Karen Levy and Peter Lee

Recorded May 29, 2007 Archived May 29, 2007 01:13:17
0:00 / 0:00
Id: MPL000238


Karen Levy and Peter Lee talk about their first years of Marriage and their time teaching in China.

Subject Log / Time Code

Story about finding ingredients to make apple pie in China. Karen and Peter eventually found cinnamon at a pharmacist’s and had him grind it up for them to cook with. The next day the hotel staff made everyone their own miniature apple pies, though they didn’t realize cinnamon was a key ingredient and used curry instead.


  • Karen Levy
  • Peter Lee

Recording Location

Milwaukee Public Library

Partnership Type



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00:04 My name is Peter Wallace Lee. I'm 63 years old today is May 29th. 2007. We are here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and I'll be talking today with my wife Karen Levy and I am Karen Iris Levy. I am 59 years old and it is May 29th. 2007. We are I am in Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public Library and I will be talking with my husband Peter Lee.

00:37 What theater in 11 days on June 8th 2007 will be celebrating our 28th wedding anniversary. And I think you'll agree that we started our marriage with a grand adventure and as we've approached these 28 years of life together. We thought it would be fun to remember how it all began. But our story really begins in the spring of 1978 the year before our wedding when we met and that was a story and of itself. So let's begin there to remember where we met.

01:12 How could I forget?

01:16 It was in the spring of 1978 and I had just started a job at uw-milwaukee teaching English as a second language and that next spring 1978. I had the opportunity to go to my first International teachers of English to speakers of other languages conference just quite wonderful and this that year it took place in Mexico City, which was even more of an adventure.

01:45 So I went down there with a couple of other than structures from UWM.

01:51 And was startled and amazed at Mexico City and all the people in all the English teachers and we began making new friends and there was a particularly wonderful day when we went to the

02:06 Roof of the hotel Maria Isabel had a pool there and we're all going to go swimming and I just remember seeing this lovely lady who was really very wonderful swimmer and

02:21 I'll let you continue. The story is I think your first words were I like your stroke, but I too was at the conference and I had been living in Chicago and teaching at the central YMCA Community College. And when I heard there was a conference in Mexico City I talk to all my colleagues into going eyes and let's go to Mexico City and everyone said yeah great idea and when it came down to the conference time everyone fell to the Wayside and I was the only one that went to the conference and I remember I'm being dropped yourself being driven to the airport crying saying I don't want to go to this conference. I'm all by myself. I'm not going to know anybody there, but I'm at a young woman who I knew from my time in Spain when I work there and she said he'd come on with the group come join us and and the rest is history and recorded that next year. It was really great. We spent half of our time in Chicago half of our time in Milwaukee and I think you've got some memories of that that year in Chicago those weekends.

03:21 We don't want to jump ahead in our story quite so quickly. There was some wonderful things that happened in Mexico City that I don't want our first date porch light in the Zona Rosa in Mexico City and Incredibly romantic setting and I remember just being completely bedazzled by the whole business, but you were much more level-headed about the whole thing. Well, I asked sitting there and I can you buy this time I really liked you so I had just seen any of the movie Annie Hall and I thought I'm going to I'm going to do what Diane Keaton did so I leaned over and I Kissed You right there and I said, that's just to get this out of the way. It was amazing things wonderful things in in Mexico City of Ember. We was a particularly memorable moment going to teotihuacan and sound and light show and sharing a blanket there and then

04:21 And our last dumb on the last night to the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico map to back to a real on if you hadn't been from the from California and they never have seen you again, but you were just two hours away. So when you didn't call me in three days, I picked up the phone and called you and I was so glad your Mutual visitation between Chicago and Milwaukee for that year and I'll never forget that was the winter of 78 79, which is one of the most heaviest snowfalls in Chicago in living memory is I remember I'm coming down and having people outside your apartment no parking places because everybody was completely snowed in you can even see cars buried under snow drifts and people who had cleared parking spaces for themselves guarding them with shotguns. That was quite an eventful year going back and forth there.

