Michael Levy’s first assignment from the Peace Corps had him excited—the junior high history teacher was being sent to Romania to teach English. “I was like, ‘Yeah! Go! Rah, rah, rah!’ ” he says with a laugh. Then things changed.
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Levy wasn’t headed for Europe. He was bound for China—interior China, a place most Americans know nothing about, or at least little more than what Kung Fu Panda provides. He was being sent to Guiyang City, the capital of Guiyang province, to teach English at the local university. His two years there were crazy, chaotic and charming, Levy finding himself the defacto representative for all things American and all things Jewish, from hosting weekly Shabbat meals for his students to playing Santa at the local Wal-Mart. He captures it all in Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, an often hilarious and thought-provoking look at a country that America knows little about but desperately needs to understand.
You’ve been back from China for a few years. Where are you teaching now?
St. Anne’s School in Brooklyn. It’s a really quirky place. It’s K-12. We don’t give grades. There aren’t numbers attached to the kids. It’s a strange place. All the Waiting for Superman kind of things going on—it’s the opposite of that. This is my first year here. It’s taken some getting used to.
Was the transition back to U.S. schools and students difficult?
I guess there are two sides to that. One side—kids are kids. I don’t know if it’s a product of globalization or not, but 15- to 18 year-olds are going to flirt a little and have a little angst at the world. But it is nice getting back to the U.S. Our kids are taught critical thinking and not taught to fill in a bubble, which is essentially what the Chinese system is teaching its students.
Do you feel that with No Child Left Behind and its push toward standardized testing, that we’re ultimately teaching our students to fill in bubbles rather than be critical thinkers?
One of the great things about this experience for me, and Peace Corps in general, is that we get outside of our norms. That gave me a fresh prospective of domestic issues, one of them being No Child Left Behind.
Being in China I really did learn two things about teaching. What the Chinese education system gets right is brutal honesty. I’m a touchy-feely teacher here—everyone gets hugs. If I tried that in China they would look at me like I’m lying to them.
But I’m very concerned that we’ve very misunderstood what Chinese students are good at and what they’re not good at. If we’re trying to be like them we’re going to flush what makes us better right down the drain. They want to teach their students to make the next Facebook, not just crunch a lot of numbers—which is what we’re moving toward.
You were sent to Guiyang province, which is in the southwest interior of China, a place that Americans know little about. Why is this part of China—as well as the rest of interior China—ignored by the U.S.?
I think that some of our best journalists, like Thomas Friedman, love the coast. And there is only so much one guy can do, so he’s on the coast or at the FoxCon factories [where Apple makes many of its products].
But it’s also China’s size. Just figuring out the coast—that’s still 400 million people. Getting beyond that—the dialect is hard, there’s another billion people, and this is a guess on my part, but the people off the coast are a little less willing to engage with outsiders.
Is China, especially young China, in danger of losing its center, its sense of cultural identity in the name of progress?
I have never—and I’ve been around teenagers my whole career—seen the level of really soul-crushing confusion in my students in China. I was taken aback by it. Their world is changing so quickly, and they don’t know where the levers are to take control of the world.
These kids can’t take advice from their parents because their parents grew up before China became a capitalist society. Their teachers are just as confused as the kids are. And they are mostly only children, so they don’t have siblings to ask. So a lot of them look to foreigners for answers. I was uncomfortable with that. What the heck do I know? A billion people—we’ve got to start figuring them out because there’s a lot going on there that we need to understand.
Finally, I have to ask this. You played “professional” basketball in Guiyang, putting in a season as the power forward of Guizhou University’s team. Now that you’re back, have you decided to throw you hat into the NBA draft?
Yes, [laughs] you know, that’s one of the things that I struggled with writing this book. I wanted the tone to match the tone of my experience. My time in China was joyful and at times depressing. How do you wrap that up in 250 pages? I wanted to show that there was great joy in the book even when I saw poverty or had frustrating situations like getting kicked out of a basketball game by a referee because of the Taiwan problem. But the last thing I want to imply that I was good at basketball.