Kosher Chinese

“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.

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A Chinese Poseur in Tibet: Harper’s Bazaar Indonesia’s “Seven Days in Tibet”

Click for photos from the spread.

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.

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Emerging Identity

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Karthuk’s Big Trip

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

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RESPECT and the Intersectionality of Oppression

Hi *****,

I just wanted to send you a personal message about your usage of the word “RETARDED” [emphasis hers] in context with Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress.

You are someone I admire a lot for all of your hard work, which is probably why your usage of the word hit me really hard. As founder of “***** ** Respect,” the usage of the word “retarded” goes against just that: respect.

Here are two quick links I pulled up on why using the word “retarded” is wrong and offensive: http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/10/16/ableist-word-profile-retarded/

and http://www.theredneckmommy.com/2010/03/05/why-you-shouldnt-use-the-r-word/

Please try to refrain from using the word “retarded” because it is offensive to those of us who are not able-bodied/able-minded and it doesn’t show the[m the] respect that they deserve.

Thanks!
-Angie

Her reply:

Angie, I’m sorry this offended you. I am a journalist, and teach ESL – so I’m very aware of the meaning, including its Latin origins.

To quote Dr.Walden Bello:
“The fact is that there is enough food in the world for everyone. But tragically, much of the world’s food and land resources are tied up in producing beef and other livestock–food for the well off–while millions of children and adults suffer from malnutrition and starvation.”

The word originates from a combination of backward and slow, and is also defined as “delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment”

I feel a ‘celebrity’ wearing raw meat does in fact hold back progress of animal rights, and demeans people who are starving.

I don’t mean to offend anyone, in modern language, the context of many words have changed. While a child may get in trouble in school for using the word bitch, at a kennel, this word is used properly, in its original context – to refer to a female dog.

I truly meant the word to show backward (re) action that does not progress (tard/slow) society.

Again, sorry if this did not come through in the original post.

My final reply (emphasis added):

You can’t reclaim a word that never belonged to you in the first place.

Her response was to defriend me from facebook.

Fine; I don’t care. She can spew all the Latin origins at me that she wanted; I read her use of the word “retarded” as meaning “bad” and “stupid”, which is unfortunate. You cannot express the phrase “This is RETARDED” without implying the modern-day connotations of the word, however knowledgeable you may be about etymology. Not everyone is going to know that you know the etymology of the word, and frankly, not a whole lot of people care.

It deeply upsets me that so many people involved in specific causes are ignorant to and/or refuse to see the intersectionality of oppression.

A facebook friend of mine illustrated this by commenting on how she deems it unacceptable for black people to refer to gays as “fags” (she was referring to a specific film, I believe), which caused quite a response from several of her friends.

One individual rather harshly commented that it isn’t just black people who use this term. This could imply that if “everyone does it, it must be all right” but it fails to grasp the intersectionality of the various movements by people of color and the various movements by GLBTQ-identifying people; it effectively erases the experiences GLBTQ-identifying people of color.

As another individual commented, we are not out to set up a “hierarchy of oppression” or debate on who’s got it worse–rather, we just want to bring to light how oppression works on various levels and cannot be boiled down into X versus Y.

“And while no one should do it, it is especially sad that a community with such a deep history of oppression would so willingly support the oppression of others,” as another individual so aptly commented.

The “bitch” argument is a strawman one; perhaps a more apt argument would be the use of the term “bitch” applied to a woman walking down the street. I have experienced, at least once in my life, witnessing a woman be called “bitch” and when she fought it, the man immediately retorted, “But isn’t that a good thing, according to your feminist rhetoric?” This is supposed to soften the blow, but it doesn’t, because the term is still being used as an insult, just another way to oppress a woman. The woman herself might have reclaimed the term “bitch” (to mean “being in total control, honey”, as I’ve occasionally heard), but just because she has individually reclaimed it does not mean the term is instantly stripped of its former meanings, nor does it mean that she won’t find it offensive–especially when it’s being yelled at her from across the street by a man who just cat-called her and called her a “bitch” as she ignored his come-ons.

To attempt to draw another parallel, this could be mirrored in the case of the word “nigger”, which has been reclaimed by certain, specific individuals of color as “nigga” and can often be heard in rap songs. Just because they reclaimed it doesn’t mean that I, a white woman, have any right to use that word when speaking to them. They might have reclaimed it, but when I say it, I am saying it from a long history of oppression, and I am saying it from the position of the oppressor.

The fact that a fellow pro-Tibet activist that I came to admire and respect so much sees no problem in falsely reclaiming a word like “retarded” upsets me very much. I am also rather disgusted that a word that has tormented those who are not able-bodied is being applied to something dealing directly with the welfare of animals, and question what kind of message that is sending. Is that we care more about the welfare of animals than the welfare of human beings?

Just because we’re on the same side, in this together, fighting for the same end goal, doesn’t mean that I must blindly follow you, that I am not allowed to speak out when I find something off-kilter or offensive or even outright racist coming from your mouth.

But as the Buddha said, greatly paraphrased, “Don’t listen to me! In fact, don’t listen to anyone. Go and find out for yourself.”

A movement that does not have Respect at its core is a shaky and unstable movement that is not likely to last long.

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Conversations with an Ugly American

I received an overwhelmingly positive response to my replies on another forum, so I thought I’d post them here since I haven’t posted anything in quite a long time.

The quoted bits are from the original poster, and my replies are posted afterwards. I wasn’t going to let this girl down easy; I’ve witnessed how the Ugly American goes abroad and comes back, only to continue to be rewarded. Even universities seem unaware of the problem, or simply do not know how to address the Ugly American students they have.

The original poster deleted herself from the site shortly after I posted my second response, presumably because she was witnessing how many people were encouraging me.

I think I’ll let the rest of the post speak for me.

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Happy Birthday and Long Live His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama!

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.

Read about the first time I saw HHDL.

The second.

And the third, a private audience.

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, orthopedic footsteps.

Happy birthday, and long life to you, Your Holiness.

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