly shortly before my Bar Mitzvah, so I now have split loyalties. A Cubs-Phillies playoff series is on my list of nightmares; I would be crushed either way. I went to college at Cornell, graduating in 1998. Ithaca is Gorges.
Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?
Ah. . . a bit of a long story. I was dating a lovely young lady and living in Philly, and asked if she wanted to marry me. Her response, after a pause, was “Why would we do that?” My response, after a pause, was “well. . . maybe we could do Peace Corps together?” With that as incentive, she agreed, so we flew off to Vegas and got married by an Elvis impersonator. We started the Peace Corps paper work the next day, and headed to China six months later.
We did not ask for China. For a while, it looked like we were heading to Romania to teach vampires. But at the last minute, China opened, and we were extremely excited. I feel lucky to have had the assignment, but would have happily served wherever I was needed.
Where were you in China?
In Guiyang, the capital city of China’s poorest province. We lived about 30 minutes from the center of this second-tier Chinese city, a city that many Chinese hadn’t even heard of (though it was a city of some 3 million people). My primary responsibility was teaching at the provincial university, a massive school of more than 40,000 students. My secondary project was teaching English in a small village that was primarily inhabited by the Bouyi people, one of China’s 54 officially recognized ethnic minorities.
You were writing before you joined the Peace Corps?
I was not writing before joining the Peace Corps. The memoir sort of fell out of the sky– I was blogging like a maniac, and a buddy of mine (David Sirota, an established writer) forwarded my blog to his agent, Will Lippincott. Will liked what he read, contacted me, and asked if I was thinking of turning the work into a manuscript. The idea had occurred to me, but in the same way the idea of becoming the Chicago Cubs center fielder occurred to me when I was playing catch with my brother in middle-school: it was a dream and not much more.
With Dave and Will’s encouragement, however, I began the long process of crafting a book pitch. This took almost a year. I am forever indebted to Dave for passing the blog along, and to my Will for believing in the project. It takes a village, I suppose.
My friends in China would understand this process, which was based, in part, on what they call guanxi (or “connections”). Guanxi determines everything in western China; talent and hard work are largely irrelevant. If you know the right person, things go in your favor. If not. . . well, better luck in your next life. Publishing doesn’t seem quite this bad, but it’s hard not to be a bit cynical.
The book is still not finished. The manuscript should be in near final form by year’s end. It will be a year after that before it’s on the shelves. The book and publishing world is opaque to me, and I’m leaning heavily on more experienced writers and friends in the field to guide me through the process.
What are you doing now?
After returning from China, I jumped right back into the classroom. I’m teaching Humanities at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. I’ve got educational whiplash: I went from teaching the poorest kids on earth to the richest. Writing and teaching at the same time is. . . challenging. I love both jobs, but I think I’m developing an ulcer.
What’s with this Jewish thing?
I’m what you might call a Jon Stewart Jew: it’s definitely a big part of who I am, but at the end of the day, religion is a source of humor for me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an “out” Jew in China. I had no idea how the topic of religion would be received, and I was wary–as are all PCVs–of appearing to be anything like a missionary.
I figured religion wouldn’t come up at all, and I thought this was for the best. Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses,” after all, and Chairman Mao labeled religion one of the “Four Olds,” a category meant for destruction.
But the Jewish holidays ended up being real sources of comfort for me while I was far from home, and my students and Chinese colleges were bizarrely fascinated by my religious practice. Their fascination may have had something to do with the fact that shortly before I arrived at site, a book titled How To Make Money Like The Jews became a national best-seller. A lot of my students would come to my office with dog-eared copies and ask me for my “secrets.” I was, as far as I know, one of only two Jews in Guizhou Province (an area about the size of Missouri with a population larger than California’s), so I got to play Head Rabbi. Judaism ended up at the heart of my experience.
Have you been to Israel?
Indeed, I have been to Israel. I lived there for about a year after college, studying in a Yeshiva (which is something like a Jewish seminary, though it doesn’t necessarily end with any sort of degree or ordination). I guess I’m a bit more than a Jon Stewart Jew.
There is no way to compare my feelings from Israel to my feelings from China. In Israel, I felt spiritually at ease for the only time in my life. It felt like home. In China, I felt totally alien. Strangely enough, however, I think there are a lot of similarities between Jews and Chinese. Both cultures are laid-back, uninterested in etiquette, obsessed with food and wine, and based on filial piety. Jewish and Chinese grandmothers were cut from the same cloth, that’s for sure.
If you hadn’t been a Jew, but simply a westerner in China, would your experience been different? Would you have felt differently? Or did other (non Jews) have a different experience?
That’s a tough one to answer, since–obviously– I only experienced China as a Jew. But I can tell you about a phrase introduced to me by Anne-Marie Brady, one of the world’s foremost Chine scholars. She writes about the Chinese phrase nei wai you bie (”treat outsiders and insiders differently”), describing it as a fundamental guide of Chinese interactions with foreigners. PCVs in China will all have stories about confronting this sentiment; at times, it seemed there was no way to crack through the polite exterior shell of our hosts.