05:20 But

05:22 My memories of Wisconsin were quite different by the end of a few months when I came up to Wisconsin, we explored the state and I'm being from Chicago a typical Illinois person. I hadn't even think thought of anything north of Chicago, but I grew to really love not only Milwaukee but all the corners of the state that we visited during that time that we were together, but sometime during that year that we were going back and forth from Chicago to Milwaukee a change major change in American politics affected the course of Our Lives as well. That's right. This was the year that the

06:01 Normalization of relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China was beginning to seriously filter down to more than just the high levels of government Nixon's initial ping pong diplomacy in 72 is now beginning to bear fruit and

06:22 China was beginning to open up for the first time after 30 years since the road since the war of Liberation as it was called in late 40s and I had spent two years in Taiwan teaching 1968 9069 as a alternative Service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war and

06:47 I remember distinctly standing on the West Coast University of teaching everyone on the west side of the island of Taiwan in looking out and you could see the mainland and thinking then at that time in 1969 that here was this vast Area country locked away from Americans and now here Ten Years Later 1978-79 things going to open up and sure enough the first one the first people they were sort of seriously inviting to come to China more than just a tourist basis. In fact, they really weren't really interested in People Like Us English teachers and what we both were doing and so it seems like a real possibility that we could actually go in and visit there.

07:35 So I came to you with this idea and there was a certain sort of circuitous logic to the whole thing. And that was that I was very interested in going to China to work and see what we could do there. However, I didn't want to leave you behind and but I knew that I couldn't take you with me just as soda boyfriend girlfriend because the Chinese were destroyed the conservative in those respects in and probably would frown on that. So I proposed to you and said how would you like to marry me and go to China?

08:12 And I said kind of wynot Nebraska. I don't know why I said that but I was so shocked and you know my whole orientation the pack in the back. I was enough French undergraduate major in teaching English as a second language. I had lived in Spain for 3 years in orientation was to Western Europe. I'd never even thought of Asia but then I thought you know, I had had a lot of pretty neat Adventures as a as a solo person and I could think of nothing that I wanted to do more than to join you this person had grown to love so much and a new adventure even if it was on the other side of the world and so I'm after my initial shock response more measured response set. I said, yeah. Yeah, I'll marry you and move to China.

09:02 Yes, the only other person had to do any serious convincing of with your mother, but that all worked out very well. So we got married on a Friday on Friday, June 8th 1979 quiet wedding in your sister's house was just family around followed by a wonderful celebration two days later on Sunday for the rest of the family your extended family, which is wonderful numerous and mine and friends and others on Sunday, June 10th at your Uncle Joe and Aunt Reba's house in Flossmoor, right? I just remember particularly is that we arrived on that day or in full anticipation with that lovely blue and white tent set up in the backyard. And when do all the things were coming in and of course we arrived at morning in the temperature was about 50 degrees and there's a 40 mile-an-hour wind and tented ended up on the roof of the house. So we all ended up in the basement but had one of the more memorable parties that the family has ever had it was terrific.

10:01 We moved up to Milwaukee right away. And there was no honeymoon for us at that point because with accepted jobs at the University of wisconsin-milwaukee in their relatively new English as a second language department. So after a brief weekend in Door County, we started our jobs but immediately because after all I married you to go to China immediately, we started making contact writing letters submitting applications and trying to get over to the People's Republic of China. I'm nothing seemed to be coming our way but one day the day before we needed to sign our contracts to teach for the spring semester. We received in the mail a 6 page single-spaced typed letter from a New Zealander who was living in Iceland in the People's Republic of China in Northeast China and teaching of Jilin University.

