One afternoon during an unexpected detour on my way home in Bangkok, I found
myself at an open-air market staring at a wire-mesh cage of beige and black
cobras in listless heaps. I had been invited along by a friendly shoe repairman
who plied his trade at a rickety curbside bench.
He pointed to a
fawn-colored specimen. Obligingly, the snakes’ guardian, a mattedhaired
young fellow, unlatched the lid, hooked the five-foot reptile with a fire iron,
and plucked it out onto a tabletop. Suddenly, he cuffed the snake from
The cobra spluttered, and rearing, spread its collar in warning.
He smacked the irate reptile again. He did so, I was later told, to get the
snake’s blood up – literally. With adrenalin pumping furiously through its
veins, a cobra’s blood is believed to turn its most magically potent.
fellow then grabbed the hissing animal by the nape and carried it over to an
elderly Chinese man, who looped a string of kitchen twine around the snake’s
neck and tied the reptile to a vertically mounted aluminum pole. With scalpel in
hand, he proceeded to eviscerate the live serpent while carefully collecting its
blood in a tumbler.
Adding a drop of honey and two parts whisky, he
offered the concoction to me. My friend stood by, smiling benignly.
blood, I learned, is believed to have wondrous curative effects and
aphrodisiacal properties. It’s said to heal rheumatism, hemorrhoids, impotence,
even lethargy. It’s also lauded as a marvelous pick-me-up, although I
wouldn’t recommend it to the faint of heart. I braced myself and gulped it
The concoction tasted like certain tonic beverages: part sweet,
part piquant. As for the observable curative effects, I cannot much vouch for
them, apart from a short adrenalin rush triggered by imbibing the rather
In Laos, meanwhile, I was offered fried rat. In
Vietnam I saw locals slurp turtle meat soup, while downing rice wine from a
bottle with a large black scorpion marinating in it. In Cambodia I was
present at a wedding feast that included crocodile meat jerky and finely
seasoned water beetles.
I’ve sampled a few such treats and turned down
most others. But never have I had to invoke religious dietary restrictions as an
excuse to pass up on one.
Michael Levy has not been so lucky. One fine
day in 2005, the young Jew from Philadelphia arrives in Unicorn Hill Village #3
(so numbered, one presumes, to distinguish it from several other Unicorn Hill
villages) in central China for some acclimatization ahead of a two-year stint as
a Peace Corps volunteer in a nearby city. Almost immediately he is faced with
the prospect of offending his hosts at a welcome feast by declining an
invitation to munch on a local delicacy: fried millipedes licked off a
sugar-coated stick. Levy begs off by explaining he’s a Jew, or rather wo shi
(which translates as “I am a person who is special, too” in
The foreigner’s dietary peculiarities baffle his hosts, and so
begin Levy’s adventures, culinary and otherwise, as an English teacher at
Guizhou University in Guiyang, the capital of an underdeveloped, ethnically
diverse province in southwestern China. Before long, the erstwhile vegetarian
who once kept kosher and studied in a Jerusalem yeshiva succumbs to nibbling on
pork dumplings and celebrating Hanukka at a restaurant called Dog Meat King,
where he samples the trademark dish. (It “tastes like chicken,” we learn.)
Clearly, “Kosher Chinese,” Levy’s account of his time in China, is not meant to
be a treatise on the challenges of keeping kosher in a land where people will gladly eat “anything with four legs but the
table” – as well as creatures with no legs (snakes), with two (birds), and with
six or more (insects). Rather, the book serves up a lighthearted
fish-out-of-water tale, in which an innocent abroad finds himself, in turn,
puzzled and exasperated by cultural oddities.
Right from the start, Levy
is faced with such routine yet baffling challenges as squat toilets and the
scrambling free-for-all that passes for queuing in China (“a Darwinian survival
of the angriest,” in his words).
He gleefully mines local idiosyncrasies
for their full comic potential. There’s the neighbor who wakes him every morning
by meowing Sichuan Opera tunes while banging a gong. There’s the minor official
who is shocked to discover that Americans know nothing of Guiyang, even though
the city now boasts its own Walmart (in a warehouse right beneath People’s Park
with its obligatory Chairman Mao statue). There’s the student who yells his
answers at Levy as per the instructions of a popular local “Crazy English” guru
who encourages Chinese learners to shout out sentences by way of gaining
conversational confidence in the foreign vernacular.
