By David Sirota
Author Michael Levy talks about the 1 billion people left out of the “rising super power” narrative
If you peruse the typical American newspaper on any given day, you’re likely to find a bevy of articles about China. Sometimes these dispatches are about the nation imploring us to get our fiscal house in order. Other days, you’ll see reports about China’s military or foreign policy. Regardless of specifics, though, all of theses articles focus on the biggest international news story of our generation: China becoming a world super power.
In that larger narrative, the Asian nation is inevitably portrayed as a monolithic achievement of unbridled development — a super-modern Epcot Center of bullet trains, towering skyscrapers and gleaming new high-tech factories. Left out of the story is what author Michael Levy calls the “other billion” — the majority of the Chinese population who live in the hard scrabble interior far away from the fast-developing coast.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, Levy spent two years in this ignored part of China and has just published a simultaneously hilarious and disturbing memoir about his journey entitled “Kosher Chinese.” The book persuasively shows that if China is, indeed, the next global superpower, then the politics, ideology, education and economy of this “other billion” will shape the world. He argues that Americans should start understanding the difference between Tom Friedman’s fantastical Shanghai dreams and crushing Guizhou realities if we hope to forge a constructive relationship with the most populous nation on earth.
Levy is a lifelong friend of mine since middle school, and I got a good firsthand taste of his experience when my wife and I met him and his Peace Corps colleagues in the interior province of Guizhou 2009. Expecting the utopia I had heard about in the American press, I found something more akin to dystopia — and it almost killed me. At various points I was immobilized from drinking baijiu, from eating a fiery brew called “hot pot,” and from the sheer upper respiratory pain of breathing in so much air pollution (you can read a day-by-day journal of my trip here).
Having survived my trip, I can confidently attest that while nothing fully substitutes for actually physically visiting interior China, “Kosher Chinese” comes close. Levy recently discussed the book and American misconceptions of China with me on my KKZN-AM760 radio show. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation — you can listen to podcast the full interview here.
When people think about the Peace Corps, they often think of Africa or the Caribbean, but they don’t necessarily think of China as a place for the Peace Corps, because I think when a lot of Americans think of China they think of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and that’s about it. Talk a little bit about Peace Corps operations in China.
Peace Corps training is extraordinary. I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese when I landed. Two years later I was at least conversational — maybe a little bit closer to fluent — and that is all thanks to the training. They pay you a stipend that puts you at the income level of the people in your community, so that was about a hundred dollars a month for me in Guizhou province, and you’re really expected to immerse yourself in the culture. China is a beautiful, wonderful place, but as you say, Guizhou province is not what Thomas Friedman was writing about. This is not Beijing or the 2008 Olympics; this is really a different world where Communism is still very much alive.
To put it in regional terms that Americans can understand, were you serving in the Kansas or Kentucky of China, rather than, say, the New York City or Los Angeles?
Guizhou is definitely in flyover China, so when the Americans I talk to talk about China they visit Beijing and think it’s fantastic. They visit the terracotta warriors and the Great Wall, but they’ve never heard of this place where I lived. As you said, it’s out there, but from an American perspective, even though we were in the middle of nowhere, the capital city of the province has two million people. It’s like North Dakota for the Chinese, but for us it was a huge city.
Your book looks at the time you spent there as a fish out of water, and food played a big role in your experience. You make the argument that food is a key part of how we relate to each other. What kinds of changes did you have to make?
For me personally, I left for China keeping kosher and I was a strict vegetarian. I had to decide how I was going to relate to the communities I was in when pork was a part of three meals a day. Even if I didn’t want to eat pork, there was no way to continue to be a vegetarian unless I was climbing to the top of the mountain to the Buddhist temple every day where they had vegetarian food. So I decided very early on, which was actually before I left, that I was going to put everything I assumed was “normal” and “right” aside and really try to immerse myself and learn from the community.
Food is a big part of who we are. When people are growing up, we don’t think a whole lot about our food. When you and I were in Philadelphia, there were hoagies and cheesesteaks, and we just ate it because it’s delicious. For a lot of people, when we get a little older, you start thinking about it more and making different food choices. Your listeners know you’re vegetarian. These are personal choices and they’re really hard to make. So I did struggle with changing my diet, but I decided that to be a good guest and to integrate into my community in China, I was really going to say “yes” to a lot of things. That included the baijiu, which I drank way too much of it when I was there because it’s a friendly culture, and I would eat what was served to me.
Did you ever have to eat something that made you truly uncomfortable?
t was challenging because I had to ask myself some pretty personal questions, and some moral questions. One of those questions is: Would I eat an animal that I would normally consider my best friend? Like, say, a dog.
The hardest part for me was at the very beginning when I was eating things that were wildly unkosher, insects in particular. But my hosts were just being kind and gracious. They were treating me like I was a part of the family, and that’s how I responded.
Did your experience change your view of how we in America eat?
