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May 2011

The Other China: A Review of "Kosher Chinese," by Michael Levy

112950661 Given the ascendancy of China in the global economy, many Americans picture a China of booming cities, awash in money, a  kind of capitalism where the nouveau rich shop as families in their pajamas, sip lattes at Starbucks, and eat at McDonald's.  In other words, they look a little different, have to deal with a government that permits less freedom, but they're moving in on us as a society.

Michael Levy's memoir of of his life in China as a Peace Corp volunteer in 2005-2006, Kosher Chinese (Holt & Company, available July 5, 2011)is a helpful corrective to this media-fed impression.  Subtitled "Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion," Levy's personal, informative, and sometimes irreverently humorous story ably records his impressions of life in the mountainous and largely rural province of Guizhou, in the city of Guiyang, the dead center of China and a long ways geographically, economically, and culturally from the Westernized coastal cities of Beijing and Shanghai.  Assigned to teach English at Guizhou University, Levy allows his story to develop around his relationships with his students, a coach who drafts him to play basketball, and some Bouyei (or Hmong) children he meets on one of his walks in the city.

Although Levy's descriptions of the people and life of Guiyang are sensually rich, it is his recordation of conversations with his students and others that lends his account a deeper authenticity.  Once his students warm to him, they ask him for advice on all types of matters, from romance to jobs to buying a home.  Taken as a whole these conversations reveal a society in flux, cut loose from the traditions of the past, the Communist Party, and family ties, uncertain of what if anything to believe in.  Take Vivian, for example, whose life is improving in terms of her income and access to consumer commodities, and yet who is still unhappy: "'I am drifting,' Vivian once told me.  'All of China is drifting.'  Without religion, without honest history, without tradition, without even an open possibility of motherhood (thanks to the one Child Policy), she felt unmoored."

This observation or diagnosis becomes an understated theme in the book.  Shopping in Walmart with Jennifer, she too opens up to him: "'Recently, I have begun to hate Walmart.  I realize that just as Chairman Mao cannot inspire me or teach me, neither can capitalism.  There is no value in anything.'" Liu Xing tells him "I really don't know who to follow, but I do not trust myself to be my own guide."  No meaning.  Lost.  Drifting.   A creeping nihilism has come to China.

Levy, a Jew who follows Jewish tradition because, in his words, "it makes him happy," not because he necessarily believes in God, diagnoses the malaise affecting his students and friends, and yet offers no prescription.  Indeed his own embrace of the hollowed-out traditions of Judaism (the outward practices without the beliefs) is evidence that like his students he needs something to give meaning to his life.  But it's evident he did offer his students and new friends something: his friendship.  And that's no small thing.  He also helped them articulate --- perhaps for the first time --- some of their questions.  That too is a beginning, a self-consciousness that is an open door for change.

For those considering short-term cross cultural missions or service opportunities, or for those seeking a window into life in the other China, I recommend Kosher Chinese.  It's engaging, walk-through-life style, rich descriptions of Chinese life, and personal reflections by the author will transport you to the streets of Guiyang and introduce you to a part of China not featured in the press.  For Christians it's an opportunity to gain an inside look at at the emptiness of both ideology and materialism in a society that sorely needs the anchor provided by the Gospel.  Not only that, but it can be a mirror in which we see our own clutching materialism and our need for something to worship that transcends tradition, party, tribe, or money --- for a God who is the end of all our yearnings.

Saturday Afternoon, Review.

While I don't expect you to be interested in how I spent my Saturday afternoon, sometimes we write ("we" may sound expansive, as most people do not write) about things as a form of inner dialogue.  In this case, it's my way of deciding if the time reading the Review Section of the Wall Street Journal for two hours was worthwhile or merely an escape from other more mundane and taxing needs which beckon, like cleaning the attic, organizing the garage, or paying the bills, none of which excite me and all of which require endless difficult decisions, like what to keep, what to throw out, and how to organize what is kept, or, in the case of bills, remind me how distressingly quickly money earned becomes money spent, my pocket a mere conduit, an overflowing Mississippi for interstate commerce.  I tire even to speak of these tasks.

So, let me tell you about what I read.  This caveat first: While I am not stupid, I am lacking in genius and not particularly well-schooled in literature or books, for all my supposed learning.  I'm not telling you of what I read to impress you.  I read because I am (a) lazy (I don't want to do menial work), (b) can sit down while I am doing it, (c) like to associate with smarter people in print, though I doubt I would be able to carry on a satisfying conversation with any of them in person, and (d) will likely never read most of the books reviewed but can act like I have as I have read them by virtue of having read the Cliffnote version of them (the review, that is).

