So a Jew goes to China ...

When I moved overseas, I knew my students wouldn't know much about Judaism. Turns out, they were utterly clueless

Published July 3, 2011 8:01PM (EDT)

A detail from the cover of "Kosher Chinese"
A detail from the cover of "Kosher Chinese"

About a month after I had moved to Guiyang, China, to work as an English teacher as part of the Peace Corps, one of my students, Yvette, handed me a letter during my office hours. Its title, announced in bold print along the top of the page, was "GREAT JEW." The letter summarized the status of world Jewry:

Jew in the world:

There are 14 million Jews in the world, 5 million of them are in the Israel, and 6 million in the USA. They have done so many great things for people in the world. They good at jokes, doing business and managing money so that there are a large number of Jewish tycoon in the world. . . . In the Wall Street which is the controlling financial interests of the United States, it is the world of Jews who dominate the "street." Jews deserve careful study though their history is pitiful.

Yvette also included a bullet- point list of facts she had gleaned from her textbooks and from local newspapers:

• Einstein is the greatest scientist in the world

• Every Jew has received high education for their family tradition

• Jews can begin law school in the second year in America, because they are advanced in law

• Phelps, a swimming Jew, will win many gold medals in the Beijing Olympic Games

Yvette told me she was preparing for a speech contest and had chosen Jews as her topic. "I know you are a Jew," she said as she pushed her red-framed glasses up her nose. "Can you help me edit this speech, and also help me include the important facts?"

"Yvette ..." I said, searching for an appropriate response. Michael Phelps a Jew? "Yvette ..." I repeated before pausing again. We are good at jokes?

"Listen," I finally said, having failed to find a sensitive way to correct her work. "This is absurd. It's totally unusable." Yvette, like all Chinese students, was used to harsh criticism. She smiled and blinked at me. "But," she told me, "we have learned it."

"What does that mean?" I said, slightly exasperated. "You've learned it, but it's wrong." Yvette's smile remained sweet and patient.

"It is in a book," she told me.

Before we could get any further, Jennifer He, a bubbly native of Guizhou (the province in which Guiyang is located) who stood no taller than four foot eleven, burst into the room. Jennifer had wavy hair that flowed down to her waist, carefully applied makeup, and stiletto knee high boots. She was a fellow teacher in the Guizhou University English department as well as a Guizhou University alum, and over her thirty-plus years in Guiyang she had cultivated friends in high places and developed an impressive amount of guanxi (or social connections). I knew that despite her constant smile and diminutive stature she was no one to be trifled with. Jennifer had been assigned as my "mentor teacher," a job she was taking quite seriously.

"I have good news," she declared, stepping right in front of Yvette and waving a piece of paper in my face. Due to her height, Jennifer had to extend her arm to full length and rise onto her toes to maximize the potential to annoy me with this gesture. "We have created the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club. You will be the leader of the club!" The paper fluttered before my eyes until I snatched it out of her hand.

"Gee, that's wonderful," I muttered. I scanned the paper and saw it had been stamped with the red stamps of both Dean Wang and the top dog at the university, a hard-drinking sixty-year-old named Lu Ping. President Lu insisted that I call him President Bill because, as he told me, "President Bill Clinton is the greatest man in America."

The club was, apparently, something of a big deal. I slumped into my chair as Jennifer and Yvette began an animated discussion in lightning-fast Chinese. Jennifer soon turned to me. "We have just decided that Yvette will be your student leader. Our first meeting is to night, and President Bill will be there, so don't be late!"

I nodded. G.U.J.F.N.E.C.C.C was born.

Shabbat with the G.U.J.F.N.E.C.C.C. (or the Guj, as I began calling it) would be far different from Shabbat back in Philly or Jerusalem. The word "Shabbat" comes from the Hebrew root meaning "to cease, end, or rest," and in observant Jewish communities, modern life comes to a halt. Lights are not turned on, cars are not driven, heavy loads are not carried. In fact, the rabbis of old created thirty-nine separate categories of activities forbidden on the Sabbath day (including "flaying," "selecting," and "tearing down a building").

Rest, as I later explained to members of the Guj, requires work in Judaism, and lots of it: you have to work hard just to understand what "work" even means. During Guj meetings, all of this was irrelevant. We would cook Jewish food no matter what Rabbinic rules were broken. Club meetings were held in Jennifer's damp, fifth-floor apartment which she shared with another one of our colleagues, Vivian Zhou. Both Jennifer and Vivian were born after Mao's death and had grown up as Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms ended the guarantees of the iron rice bowl. They were part of a more laissez- faire generation, a group that was personally unfamiliar with— and somewhat wistful about— the ideas of Mao's heyday. They were not given housing by the university, and unlike their older colleagues, they had never expected this manifestation of government largesse. Instead, the roommates rented their apartment. The three-bedroom, one- bathroom flat cost them the equivalent of twenty-five dollars each month.

They were living in a convenient, trendy part of Huaxi, a scenic section of the city, and the building was only a few years old. It was significantly nicer than my digs in university housing. "Do you wish you had a powerful danwei?" I once asked them. With a danwei -- a Maoist-style "work unit" that provides housing, food, healthcare, child care and schooling to its employees -- they would have lived rent free.

Jennifer laughed. "That is impossible now," she said. "Our government has chosen a new direction."

"Well, do you like the new direction?"

Jennifer blinked at me. "It doesn't matter. It has been chosen."

Vivian was a little more thoughtful about her life without an iron rice bowl, though I still found her ideas confusing. "It would be nice to know our apartment would always be ours, like in the old days when the party owned everything," she told me. "But today, it is different. Jennifer and I rent this apartment together, but the government or school can take it whenever they need it. We never know what will happen, and everything is changeable."