If you want get people fired up and they’re eating a hamburger, you just ask how would they feel about a dog burger, and they say it’s a completely different thing. My Chinese friends were baffled that Americans would eat pig, but not eat pig hoofs. Or that they’d eat chicken, but not chicken talons. I have to say that I have an absolute respect for my friends in China who ate every part of every animal. That’s just honest. And it’s environmentalism if you’re not going to throw parts of it away.
Do you think the general portrayal of China in the American media is accurate? Or do you think our elite media misrepresents what’s going on there?
It’s absolutely ridiculous. There was a recent story in the Wall Street Journal where a businessman was marveling at how developed China is and he was saying they’re beating us in their roads. We hear about this high-speed railway. That’s an important story and it’s a real story for about 400 million people. I’m really glad our journalists are covering it. But it completely ignores the other billion.
The reason that’s a real problem is that when Beijing makes their decisions they don’t care about Barack Obama, they care about that billion. That’s why China does what it does. So, unless we understand those people, we’re really going to be making decisions about our own China-related policies that don’t make any sense.
Why do you think our media doesn’t understand or pay attention to that “other billion?”
I think the reason is that it’s really hard to get to interior China, and it’s a really closed part of the country.
Beyond that, the people I met taught me a Chinese phrase that basically means “keep outsiders out and insiders in.” I would say it took me a year and a half of living there, eating with people, visiting their homes, speaking Chinese, and teaching them before I heard any honest conversation about politics, religion, or the future. So, a flyby journalist or businessperson will never break in beyond the coastal cities. That’s why Peace Corps is a very important part of our foreign policy.
Americans often think of China as a communist economy and Wal-Mart as the ultimate avatar of American capitalism. And yet, as you show, there are Wal-Marts in China. How can capitalist Wal-Mart exist in Communist China?
China is hugely growing market for Wal-Mart. The irony of the particular Wal-Mart I often visited is that Guizhou, as with many cities in China, has a giant statue of Chairman Mao — the world’s number one fighter against capitalism — and Mao’s outstretched hand waves at the smiley face of Wal-Mart. Seriously, they are fifty yards apart. It is unbelievable and that’s one of the things I really wanted to understand: what do young people in China think when they walk past Chairman Mao and walk into Wal-Mart? It’s mind-boggling.
That said, I was surprised at how well Chinese students were able to integrate these two parts of their world. But there’s definitely a spiritual emptiness because the ideology of religion in China, which is communism, is irrelevant for most people in the way China actually works when you’re walking around. It’s still there in the books and in my classroom there were pictures of Mao, Marx, Lenin, and Engels that hung above me when I taught. But that’s really all it is.
We hear a lot these days about how great the Chinese education system is, and how our schools are losing in a competition with China. You taught Chinese kids in a Chinese university. Is their education system all it’s cracked up to be?
Every day here in the States, we are worrying about whether our schools are competitive internationally and are China’s schools somehow training people better for math and science and engineering. Yet, in China’s mind, our education system is absolutely wonderful and they want to emulate it. My Chinese friends couldn’t believe that No Child Left Behind would require Americans to start testing more because to the Chinese the worst part of their system is the high-stakes testing. Every single person in the Chinese school system is worried about what the system is doing to people. The leading educator in China said that China trains the best test takers in the world and America creates the most talent in the world.
Is China’s test-based education system the way it is because the government has a vested interest in the population not thinking critically?
I’m a schoolteacher here in the States and I’m confronting that question here every day. One of the things I’m really glad I’m able to do in an American classroom is try to inspire, try to get the kids to think for themselves, and ask them if they can understand the difference between good information and bad information. That doesn’t happen in Chinese classrooms, and the consequence is a different political reality. I’m not sure it’s deliberate, but if you look carefully at high-stakes testing. Question by question, you’re going to really worry about who is writing the tests. In China we know the Communist Party is writing the tests, so politics is built into every answer.
The Chinese Communist Party is celebrating its 90th anniversary and there’s some talk that the party may not be long for this world in its reign over China. How did your students look at the Chinese Communist Party?
My students had a lot of respect for their government, and they had a lot of good reason to have respect for their government. The Chinese Communist Party, along with all the things we’ve heard that are wrong, has raised more people out of poverty in the last thirty years than any government in human history. There is a lot to be proud of if you’re Chinese, and there’s a lot about the Communist Party they can be proud of. Is it ideologically communist? Absolutely not. But in terms of stability and assisting people in dire poverty, they really have done an incredible job.
But how much of that positive view reflects the Chinese government’s success in indoctrinating the population?
Is it any more than students here are indoctrinated to fall in love with capitalism? I agree that people have a lot of trouble viewing their own situation objectively, but if you want to know whether I think the Communist Party will be overthrown, I didn’t see anything like that. I saw people wishing for better lives and thinking this party will get them there.
How did the people you met in China look at the United States? Are we seen as an aggressor, a competitor, an enemy or a friend?
My students and friends in China have a real love for Americans. They might not love our government, but if you talk about Americans as a people, I felt nothing but respect. They had a lot of interesting questions. They don’t know much in interior China, but there is friendship to be built.