Yet unlike many
travel writers and expat authors, Levy doesn’t just treat locals as
two-dimensional caricatures whose defining characteristic is their conformity to
popular stereotypes. By befriending several locals, from fellow teachers to
girls belonging to an impoverished ethnic minority, the Bouyei people, Levy
seeks to see the world through their eyes. Inevitably, he rubs up against the
contradictions that underpin life in China, where the phrase “with Chinese
characteristics” turns familiar concepts – democracy, socialism, freedom –
pretty much into their opposite.
China, he notices, is a country where
party dogma condemns the material trappings of “soulless” capitalism even as
party policy furthers the cause of rampant capitalism. As the nouveau riche of
Beijing and Shanghai unabashedly flaunt their wealth, across the country’s vast
hinterland hundreds of millions languish in grinding poverty. Frequently, Levy
is confronted by the sad realities of moral ambiguity and intellectual stupor in
a culture where the idea of meritocracy is the successful accumulation of
: cultivating relationships with people of influence.
At the same
time, rote learning in schools stifles creativity and fills students’ heads with
suspect ideas. When Levy is asked to teach a graduate course on postmodern
American literature, he wonders how his students with their limited English
might handle novels by Nabokov, Pynchon and Heller. A fellow teacher is
nonplussed by his doubts. “What is there for [the students] to discuss?” she
tells the American. “They don’t know anything. You’re the expert, so you
should just tell them what to think.”
“The Jewish People’s Secret for
Success” is a bestselling self-help title in China.
Written by a former
factory worker, it features snapshots of Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Vladimir
Putin and Bill Gates as paragons of Jewish smarts and business
acumen. The book’s success has clearly not suffered from its inclusion of
the Russian leader and Microsoft’s chairman (one a Russian Orthodox, the other
from a Congregationalist background) as members of the tribe.
Chinese, Levy discovers, admire Jews for their storied business savvy. Whereas
in much of the world Jewish success is merely seen by many as proving their
avarice and perfidy, in China it’s endorsed as a virtue worth emulating. If
there is anti-Semitism in the country, Levy clearly didn’t encounter any. A
local bureaucrat even insists to the American Jew that the ultimate sign of
China’s superiority over the US will be “[w]hen the Jews begin to immigrate
here. [Then] we will know we have won!”
Shortly after he begins to teach at
Guizhou University, Levy finds himself appointed honorary chairman of the ad hoc
Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, set up by some local
teachers and students. On Shabbat eves they gather in a small apartment,
where Levy cooks matza ball soup and bakes challa for them.
Kippur, one of his Chinese friends even joins Levy in his fast as the plump
woman is eager to marry her dieting regimen to a spiritual cause. Yet a Chinese
woman fasting on Yom Kippur to lose weight, Levy, a self-described agnostic,
points out, is “no more or less odd than a white guy from San Francisco lighting
incense in his fancy loft apartment and practicing tai chi.” Or an Israeli
backpacker seeking sudden Enlightenment at a Vipassana meditation retreat in
Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas, we might add.
Yet despite the implied
premise of Levy’s book, which is played up by the cover design’s prominent
skullcap with a Chairman Mao print on it, the Jewish element in “Kosher Chinese”
is fairly tenuous. It’s more a conceit than an essential part of the
narrative. The author’s Jewishness does lend an added dimension to his
experiences in China, but it does not really define them. In fact, locals seem
to view him far more as a typical American than as a religious minority, if only
because of his primarily secular habits.
Equally, at times the book reads
like repolished diary entries and its narrative arc doesn’t exactly make for
high adventure: Levy teaches, observes, grapples with culture shock, adjusts,
makes friends, and gets on the college’s basketball team as its token foreign
star. What enlivens this fairly everyday story is the author’s self-deprecating
wit (with liberal doses of scatological humor) and his tolerant
Levy learns Mandarin well enough, yet he remains deaf to its
tonal subtleties. Inevitably he garbles sentences to comic effect. A few halting
statements he musters apologetically about his limited Chinese-language skills
end up sounding to a native as “I, this water, arrive a little Chinese, egg, ten
of me, not written this knife.” Another time at a restaurant, Levy writes, “in
an attempt to order meat balls, I asked the waitress to show me her
But verbal gaffes work both ways. An undergraduate
mispronounces Gordon, his chosen English nickname, as “Moron,” while another
student calls herself “Pussy,” after her love of cats. (For propriety’s sake,
Levy promptly renames her “Kitten.”) Her friend blithely introduces herself as
“Shitty,” telling the astonished foreigner that she likes the warm sound of the
word, whose exact meaning she is clearly not familiar with.
student takes the name “Hitler.” He’s promptly renamed “Moses.” •