Judaism helped me crack the shell. As a Jew, I was viewed as barely American; I was associated more with Einstein and Marx than with George Bush and Christian missionaries. I often saw skepticism melt away when a new friend or colleague learned I was Jewish.
Did you keep a kosher kitchen while you were a PCV?
In our home, we were vegetarian and “kosher style.” Nothing in Guizhou was Kosher with a capital “K”, but our house was close enough. Outside of the house, however, I was neck-deep in sinful and delicious food. I ate more pork in my two-plus years in China than generations of Levys–from my father back to Moses– have eaten, combined.
Is your wife Jewish?
Becca is not Jewish. Like 1.3 billion Chinese, she is an atheist. Besides that, she’s a WASP!
How was Becca’s tour (having to live with you!)
Without Becca, I would not have survived 3 days in China. I’m dead-serious about this: had she not been there, I would have been on a plane headed back to America within a fortnight. I get homesick easily, and I don’t do well with change. So why in God’s name did I join the Peace Corps? Well, the theory was that our marriage could help us do things we could never have done on our own. And the theory proved true. Didn’t John Lenin write “love is all you need”? He was right.
Did you travel much in-country?
Constantly! Almost all of my traveling was in the far west of China, off the beaten path. I spent a grand total of 3 days in Beijing and Shanghai, and didn’t visit the Great Wall or the Terra Cotta warriors while in Peace Corps. Instead, I spent a lot of time visiting my students in their hometowns, or heading off to see other PCVs in action at their schools. Of all the many gifts the Peace Corps experience gave to me, the relationships I developed were by far the most important.
Tell us a little more about the book. Is it a series of stories? Journals?
Kosher Dog Meat is a memoir, but it’s really not about me. It is my attempt to bring people right into the heart of China’s heartland. I lived in Guiyang which is geographically, politically, and economically right at the dead-center of this huge country. There’s a lot of reporting on China now, but it focuses on politics in Beijing, repression on Tibet, or business in Shanghai. The only insight we get into the lives of the billion people who don’t live in these places is ambulance chaser coverage of natural disasters or riots. My students in Guiyang are invisible to most Americans. This is a major oversight, because they are typical of the vast majority of the Chinese. . . and if we don’t come to some sort of understanding of China, the 21st century will be decidedly unpleasant.
My boss at Guizhou University put it to me bluntly one night when he was slobbering drunk: “could I understand America if I only visited San Francisco and New York?” He was pissed off at me that I knew nothing about interior China, and only seemed to have read about the coast and Tibet. He ended up falling asleep on the table, but not before telling me I had “shit for brains.” Awesome.
Is this the beginning of a writing career for you? Do you have another book in mind? Peter Hessler will soon publish his third book on China.
I would love to write again in the future, but I my career is as an educator. I love being in the classroom. If I’m lucky enough to have an experience that once again compels me to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as the case may be), I will dive back in to the publishing world. Writing this book has been incredibly stressful, but I genuinely believe these stories need to be told. I feel like I owe it to my students.
Try to sum up what the Peace Corps experience has meant to you (and Becca) and how do you think you have changed because of the tour.
Wow, another tough question. Summing up my Peace Corps experience fills me with cliché. It changed my life; it opened my eyes; etc. All of this is true but not particularly interesting, so I’ll go with an anecdote: since returning to the US, I’ve been teaching at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. This is a school of almost unfathomable privilege.
One of the kids in my History elective-Modern China, of course-comes from the family that owns Montana. Another student’s father invented fruit. Or something like that.
It has been mind-boggling to go from teaching some of the poorest students on earth to some of the richest, and the transition has transformed me. Before the Peace Corps, I was a neurotic, type-A personality. I would get bent out of shape if my classes didn’t run exactly as I wanted them to, or if colleagues were late to meetings, or if I felt things were being done inefficiently. Now, three years later, I think I come across as someone who was raised in Santa Barbara, or born on a surf board. If a student doesn’t have her homework done; hey, at least she can afford to eat. I watch my colleagues stress out about things that I now try to keep in perspective. The classroom internet connection is running slowly; the yoga schedule is inconvenient; the dining hall ran out of avocados? A few years ago, these things really would have bothered me. Living in Western China helped me re-center my priorities.
Okay, last, but not least question, what RPCV writers have you read and like?
Pete Hessler has always been good, but his recent stuff has been simply breath-taking. His work in the New Yorker is the best writing that magazine has to offer (and everything in the New Yorker is stellar). I also really enjoyed Josh Swiller’s memoir The Unheard. I found I could relate to a lot of Swiller’s experiences (despite the obvious differences between being a deaf PCV in Zambia and a Jewish PCV in China. . .
Thanks, Mike, for your time. Now, go back to class!