10:54 And it was quite an amazing letter six pages of single spacing as you can imagine his purpose in writing was that

11:04 Was very very wonderful. He had heard through the son of local administrative officials at the University that we had been chosen to be invited to come to Jilin University, but he had become very familiar in a customer experience and how slowly the wheels of bureaucracy can move in China and how sort of last minute things can be and he was concerned that if the if the government waited too long, we would in fact have committed two jobs in the United States and not be able not be available to come when they exactly when they wanted us. So he had written this letters I say to to let us know that this was in the offing and so on the basis of that we

11:51 Turn down the contract with with UWM and took the leap of faith that in fact this was all going to come to pass. The letter also went on to talk at length about conditions where we were would be living and at a teaching experience and all sorts of things that we should bring with us to be sure to bring with us and

12:18 Was very very helpful proved to be you know, just as in the most important piece of information we had before we actually went and sure enough middle of December 1979. We did get a formal invitation from the Ministry of Education at the People's Republic of China that we were going to be going to Jilin University invited to go and teach teacher training classes for two years. So in the middle of February 1982 months later, we arrived in Beijing and it was a really exciting time to be in Beijing because we were really among the first wave of American Educators to to arrive after the normalization of relations between our two great countries as good as it was often refer to during a r r two years there and when we got off the plane and Beijing, I remember that down the strip club in mr. Woo were there to welcome Austin mister mister will were representatives from the Foreign Affairs office at the University.

13:18 And. With what I remember most we arrived in the middle of winter. And so I remember how cold it was and yet they insisted that we have a week of tourism in Beijing before we head up to the even colder Northeast China. And so we spent it the week visiting all the places the usual haunts the Summer Palace the Temple of Heaven the Forbidden City and most exciting of all the Great Wall Great Wall is someone who had two thought about China a lot. I mean, I spent two years in Taiwan, but I had

13:54 Been interested in China since my undergraduate days and so many thoughts and and interest taking me in that direction. And so the picture ID would we have still have of me standing on the Great Wall there in mid February 1980 a big grin on my face just clearly represented a really high moment in my life to that point. We all had a great weekend Beijing the first week, but my first inkling that of perhaps some of the dippers at deprivation is life ahead and a waiting for us a happened in the last day of our stay the day before we left for China chew on and mr. Hood took us to the Friendship store. The French doors is store exclusively for foreigners and he suggested we might like to make some purchases before we leave a drink and I asked him what we what kind of things should we buy and I remember him looking at me and saying everything and so I do not have time to clue, but I I think I remember

14:54 Stocking up on some chocolate and peanut butter and other Western treat food treats and we were ultimately really happy. We did that because after a particularly hard day dark piece of chocolate or some smooth peanut butter really didn't did a lot to smooth the day and if I remember Dr. Philip peanut butter and maybe a little wine now and the next day we boarded the train and we did 16 hour overnight trips to to Chung xuan our home.

15:33 Caltrain is a city of about 3 million Souls. It is the provincial capital of Jilin province, which is the middle of the three Northern provinces in China up in the f word Russia. Those three times it together are also commonly known as Manchuria where the area where the Japanese occupied during the early parts of the second world war, but actually in the thirties.

15:59 We were among the first because Karen said the first Americans to be there since that time since the forties really and so we were something of a curiosity to these inhabitants of this great City AZ for the Detroit of China. It's the automobile manufacturing Capital movies did was then but people were very interested in a sender. We were stared at and could often would pick up a crowd of 20 or 30 people who would follow us around as we walked around downtown or or walk through a department store or something for Karen with them. My wife has very curly hair and blue eyes and left handed and all of these things together made her a really special attraction for

16:45 Many cities in evidence particularly elderly ladies who were particularly bold who wouldn't hesitate to come up and just stick their hands in her hair to see what it really felt like something of a trial but part of the experience of being in China at that time.

17:03 Are jobs at the University we were in charge of a patient, which was a teacher training program that the University was running in conjunction with the national Ministry of Education Program to upgrade the skills of presently employed English language teachers in Institutes of higher education around the country and show up students from the 3 North from the three men tree and provinces in place English teachers were competed took a test and chosen to come to participate in the patient fun here at Tulane University.

17:44 We were we were known as the foreign experts in our job was to

17:51 Provide information on language teaching pedagogy methodology as well as just to Simply give our students the chance to hear a native English speaker for the first time many of them had never heard English spoken by a native speaker alive native speaker before every 6 months. We got a new group to work with over two years. We worked for different groups of teachers from those surrounding provinces.

