Hello! I am now blogging my experience teaching English in Korea here:
“I held the ball and took a deep breath. The trip to the game had included a teammate crapping in a bag; my cheering section included a girl from a tiny village forced to go to work at age twelve; my team nickname was Friendship Jew. But the hoop was still ten feet high. A rebound was still a rebound. As long as I was allowed to play the game, the differences surrounding it faded away.”
Kosher Chinese is the Peace Corps memoir of 29-year-old Michael “Mike” Levy, detailing his two years in Guiyang, China.
The book has everything you’d expect from a 29-year-old American male writing about his experiences—enough pop culture references to make your head spin, basketball games with some of the students, and awkward toilet experiences. What sets this particular narrative apart from the usual barrage of American-Abroad memoirs is that Levy was the first PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) at Guizhou University, and he’s Jewish.
Although he portrays himself as a practicing but skeptical Jew, the book opens up with him confessing to some of his hosts that he’s a “special person too” and unable to eat the crunchy millipedes in front of him. This experience sets the tone for the book, and suffers in the same way—while there is a clear linear narrative presented in the book, it could be strengthened. Trying to boil two years in 240 pages is tough, and the book would have benefited being a little longer.
The book handles the cultural breakdown between America and China with humor; upon finding out that Levy is Jewish, the usual response is “Comrade Marx was Jewish, too!” Even with the creation of a kind of Judaism club at the university where Levy taught, the students didn’t quite grasp what Jewish, or even American, culture was about— as evidenced by the task Levy was asked to do on Christmas Eve: dress up as Santa Claus and run around the mall, yelling at everyone to buy stuff.
The most touching part of Levy’s experience was his friendship with three young Bouyei girls. The Bouyei are one of China’s many ethnic groups, and Levy ventures to a Bouyei village after being told that the Bouyei are “primitive” and warned against interacting with them. Because of his friendship with one of the girls in particular, whom he calls Big Twin, he’s given insight not only into one possible life story for one of China’s ethnic minorities, but also the practice of guanxi, which can be seen as a sort of you-rub-my-back-I’ll-rub-yours relationship between Chinese individuals.
Guanxi is one of the large themes of the book as Levy tries his best to navigate Chinese culture in a part of China that, while having a Wal-Mart and a Pizza Hut, is otherwise vastly culturally and economically different from the more “advanced” coastal cities the average American is familiar with. Levy handles his role as a PCV and a human being with a moral code unlike his hosts with grace at times, and with shame at other times. He asks a lot of hard-hitting questions, but unfortunately, he doesn’t really expand on the answers he’s found, when there were answers. In particular, the lives of the three Bouyei girls that he befriended are treated in a very rushed way at the end of the book, and it would have been great to have had this relationship and their lives brought out more.
All in all, the book is a quick, interesting read and Levy handles the American-Abroad subject matter with a sense of humor and willingness to ask the hard questions some Americans find themselves unable to.
I don’t know how I feel about Harper’s Bazaar Indonesia’s spread with Zhang Fan, which were photographed in Tibet.
The shots themselves are gorgeous. Zhang Fan is gorgeous. Tibet is gorgeous. The aspects of Tibetan culture in the photos are gorgeous. It is, simply gorgeous, as it would obviously be, being in Harper’s Bazaar and all. (This does not mean that the content of the photos is in any way, shape, or form “authentic,” however.)
But part of me is a little sickened. Tibet, after all, is not a “stable” “country.” It is rife with internal struggle. Its people are dying. Its culture is dying. You could say that such photospreads help the Tibetan culture remain alive, but it is also an exaggeration of the culture; it turns it on its head and passes it off as “exotic.”
I know quite a few groups that focus on Tibet’s culture, (rightfully) believing that it is an endangered culture that must be kept alive. At a certain point, I have become frustrated with this culture-bent–because it’s not all about prayer flags and mountains and momos and monks. Sure, snag in the ignorant person with gorgeous landscapes and delicious food and this image of peaceful Buddhists, but when is it time to start explaining why Tibetan culture is so important, why it’s endangered, and what we can do to help?
What I’ve seen, from being on the internet (“Honestly, I don’t know anything about Tibet except that people want to free it…” – America’s Next Top Model Cycle 13 contestant Erin) and the encounters I’ve had in real life (“cool jacket… no, I don’t know anything about Tibet, but sure! they should be free!”), is that many people are enamored with the amazing culture of Tibet but few actually know about anything about its politics or history. I guess politics/history just isn’t sexy or “exotic” enough.
