Book Reviews: Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWosken, and Kosher Chinese, by Michael Levy


When you travel, do you want to really learn about a place, or experience a place you fantasized about?  Do you want to meet the locals and learn what they think about the world, or do you  want photos of places you’ve seen photos of?  Do you want the people you meet in that place you’ve traveled to, to  know YOU?  As a person, or as an American?

To be a Jew in the world it to always be an ‘other’.  I think a lot of non-Jews  think of  us as an oddity.  There are the stereotypes that  we are either  Hasidic in culture/nature, or comedians, or  odd people with Asperger’s (guilty), or lurking as  gentiles/goyem. In reality, most of us are secular humanists  trying to find a place for ourselves.

As a Jew, and anthropology major, I am intensely interested in the   experiences of  Americans  attempting to make a way for themselves in a foreign culture.  I guess I did ok as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Both books came to me, by coincidence, at about the same time:  1 was at a free book swap.  The other was given to me by a friend who sell s books.  Both of these books happen to be by Jews who worked in China.  Both had unique experiences, and ways of describing their experiences and interactions with  Chinese nationals.  That’s where the similarity ends.

DeWosken had a very unique experience.  Her father was an academic sinologist, and  she had lived in China as a child.  When she graduated  college (with degrees in English and poetry), she decided to go back and live her life as an adventure. This was in the  mid 1990s, and she was able to get a job at a public relations firm in Beijing…which she hated.  Via a chance meeting at a party, she agreed to be cast as a character in the soap opera which is the title of the book.  Unique  experience hardly addresses Dewosken’s adventurous life, negotiating for  living space and learning  the subtleties of Chinese (Mandarin) as she  bumped along.  But she managed.  She also recognizes the absurdity of the character she plays,  and how this gave her a bit of an edge in meeting Chinese  artists as well as people who would become her friends.

Levy’s book is much different, and much  funnier.  He became a Peace Corps Volunteer after from returning from a trip to Israel, where he studied in a Yeshiva and planned to make a life until  bus bombings too close to home.  He returned to New York City, and not two weeks later, the  9/11 World Trade Center attacks occurred.  He thought of joining the marines, but  his mother  persuaded him that  Peace Corps might be  more to his ‘lifestyle’ taste.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer goes through that period of adjustment where you  just marvel at how little sense anything makes, and just feeling that even if it appears to be working, it probably isn’t.  Levy makes do, learns the language, goes with the flow, and does an excellent  job of telling us how he managed.

I enjoyed both books, and would recommend then to anyone thinking of either  Peace Corps service, or  expatriating themselves  to China.

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