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Q&A with Kosher Chinese author Michael Levy

In September 2005, the Peace Corps shipped Michael Levy to Guiyang, the largest city in southern China's relatively rural Guizhou Province. He didn't speak Chinese, but he tried to immerse himself in the culture during his two and a half years there, and while he arrived in Guiyang as a vegetarian who kept kosher, he dropped both to eat more like a local. Levy has since written a memoir about his time in China, Kosher Chinese, and yesterday he talked about the book during an author signing at the Tattered Cover.

Here's what he had to say:

How would you describe your relationship with the people of the community? My relationship was pretty complex. I was a teacher, friend, colleague -- a Wal-Mart Santa Claus at one point. That was a crazy story [more on that later]. I was on the university basketball team; they sort of recruited me to be the one foreigner on the basketball team. But mostly I was just a member of a community, and I was as immersed as I could be.

Did you ever feel fully involved in the community? That is kind of the subtext of the title of the book, Kosher Chinese. I really wrestled with my identity as an American, as a Jewish-American, and then as someone who really wanted to learn from that place.

There were moments when I found that I was speaking in Chinese and getting along with all my students and colleagues. There were moments when I thought, "I did it, I'm totally immersed! And there were other moments when I felt like a complete fish out of water."

Could you describe the Wal-Mart Santa Claus episode? Well, there's a Wal-Mart in Guiyang, and one of my students, her dad was a manager there. He wanted to do a promotion and found out there was a foreigner in town, and he thought that this could be the best promotional event: We can bring Santa Claus to Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve and people can come, look at Santa and shop. They somehow got a costume. I wore the beard and ended up in this Wal-Mart running around the aisles, more or less with people chasing me. It was a really weird event and really fun.

What was eating like in Guiyang? It was totally delicious. A lot of it was stuff I had never eaten, and when I went to China, I was a vegetarian who kept kosher. But I really wanted to be part of the community, and I knew that food would be a crucial part of being a good guest.

The typical food in Guiyang is sour and spicy. They had some pretty delicious spices, a lot of chicken and pork. I ate like an animal. No, that's the wrong way to put it. I ate everything that was served and I was always happy.

What were some of the dishes you were eating? My favorite dish was bean hot pot. It's a round table with the center cut out and a big fire in the middle and you put a big pot in it, and you chuck anything you want into this boiling broth. And I would get anything from pig skin to tofu to fish eyes -- stuff Americans would definitely think of as being a little bit out there.

But the difference between the average eating habits of my friends in America versus my friends in China -- or Guiyang, at least -- is that they don't waste anything. Every part of the animal is eaten, and every kind of animal is eaten. In a way, it's almost environmental, since they don't waste anything.

How would you say eating in Guiyang was different from what most people think of as Chinese food in America? Well, when I got back, I actually tried to learn more about the history of Chinese food in America. What I learned was that the first Chinese food in America, and what became our Chinese food, was cooked by the men who had been brought over to build the railroad. So those men had never cooked before, and they were like, "Wait, how did mom used to make this?" And that became our Chinese food. Since the beginning, Chinese food has only been an attempt to be authentic.

The difference between what I eat in a typical Chinese restaurant in America and what I ate in China is the difference between a McDonald's Big Mac and the food a family would have at a night at home. It's similar, but nobody would say it's the real deal.

I love Chinese food in America, but it's not the real deal.

Authentic styles of Chinese food are becoming more popular in America. Do you have any favorite regions or dishes? Yeah, this is what people should find. The Muslim population in China -- they mostly live in the Xinjiang Province -- make these hand-pulled noodles. It's slowly getting here, and it's so fricking good.

So describe this Cooking Corner Club you had. This was a really weird hybrid of cross-cultural communication and miscommunication. My hosts went way out of their way to make me feel comfortable, and so one of my colleagues decided we should have a club to cook Jewish food. It was also American food in general. We had a pizza night. We also had a peanut butter and jelly night. Yeah, that wasn't Jewish. I also had my mother mail me matzoh meal, and so we made matzoh balls. It was really laid-back, and we just got everyone together who wanted to do some cooking. It was every Friday night, and so they called it the Shabbat Cooking Club.

How did they respond to the food? The pizza was a big hit, although the cheese was really hard to get. It took me and one of my colleagues two weeks to find cheese. We finally found it.

A lot of the other food I made, it was just too sweet. American food is just so sugary, and in Guizhou, the food was just really healthy -- not a lot of sugar, not a lot of dairy. So everyone tried the stuff, and usually it was one little bite and that was enough of that.

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And so you didn't keep kosher while you were there? No, not for a minute. I did have friends, other Peace Corps volunteers, who lived in another city who went as vegetarians and somehow maintained it. That was their decision, and we talked about it, and they did say that it was alienating. They felt like they couldn't integrate well, because most of the time when you're meeting people, you're sitting down for a meal at somebody's house.

From day one, I decided that I was going to be as good a guest as I can, and that meant saying yes to anything they put in front of me.

Are you back to being kosher and vegetarian now? I'm trying to get back on the wagon, but I admit that I'm still going through this food identity crisis. I don't know what to call myself. I'm an aspiring vegetarian, but, no, I still eat everything.

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