Sometimes I want to tear down the prayer flags and burn them, burn the shirts emblazened with quotes by HHDL (burning, as far as I have always been told, is an acceptable way to destroy Tibetan Buddhist objects, as when the object goes up in smoke, its prayers go up with it), shout from the rooftops that NONE OF THIS REALLY MATTERS and show film footage of monks being beaten and photos of murdered Tibetans and Tibetans who arrive in exile snow-blind and frostbitten. This is the ugly truth these peaceful, culture-bent groups won’t show you, for fear of “politicizing” the issue–but many of us know that the personal is always political.
Zhang Fan is apparently Chinese. Why not create a second photospread in which the beautiful, ancient architecture of Tibet isn’t shown, but the shoddy buildings Tibetan nomads have been forcibly reassigned to as part of “modernization” are? Let our beautiful Chinese model be seen physically tearing down an illegal portrait of HHDL and posting a photo of Mao. Let our beautiful Chinese model be shown hanging out of a “tea shop” (brothel) in Lhasa.
Let our beautiful Chinese model be staring into the eyes of the monk whose hand she is holding–let her know his story, share in his pain and his happiness.
Let us all extract ourselves from our exotic settings and familiar backgrounds to look our neighbors in the face and to finally open ourselves to their desperate, joyful words.
One of the things my students asked me to do was write some stories in English for them to read. The stories I was finding in the beginner English books borrowed from the school’s library had already been taught to many of them, and all of them focused on Indian characters.
My first story, called The Littlest Monk, was a flop. It was the first time I had ever written a story for a non-native English speaker, and I had written it after teaching the Buddhist Philosophy class for only a few days, meaning that I had no idea how competent they were in English. It turned out that while that class was roughly on the same level of English, many of them weren’t willing to put forth much effort into their English homework because their Buddhist Philosophy course was already so demanding. (How demanding? Check out my friend’s blog here to get a glimpse at the world of Buddhist Philosophy as seen through an incredibly intelligent and hard-working Westerner’s eyes.)
For my second story, I decided to write about the campus celebrity: a tiny little Lhasa Apso named “Karthuk.” (This is the transliteration of it; the pronunciation would be “Ga-tu.”)
I grew very close to Karthuk, as she was the head chef’s dog, and for the entire three months that I lived in Sarah’s guesthouse, the chef spent much of his time in the kitchen, cooking for the various science professors visiting in order to teach monks about the cosmos. I’d sit outside playing with Karthuk and somehow she ended up getting a cute little frog toy that she’d run around with.
My parents’ cats pretty much looked at me as if I were a complete stranger when I returned home for Thanksgiving, but Karthuk remembered who I was even up to the week before I left India. I’d get within her sight and she would rush towards me, jumping all over me and barking her fuzzy little head off.
The only alteration I’ve made to this story is changing the pronoun used for Karthuk—I didn’t know if she was a boy or a girl, and the students didn’t either, until we found out that she was pregnant shortly before I left campus. The story is pretty much self-explanatory and gives an inside look into how the campus handles the problem of stray dogs.
The verdict? My students loved it, and when they saw me playing with Karthuk next, one of them shouted out something to me that had to do with the story.
Karthuk’s Big Trip
In the land encircled by snow mountains
You are the source of all happiness and good;
All-powerful Chenrezig, Tenzin Gyatso,
Please remain until samsara ends.
May your three am prayers continue for centuries.
May the soft clicking of your mala reverberate throughout the universes.
May your exuberant laughter ring into the hearts of all beings.
May one day, your people will not have to prostrate to radios, the only sound of your voice that echoes through the land of snows.
May we all follow in your compassionate footsteps.
Happy birthday, and long life to you, Your Holiness.
A while back, I won a biography of the contemporary Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, called My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, by Adina Hoffman.
I haven’t read it yet, as its a dense book around 500 pages, about a poet I had never even heard of before signing up to win the book.
There aren’t too many of his poems out there floating around on the internet, but I’ve found one that I would like to share.
Credit goes to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, who published this on their site.
translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin
At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!
But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.
Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school …
asking about him
and sending him regards.
But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.
April 15, 2006
You can purchase the book by clicking the above cover image.
Likewise, if you’d rather read his poetry than a biography, there is this book of collected poetry: So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005 (Arabic Edition)
Just to let everyone know, I’ve uploaded a number of new photos to my redbubble account, from my pilgrimage to Tso Pema as well as the march on March 10th.
You can see them HERE.
“Women are never afraid. No matter what the Chinese do. Women do what the Chinese don’t want them to do, like chant and shout slogans. In prison, the guards could punish us, they could beat us, but we still shouted slogans. We never stayed quiet, we wanted to say more. We wanted to do it again. Our mouths got bigger! We became more determined.” – Sonam Choedron from Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History, by Canyon Sam
Tibet is the “roof of the world” that teeters dangerously close to falling off the global map, despite the protests of March 2008, the 50th anniversary of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s escape into India, and the “splittist” activities all throughout China that threaten to bring down the People’s Republic.