Seriously, while all the above is true, there are good reasons for spending two hours with a review of books, particularly one as good as the WSJ Review.  Here are a few:

Diversity is a hot topic in workplaces, in politics, and on college campuses.  But that's a shadow of the kind of intellectual diversity represented here in different topic, tone, and style, all in a concentrated two hours.  It's stimulating, like spending 10 minutes listening to 12 different speakers, each an expert on their topic. I moved from how temperature influences behavior to a book on the passing of the WWII generation to Davy Crockett to Berlin in 1961 to the historic MGM movie studios to liberal David Mamet's explanation of his conversion to conservatism.  Dazzled, I wonder at the breadth and depth of what there is to know, the thimble-sized grip I have on reality, and the reassuring knowledge of and hold on God has of me.

Humanity.  Reading is also deeply humanizing.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, narrative history or fantasy, books are primarily about people.  Even when describing the history of water ("Any Drop to Drink"), the story still revolves around humans and water, their personalities and decisions, both bad and good.  Even the Berlin Wall may have come about because John F. Kennedy had a bad day (seriously) ("When Kennedy Blinked").  And the personal stories of some the last WWII veterans recounted by author James Hornfischer let me peer into a world of which I know nothing.  They make me ask "what would I do in such circumstances," or "would I have made a better decision?"  They make me appreciate the deeply human nature of life and remind me that every generalization or objectification of reality will inevitably obscure the individual.  Sometimes we see better when we focus on one life, on one person made in the image of God.

Sound.  I don't read with any music on, even instrumental background music, as I do not want to mask the sound of the words I am reading.  Not that I read aloud.  I once read the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy aloud to my then seven-year old son, 30 minutes at a time, and while there are definite benefits to hearing the spoken words, I want to hear the words internally.  Every good writer (and there are many in the WSJ Review) has an inimitable style, and I enjoy hearing all these voices end-to-end like an IPod on shuffle (to use a crude analogy).  In fact, it's interesting just to compare the way in which different writers end their essays, from Andrew Klaven's quip that conservative convert David Mamet's book "might make an amusingly irritating present for a liberal friend," to Joe Queenan's closer to a humorous article about cheapskates ("We are puzzled by these people.  We are chagrined by these people.  We'd like to stick a stamp on their butts and ship them to Timbuktu or the South Pole or Hell. . . I'll cover the postage.")  Don't you like the way that sounds?  Quite beyond or in spite of content, reading can simply be pleasurable, and the great thing about a review, like the World Book Encyclopedia I perused as a kid, is that if a topic grows tedious or tiresome (which I confess is rarely the case), there's always another voice in the room.  Move on.

Touch.  Oh, the tactile pull of newsprint!  I won't belabor the book/e-reader argument, but undoubtedly there is something lost in not having newsprint.  Someone actually thought enough of these writers to PRINT them.  Holding it in my hands, it seems more substantial than anything on internet or e-reader.  After all, anyone (even me) can write on the internet.  And where can you find an e-reader as large as newspaper?  Nowhere, of course.  The world of print is getting smaller and less substantial, a picture of a book rather than a book (literally and metaphorically).  Also, think of what you can do with newsprint, like wash windows, wrap presents, start fires, and beat fearsome dogs over the head.  Try any of that with an e-reader!

Well, so much for another Saturday afternoon.  I just walked downstairs and threw my copy of the WSJ Review in the recycle bin.  I feel a tad bad about that, like I have dishonored the authors.  And yet they can feel good about the fact that my carbon footprint is a little smaller by this act, I'm told.

Maybe I should have cleaned the attic.


Looking Back. . . With Wonder

Growing up happens in a heartbeat.  One day you're in diapers; the next day, you're gone.  But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul.

I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of other houses, a yard, like a lot of other yards, on a street like a lot of other streets.  And the  thing is, after all these years, I still look back. . . with wonder.

(Kevin Arnold, in the Final Episode of The Wonder Years)

Say what you want about nostalgia, but the longing for the past or at least what we think was the past, has its rewards.

I discovered a new word a few days ago. Plangent.  As in resounding loudly.  Or as in a resonant and mournful sound.  Sometimes that is what the past sounds like.  It beats loudly in our ears, swells up in our hearts, as in a plangent longing for the past.