Vivian's uncertainty about her apartment was emblematic of a general state of confusion about property law in Guiyang. Residents had to be prepared to move at a moment's notice. I saw this firsthand when one Saturday night I went with Jennifer and Vivian to what they assured me was the best hot-pot restaurant in town. They had made reservations the night before, but when we arrived, the restaurant was closed. It had the familiar Chinese character spray-painted on its doors. It was one of the first characters I had learned to recognize and it was ubiquitous in some parts of Guiyang. It meant, simply, "tear down."

Migrant workers were on the roof of the building smashing it with sledgehammers. The owner of the restaurant emerged to apologize to us. "Sorry," he said with a shrug. "We got word this morning that the government wants the building." The owner was taking reservations for his successful restaurant on a Friday night, and was told to vacate the premises on Saturday morning. He would receive some small form of remuneration, but as he said to us, "We will be forced to move far away. Our business will certainly suffer."

"I don't want a danwei, because I love my freedom," Vivian concluded. "But I hate this new world we live in. Everything makes no sense." Jennifer frowned as Vivian made these comments, and remained silent. She was clearly upset, but it would be more than a year before I learned why.

For the first few Guj meetings, Vivian would politely watch us knead challah dough for a few minutes before finding an excuse to lock herself in her room. Jennifer, on the other hand, held court. She had created the club because she wanted to augment her teaching salary with a side business. She figured that since I was Jewish, I would be a good source for advice. Vivian slowly began participating actively in the Guj as well, though it was not to learn my Jewish business secrets. Instead, she simply saw how much fun we were having. "Shabbat," she would later tell me, "is the only happiness I feel each week." Teacher Qing, my Chinese language instructor, believed religion was dangerous in Guizhou because poverty made the people susceptible to its messages. Perhaps she had been right.

Another participant in the first Guj meeting was President Bill, who, as promised, came knocking on Jennifer and Vivian's door. He treated the occasion as a banquet and brought a gigantic white jug of Maotai. "We will drink together," he told me with a wink. He was ready to build some guanxi with the new foreign teacher.

The Maotai ensured that the first Guj meeting went by like a blur. I tried to teach the group some Shabbat-appropriate vocabulary (l'chaim, for example), but it was no use. After less than half an hour, everyone was drunk. Guests started trickling out of the apartment. By 9:00 p.m., it was just me and the president. We were sitting at a small table in Jennifer and Vivian's living room. Jennifer had hung on longer than the other guests, but eventually she, too, had given up and gone to sleep.

"The others are weak," President Bill told me. "They are lan zui ru ni." This, translated literally, meant squishy like mud, and referred to the effete weakness men in Guiyang attached to those who could not hold their alcohol. "But you, Mike," he continued, "you are strong." President Bill was three sheets to the wind and slurring his words. His face was a sheen of salt and grease and he had rolled up the legs of his pants and his shirt. His belly jiggled before me.

As the booze loosened our tongues, President Bill and I began a blunt conversation about the students at Gui Da. "Our university is very poor," he told me, "and our students are not very motivated." I deflected this negative assessment, but President Bill would have none of it. "Don't think I'm blaming them," he said with a wave of his hand. "I know it isn't their fault. We just don't have an education system that works very well. Everyone knows Chinese are good at math and science, but we are also very bad at creativity. We only build things in factories, but we never innovate and invent them on our own." President Bill was looking at me earnestly. His criticism did not seem bitter and he was not at all embarrassed. "No Chinese citizen has ever won a Nobel Prize," he went on, shaking his head. "Why is this? It is because we only teach the students how to memorize, and we test them and test them, and punish them if they cannot pass the tests. This is why you are at our school. You must teach the students to think."

I told the president I would do my best. (Five years later, Liu Xiaobo would become China's first Nobel laureate, winning the Peace Prize for promoting human rights, democracy, and political freedom in China. His reward? An eleven-year prison sentence for "inciting subversion of state power." I doubted it was this sort of thinking President Bill hoped I would encourage.) President Bill patted me on the back, poured another shot, and asked me why I had chosen to come to Guiyang. I admitted to him that I had been assigned to Guiyang and that I had never heard of the city before my arrival in China. He was shocked. "But we have a Walmart!" For President Bill, this marked his city as a real comer. "How can you have learned nothing of our city and our province?" he asked me. He gave his belly a hardy slap, spraying sweat for a few yards in each direction. I grimaced, fearing some of the drops had landed in my glass of Maotai. I hoped the 120-proof would be strong enough to kill any sweat-born bacteria.

There would only be a few shots left, regardless. President Bill had an ample girth and a reputation for being one of Guiyang's better drinkers, but he was having trouble keeping up with me. After our first shot of Maotai, more than an hour ago, President Bill's face turned bright red. After the third, his left cheek started twitching and his eyes began watering. After the sixth, his breath became raspy. Nevertheless, he was determined to outdo the foreigner. I felt pity for the man, but I would not yield. Someone was going to lose face.

As we did another shot, President Bill was far enough out of his mind to forgo any of the normal niceties that you might expect when first meeting a new foreign teacher. "You must return to America and teach your shit-for-brains people to love Guiyang." He was stuck on the theme of American ignorance of his hometown. "I have been to America!" he bellowed. "Could I understand your culture if I only saw New York City? Could I understand George Bush if I only visited San Francisco?" He went on like this for some time before falling asleep on the table, cigarette still dangling from his bottom lip. I quietly stood, snuffed out his cigarette, and stumbled home.

Michael Levy is an educator, writer and traveler, currently teaching at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, N.Y. While in the United States, Mike does his best to keep kosher. While in China, he eats anything with four legs but the table.

Excerpted from KOSHER CHINESE: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion by Michael Levy, published July 5th by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Michael Levy. All rights reserved.

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