18:21 Before we left to go to China are University told us that they were building special housing for us. In fact, we have little apartments when right on campus when we were there. But when we got to China, they realize that they were under construction and they were under construction for the for year-and-a-half while we were other two years. We lived in childhood finally make it into our little apartments that final six months of our stay there, but for the first year and a half we lived in a large hotel that was built by the Russians in the 50s and we had dumb

18:55 Hotel at kind of come on hard times. I mean, I remember that a large outdoor swimming pool was really filled with as a lumber storage, but it was a charm. I mentioned that we arrived in injunction for the spring semester. And so it was the middle of winter and since we had come from the Midwest and we jumped phone is about the same latitude as Minneapolis. We felt that we were really well-prepared for for the winter for a Chinese winter, but we realized that we weren't we were ill-prepared as well. It wasn't until the second winter that we were able that. We were taken to a Taylor and we were able to have our own padded suits padded clothing made it and so that second winter we had no problems, but we were pretty cold the first winter and now one of my students some pitied me so much that she needed me a pair of mittens or gloves with just half fingers so that I

19:55 Would be able to teach to keep warm in the classroom while teaching and holding chalk and writing on the Blackboard. I remember this just cuz we're actively teaching and moving around and doing keeping warm in that way. But I always pitied our students who were sitting at their desks and and not moving through all this cuz the buildings Chinese would heat the buildings to be sure everything was 30 below outside, but the buildings only be heated up to about 55u00b0 and the idea was that above 55u00b0 your sort of responsible for your own Heating and that's what in fact padded clothing was all about when we arrived in China. I remember being so surprised and thinking how fat Chinese people were cuz I had all but now they were we had heard in the west that didn't have a lot of food to eat at Chinese people were so fat and then I realized and May 1st was the official day where everyone took off their patties clothing.

20:55 And the belt that went around somebody's way is now the same belt would go three times around their waist and I and then I realized Health in Chinese people fart a lot across cultural experiences while we were there two years worth of cross-cultural lessons for both of us had had experience is overseas and novices when it came to dealing with another culture and understanding and trying to be sensitive to things going on. How are we trying to prove to be its own set of challenges and one particular moment that stays with me was sent within the first month or so that we arrive in is Karen said we were in a hotel environment where we had our own little Suite of rooms and within the first second third week or so of our time there some of the University of facials arrived a large box of a color television for us and I are both of our

21:55 Actions was at this was just no way over-the-top to Lavish a kind of thing to be a mission. We didn't own a color television in the United States to have and we tried to protest and we protested and protested, but they were hearing of it and fill finally we just simply gave in and and we had this incredible color television set where we watched Chinese Opera and advertisements for heavy earth-moving equipment and dumber than amazing stuff and only later 6 months a year later that we actually find out through our interpreter who proved to be a wonderful friend and who wouldn't help us in many ways like this finally able to explain to us that this color television set have been provided by that the national Ministry of Education to the university for our used while we were there but on the understanding that the universe is understanding that when we left the television set would revert to the university for their you

22:56 And so there was no way they were going to let us refuse to take this television set in there for the neon lose. It themselves ultimately those is one of those small stories of things that that on the surface we didn't seem to understand at all and later. I understood came to have a better understanding of we had we had in quite a number of run-ins with the administration over our two years there I'd say but um

23:20 The greatest experience was on a one-on-one person personal experiences with people and that we made such great friends among the students that we worked with the teachers. We worked with and and the hotel staff where we stayed was so warm and friendly and tried very much to make us feel at home in this large and sometimes forbidding hotel that we stayed in and I remember one the fall of our first year we were in China.

