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.