Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mike Levy talks about Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China's Other Billion

I first met Mike at the Brattleboro Book Festival, and sat enthralled through his reading (and also had a blast talking to him at the Authors' Reception.)  I quickly discovered that not only is he one of the funniest people on the planet, but his stories are so engaging, all you want to do is just sit and listen to him talk--or keep reading his phenomenal book! Of course, I badgered Mike into coming onto my blog and I'm thrilled to host him here.  Thanks, Mike!

How did writing the book come about and what was the whole process like? Did you start writing it after you were home or while you were in China?

I once read that Maya Angelou does all of her writing on legal pads with a felt tipped pen, and does it with military regimentation:  5-11am, every day, in the same room, with the same things sitting next to her (a thesaurus, a Bible, and a bottle of wine, or something like that).

My process was the opposite.  No regimentation, or even intention!  I was blogging while in China, and a friend sent the blog to his literary agent.  The agent—Will Lippincott, a real champion for young writers— liked what he was reading and contacted me on Skype.  It was all very 21st century.  We chatted on and off while I was in China, but I never really thought of trying to create the seamless narrative necessary for a memoir.  But when I got home and met with Will, he convinced me a memoir was not only possible, but the best way to tell my story.  And so we started the year long process of transforming hundreds of blogs into a book pitch.

What was it like to build a community in such a foreign environment--and what was it like when you came back home to culture shock?

I was surprised to find how easy it was to build community, even half a world away, among people with a wildly different background from my own—these were farmers earning a few dollars a day, and I grew up in a typical American suburb.

I learned that people everywhere respond to authenticity, and people everywhere like to be heard.  So I tried to be myself, and I tried to ask questions.  This led to a lot of mahjong, a lot of late nights drinking beer with new friends, and a lot of basketball.  Life in Guiyang was physically difficult, and at times I was spiritually isolated (I was the only Jew within a thousand miles, after all). . .  but it was emotionally rich.  I quickly found friends and community.
Coming home was easier than I thought it would be.  One thing I remember vividly was lying in the grass in Northampton, Massachusetts, and literally burying my face in the soil.  That sounds ridiculous. . .  but China’s environment is so wildly devastated, and the county is so overcrowded, that I had not seen an open, clean patch of grass in almost three years.
We are lucky to be post-industrial, and I will never again take clean air and water for granted.

You and I have had a conversation about why going to an extremely foreign environment is so much better an experience than going to, say, Paris or London, where it's much easier to fit in. The rewards are just greater. Do you feel that that way of thinking transcends travel and applies to everything else in life as well, like work and love and etc.?

What a fun question!  As you know, I’m a teacher, and the best part about the job is seeing things with fresh eyes—seeing a text from a teenager’s perspective, or looking at a problem again for the first time.  I feel like this is such a gift.  Traveling to a new place can result in the same feelings (newness, curiosity, rebirth, connection).  And when I’m not teaching and not able to travel, I use literature to create a sense of the foreign.  I spent last weekend in feudal Japan. . .  thanks to David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

 I was really interested in how your love for ritual comes across in the book. You keep kosher, go to temple (sometimes), yet you aren't religious.  Can you talk a bit about that?

The simplest way for me to describe my habits is that I do what works for me.  Yoga helps me relax, so I do it.  Traveling helps me stay curious, so I do it.  And Jewish ritual helps me feel healthy and happy, so I do it.  In other words:  my religious habits are done for the same reason as my exercise habits, or intellectual habits.  I wrap tfillin in the mornings because, for some reason, it connects me to myself.  I keep Kosher because it gives each meal meaning.  I don’t do these things because I think God wants me to.  I don’t even know what that statement could even mean.

All of this makes me a typical Jew, I think. . .  A person wrestling with tradition, text, and the divine.  It’s a life long journey.

What's obsessing you now?

Home brewing Chinese rice wine, reading Haruki Murakami, and trying to figure out how to teach 4th graders about Buddhism.  Yikes!

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

The question that comes up most frequently as I travel to talk about Kosher Chinese is this:  why are the stories in the memoir so different from the stories people see in the mainstream media.  The answer is that central China really is a world apart.  The billion people living there are rendered invisible by the New York Times and CNN. . .  I guess the story of the booming coast on the one side and the spiritual Tibetans on the other overwhelms the story of actual daily life for typical Chinese people.  And that’s a shame.

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