I don't think a plangent longing for the past is either helpful or even Christlike, and yet one can enter in for a moment so as to feel the weight of the past, to understand how it might feel for those who live in such lament, with the daily beat of missed opportunities, lost golden ages of youth, and past loves to preoccupy them.  But not only that.  The longing for the past is also a window through which we see our future, as the best of the past carries in it the seed of our future Home.

Kevin Arnold had it right.  In the Summer before 12th grade, on the cusp of college, he and Winnie Cooper sensed that change was coming.  They were no longer kids; the world was changing, and they were changing and would soon be moving on, saying goodbye to childhood, to the games and pettiness of the middle school years, to high school and changing relationships with each other and parents.  An older, wistful Kevin Arnold breaks in, the last words uttered in the series, saying "I can still look back. . . with wonder."

So here's to old girlfriends, backyard games, nights laying on the top of my father's station wagon looking at the stars and talking with my best friend.  To smelly locker rooms, long summers, first cars, and impossible dreams.  To a if not always happy at least less complicated life and world, where the boundaries were clearer and the people both bad and good more easily categorized.  To a street, a home, a room, and a family I could always come back to.

I never get over the obvious.  It was all there, and now it's gone.  Gone where? I don't know.  And yet it fills my mind, informing every thought and move, and sometimes seems closer than the ground beneath my feet.  I carry the past with me, not as burden but as a treasured gift that grows more weighty with time.

I am Kevin.  I grew up on those suburban streets, in those backyards, in a cookie-cutter house a lot like every other house.  Every morning I got up and my Mom made my breakfast and I walked to school or rode the bus or drove my car, and I sat in classes some good some boring and listened to the snap of the line on the flagpole the chatter in the halls and the droning of the teachers, and came home and watched Gilligan's Island or I Dream of Jeanie and ate a bologna sandwich and did a very little homework and ran and played until my Mom yelled out the door that it was dinner, and ate dinner feet in my chair and book in my hand and called my girlfriend or went to her house or walked the streets with my friends and then went to bed.  And then I got up and did it again, and again.

You know what?  Parts were sad, and parts were happy.  But when I look back, I am filled with wonder.  Those were, after all, the wonder years.  And yet they remind me that a wonder-working God does that every day, making my plangent longing for the past into a plangent longing for a Heaven with all the good and true and beautiful of the past.  I'm living the days of future passed.  Don't you like the way that sounds?

[I first wrote about The Wonder Years here in 2008, and then in 2009 here.  Maybe I should write a book about it, as I often relate life to something that happened in the show.  Never released on DVD, it is at least available now as reruns on The Hub Network.  The show had some excellent writing and captured what it was to grow up in suburbia in the late Sixties and early Seventies.  I commend it to you.]

Pornography (The Play, That Is)

When the play was over, there was  a brief moment of applause, and then everyone pretty much filed out of the theater.  There was no chatter, laughter, or excited conversation, no waiting around to meet the actors.  Like most, I just wanted out.  In the end, Pornography, British playwright Simon Stephen's fractured series of vignettes on London life in the wake of the 2007 London Underground bombings, was simply depressing.

In seven unconnected vignettes, Stephen's explores the lives of several individuals in the run up to and aftermath of the bombings.  All smack of the profane, of things repulsive, though not always in a sexual sense.  There's the bomber himself, driven by hate.  There's a lonely old woman, laughed at by a group of kids.  We see an alienated teenager, estranged from parents who hate each other, himself spurned by the girl he idolizes.  There's a teacher who makes sexual advances toward a former student.  There's an incestuous relationship between brother and sister. Few are the moments of laughter. Little if anything endears the characters to us, all of whom seem self-absorbed, narcissistic, and eaten up by their own passions.  The point?  Apparently, that life is obscene, pornographic if you will, that there is no hope and no meaning.

As if to drive home the point, two phrases recur throughout the play.  The first is "images of hell, they are silent," which seems to suggest the meaninglessness of the personal hells we all experience.  The second is one uttered by many of the actors, that is, "are you crying, or are you laughing?," as if to say it really doesn't matter whether you laugh or cry.  At the end, the number of the dead drones on, each character summarizing who they are, what they do, and yet, they are just a number, lost among the masses, again as if to say that it really doesn't matter who they were or what they did, that all is meaningless.  The few props are several black boxes that the characters move about in inexplicable ways, a testimony to meaninglessness, as if all we can do is move the pieces of life around and yet in the end it doesn't matter.  