23:51 No matter how good the Chinese food could be after 6 months 9 months of eating Chinese food you sneeze you long for something else or Mexican or Chinese? But that wasn't coming into the market and one of the other foreign experts a woman from Texas Bobby Strickland, and I looked at each other and said apple pie we decided we were going to make an apple pie. So we bought a bunch of apples in the hotel was very kind said, dating we could use the kitchen use utensils and everything, but the easiest thing we realized was the purchase of the apples for the apple pie because it was no, you know Frozen crust is that you could go out and buy or anything so we had to buy some render render some

24:43 Pig fat to make lard for the shortening for to make the crust the pastry crust. That was one thing and we realize that a primary ingredient apple pie also is the spice of cinnamon and I'm assuming is not a spice that you use in Chinese cooking so we couldn't find it anywhere. We did finally however discovered that it. Was used medicinally and we went to a pharmacist in the pharmacist was able to take some cinnamon bark and grind it down and make a fine powder for us. It was wonderfully fresh sinemet. So we went back to the kitchen. All our things together this now he knows about 2-3 days. In the process of making these apple pies and the hotel staff stood around we couldn't speak Chinese to them very easily. They didn't speak any English, but they looked and they were very curious and they watched us make these apple pies. They turned out beautifully in the next day. We had two beautiful apple pies to share with the other foreign experts. We did this for the other.

25:43 Good, they were going to show you how kind the hotel staff was that they realized how pleased we were and how excited we were about these apple pie. So about a week later. We all come down to the dining room for for our dinner and and everybody's places and individually baked apple pie beautiful looking apple pie. However, there was just one problem and that is that dump. Of course, you know, they haven't tasted it. I guess I'm so they hadn't realized that we use cinnamon in the apple pie. And the only thing that they could, you know think that it might be with something of a similar color that they use often which is curry. So we had we were very surprised to bite into arcuri apple pie startling experience. It just never occurred to them that that cinnamon was a spice you could use on Painted Desert situation.

26:43 Certainly some of our most exciting Adventures so that we had during those two years 1980-81 were traveling around during school vacations and they were set of two different kinds of experiences there.

26:57 First of all, we stated that we had heard from other foreign experts who've been there before other Americans were there with his head that traveling in China was fairly restricted and the normal thing would be that we would go we would be able to travel but we would be sent along with us would be sent a guide interpreter somebody who less kind person, reminder Drive Course Bristol that immediately didn't want anyone going with us, but we were prepared to to put up with this cuz I was really going to happen as far as we understood. However, as we approached june-july that first year and we're talkin to beginning to talk about doing some traveling at one point. Some of the universe pictures came to us and sort of shamefaced idli in the wringing their hands saying that they they were very sorry, but they really didn't have the budget to send somebody with us and that you know, how apologize

27:57 For this and realize it would be quite a hardship. Of course. I took it in myself. Anyway as a both a certain we were pleased that we were going to able to travel by ourselves. But at the same time I was really terrified because although I've had some Chinese and I've known him for my Taiwan experience and tell her that I really didn't have that much confidence in my ability to negotiate Chinese train stations and hotel clerks and so forth and so on but that's the way it went and we went and did go to some wonderful places. We we climb 3 of Chinese holy mountains and when I say climbed, I mean the emperor's needed to get to the top of the these mountains and so there were steps that had been carved into these mountains one particular Mountain we climb was Tyshawn and I believe there were five thousand steps and we started it's a 3000 Mark and climb 3,000 steps to the top of the amount of this mountain spent the night in

28:57 Monastery so that we could wake up the next morning and see the sunrise and we were awakened at 4 in the morning. Heard it out to see the sunrise in a 6 fog fog for 2 hours. And then I remember someone saying it's time to go. Let's go have breakfast. No, no sunrise this morning that we can see how many different places but we mostly by train and Chinese train experience is always wonderful. You could travel three different classes. You can travel first class which was called soft seat soft cushion, or you can travel second class, which was a hard sleeper hard sleeper, but because it was literally a small compartment with three bunk beds up and

29:44 In and I was it or you can travel sitting up in the hard seat. We mostly traveled the second class in this is kind of hard sleeper things where we were in with four other Chinese folks and those were their own kinds of experience is wonderful with the other places. We went to very intriguing was the home of the philosopher Confucius, which is a sort of National Monument chew Foo small town of chew food. And at the time that we were there it was it was actually a start of a bed and breakfast place where we could we could just stay there is a small hotel more recently. We've heard that it's action have been turned into a museum, but it's in the same time confucius's grave is also there so we were able to visit the cemetery and see Confucius grave which is quite traumatic on one vacation. We floated down the Mekong River in South China and on another occasion. We slept in a year to ninar Mongolia.