And yet the face of Tibet is the face of men. From the US-trained guerilla warriors to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the many other, predominantly male, lamas that teach the Dharma to students the world over, when one thinks about Tibet, they picture a Tibetan male.
One Tibetan woman notes, however, that Lhasa was a city of women. The men fled; the men fought and died. The prisons were predominantly filled with women, and the women, even nowadays, are the ones who continue to uphold important parts of the culture, such as wearing the traditional Tibetan dress, the chuba, on a daily basis.
Canyon Sam is a third-generation Chinese-American who started this book over a decade ago. In this “final” publication of it, she focuses on four Tibetan women from the original thirty-six she interviewed: Sonam Choedron, Choekyi Namseling, the late Rinchen Dolma Taring, and the late Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar. These four women can be arraigned on a spectrum of Tibet’s history of the past fifty years: the invasion, the occupation, the resistance, and life in exile.
Alongside Canyon’s frantic scrambling to re-interview these four women, she revisits Lhasa and is shocked to see the once quiet city morphed into a city that could pass for any other gaudy Chinese city. The book’s title comes from the train that runs from Beijing to Lhasa, and as one Tibetan woman jokes: “The Sky Train comes in like this–ding ding ding, and leaves like this–duuuuunnnngggg duuuuunnnngggg duuuuunnnggg,” referencing the use of the train to strip Tibet of its natural resources. Additionally, the train helps promote tourism to Tibet and, far more damaging, facilitates the mass immigration of Chinese people into Tibet.
“Twenty years ago, when the public didn’t know the first thing about Tibet, we used to pray and dream that somehow Tibet would become a household word. If people knew the truth, we believed, they would come forth and intervene. Tibet would be saved. Now Tibet was indeed a household word, but China had imposed its will, transformed it. Beyond our worst nightmares.”
My biggest problem with the book was that it felt rushed. There were too many threads, and it felt that Canyon Sam, to use a cliche, “bit off more than she could chew.”
But if the book feels rushed, it is because it IS a rushed topic. Two of the four interviewees are dead now. (Om mani padme hum.) The older generation of Tibetans–the ones who knew life prior to the Chinese invasion, the ones who bravely protested against the Chinese military forces, the ones who initially fled–are dying.
In addition to the book feeling rushed, there are important threads that just sort of dangle in the book. They’re important, and they might become your favorite part of the book, but it’s hard to ground them in anything in relation to the storyline. More planning could have been done, or at least more delineation from “here in the present” to “author’s memory of the first time she interviewed this woman.” It would have made the book more easy to swallow, stylistically–which is not to say that Canyon is a bad writer. Quite the opposite: I had to break myself away from the book at several points because I couldn’t read through my tears, and all she had mentioned was how one woman snuck her a potato while the woman was fixing dinner!
I can relate to Canyon Sam more than I have been able to relate to other Western women involved in the Tibet cause, primarily because she is a writer, first and foremost. She echoed sentiments I have had all along but have been afraid to admit–ashamed of, in some sense. The experiences range from ama-las (“mothers”) insisting that I eat an omelet for breakfast, in addition to the bread and tea (because of the stereotype that Americans always eat eggs for breakfast), to being asked if I wanted tea and my saying, “Absolutely!”, instead of engaging in the polite “no, really, thank you, but no… no, really, I’m all right” social etiquette dance, and then feeling deeply embarrased about my silly inji (“Western”) enthusiasm. I, too, miss McLeod Ganj, “not the nerve-jangling, crowded, noisy town, but the place it represented.” There has been a void in my life since returning from India.
This book will become a cornerstone in my Tibetan studies, and I am hoping that maybe one day, Canyon Sam will become a colleague, mentor, friend. I am grateful to her for having the guts to go on the journeys she did in order to write this book. I am ever so grateful to the brave and amazing Tibetan women both in and outside of the book, Rachael Levay (for putting up this book on goodreads and giving away two copies!), and my fellow Tibet activists. I am indebted to the Tibetan women who have played a big part in my life: Nurse-la, for helping me recover from amoebic dysentery as well as being my partner-in-crime on campus; Wang-la, for always making special food for me when I was sick with said dysentery; Achaa-la, who was the first Tibetan woman who shared her story of escaping Tibet with me (and remains her only family member in exile), and her adorable daughter Wangmo, who I hope will one day be part of the generation that reclaims Tibet; Pema-la, for sharing bits and pieces of her life with me even when she knew that I probably only understood half of what she was saying at any given time due the language barrier; Seldon-la, for being the friend who always had my back and for her devotion in retaining her native tongue; and I am forever indebted to my students, both male and female but especially female, who changed my life forever.
This is an extremely important book for anyone interested in Tibet, Tibetan history, and the role women have played and will continue to play in Tibetan society.