Pornography is, ultimately, a visible embodiment of nihilism, the philosophy that says life is meaningless. What does it mean?  It means nothing.  We are nothing. Life is nothing, death is nothing, our wants and desires are nothing.

And yet there is hope conveyed, though I suspect Stephens did not have it in mind.  If he believes life is meaningless, why did he feel compelled to communicate something that no doubt he saw as having meaning?  Would it not have been more honest to have simply said nothing?  That he attempts to say something meaningful, that he hopes to have an impact on the viewer, tells me that he longs for meaning.  And that is hopeful, because it reminds me that the longing for meaning did not just spring into existence ex nihilio but is part of the way we are fashioned: we long for meaning because there is meaning to be found.

I don't need to see another play, hear more music, or view more art that expresses nihilism.  There's enough of that in the world.  There's enough entertainment to distract us momentarily, to take our mind off the fact that we don't know what matters.  And yet perhaps a play like Pornography will lead someone to ask why, to wonder where that need for meaning came from, and lead some to embrace the One who makes everything matter.  That gives me hope for playwright and audience, for all who filed out of the theater into the darkness of night.

He Makes All Things New

Eno “[P]reservation is a necessary component of anticipation. The party of memory is also the party of hope—understanding what Christ meant in promising to make all things new. . . .This is not newness in obliteration of the past, but newness of redemption and resurrection in which nothing of value is ever lost.”  

(Wilfred McClay, "The Soul and the City: The House of Our Realities, in The City)

As long as I have lived in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, I have never spent time at Eno River State Park, which lies just outside the city limits of Durham. That's my loss.  I remedied that this past weekend.

You don't know a place primarily by driving around it.  You know it by walking it.  I'm a short hiker, not a trekker, but there is something about walking on land, on seeing the swell of hills, scrambling over rocky outcroppings, pausing to eavesdrop on the chatter of forest life --- the squirrels and birds that have their own things to attend to with little regard for me --- that begins to build connections both temporally and eternally.  I rest my hand on a towering oak tree and touch what is, was, and is to come.  I'm among the aged.  Most of the trees here were here before me.  And if I push back further, looking out on the land and soil itself, catching its contour and navigating the massive roots that intertwine and help hold the very ground in place, I know I'm walking on that which came long before me, the decayed remains of what was.

 I start early.  For the first hour, I encounter no one, making my way through an awakening forest, past four surprised deer, over creeks and slight ravines that empty into the as yet unseen Eno, until I spot the river ahead, Bobbitt's Hole, a nearly 18 feet depression right after a series of small rapids, and a bend in its course as if after the fall a new approach was warranted. I sat down and watched the water and listened to its sound.  What is it about the sound of falling water that soothes?  It's elemental and eternal.  It coursed through Eden and will run through the New Heavens and New Earth, so though we start in a Garden and wind up in a City the sound of water will be present in both.  That's good.

The turtles here are shy.  As I walk the banks of the river I come across logs on which as many as five to ten turtles sun themselves.  Seeing me, they one by one turn and drop into the water.  One brave one stays, defiant. I press on.

Rounding a bend I see human beings for the first time, two fathers and two boys scampering over the rocks in a stream.  One says "This is awesome!," and I guess it is.  Forty years older, I'm a bit desensitized to "awesome.  They're just rocks in water.  And yet I need to see them with a child's eyes, a wonder.  One man says "Steve," and I'm no longer traveling incognito.  I've been "made." It's an acquaintance, here on the other side of the county, John LNU (last name unknown).

I leave the river behind, hear its sound recede, striking out across the forest floor, by this time sunlight dappling in, birds astir, squirrel work crews in full swing, building nests, burying nuts, playing chase.  I step lightly on a cushion of pine straw, like pile carpet, a welcome mat, a royal exit from a timeless place.

A  wood, a river, some rocks.  That's all it is, I suppose.  But as I pause and listen to the river, hear the life around me, smell the breeze and feel it lift my collar, I realize there's more to it than that.  In some unfathomable way, all the good and true and beautiful of this place will be carried forward into eternity --- re-purposed and remade.  Nothing of value is lost.  Memory informs hope.  Christ may make all things new, but the raw stuff of the New Earth is already here.  Under my feet.  All around. When I see it one day I'll recognize it, the Eno, remembered forward.  Familiar and yet new.  A Home made out of what we know.