30:41 Well, our two years went very quickly and China and dumb soon. It was time for the what seemed like endless Bank was official Banquets from the University to say goodbye to us in the informal parties of all of our students some that they wanted to say goodbye to us and finally that incredible tearful farewell at the train station in the winter. We decided that we couldn't we couldn't just come home, you know, we needed some time to decompress. So we took I think of a few months to travel at and come home and there was still a couple Adventures ahead of us. You had not wanted to introduce me to a place that you had spent some time in and that was near and dear to your heart and I wanted to take you to a place that I had spent time in that was near and dear to my heart. So we had it off and our first place was Island.

31:41 Where I had spent two years in Thailand teaching English in a small second that boys secondary school about 45 minutes outside of Bangkok. So I was very intrigued to have the opportunity here. We were in Asia to go back by by way of Thailand and see if I could revisit the school of which we did we flew into Bangkok to Phuket rain out to the town and then walked out to the school which about a mile outside of town with chef and I was intrigued to see that in the 15 years since I've been there the school was not about four times the size it was when I was there in a large gauge in front of it and I had Karen take my picture standing in front of the school sign and about that point where I should have got some cold feet and was pretty much ready to go back into town and get on the train headed back for Bangkok, but no can I have to enter a tear because I said I remember saying listen, it's so bloody hockey.

32:41 Out of town to this place. We're not leaving until you go through that gate and say hello and older man by this point, but he had been in one of the PE teachers physical education teachers when I had been teaching there 15 years before and apparently somebody from this the town that we had stopped to talk to Ed. I figured out who we were and it called out to the school. And so they they thought they'd caught on that. We were coming into the second running out. Well it it turned out to be just a wonderful moment because many of the teachers that I had worked with were still there. And in fact the Headmaster who had arrived essentially with me as a new Headmaster in the school as I had come in as a new Peace Corps volunteer was now 15 years later was just about to retire and so this a course with a tremendous occasion on both of us for a great party and we had that we went out to dinner all together and had wonderful times reminiscing and as you remembered somebody managed to pull out

33:41 Photo albums and things at my time when I've been there before quite remarkable thought they didn't they wouldn't remember you and from there. We went to a few other places, but the other place that we ended up with some before I coming back to United States with Spain. I had spent three years as I mentioned before teaching in Barcelona and I dearly wanted to introduce you to Spain and particular Barcelona and turned out to be a really ironic is the opportune time to go because just done before we left China you got a letter from your dad informs you that he was getting remarried and he was marrying someone that you knew that in fact had been many many years ago had worked for your mother in The Art Museum and in Milwaukee and they were getting married and they were going to Barcelona on their honeymoon. And so would they mind would we mind if if they met us there so we

34:41 And jump and I'll have to say it was a great trip because while I knew the language and could take people around and do the city. I saw the city from A New Perspective because your dad being an architect Barbara whose specialty was the decorative Arts just opened up the city in a in a way that was so wonderfully exciting well by by fall of 1990 in Milwaukee and we resumed our teaching jobs at at ESL and not at UWM in a year later 19 in June of 1983. Another series of milestones in our lives together within a 5 week. In June July of 1983. I turned 40 we became homeowners with having purchased a beautiful Victorian house on Milwaukee's west side and most important of all we became the proud.

35:41 Parents of our son Benjamin Rogers Lee

35:44 And here we are now in 2007 just about to celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary our son Donald B-24 this year graduated from college and he's off living on his own or retired three years ago from 28 years of teaching at uw-milwaukee.

36:09 I've just followed you in retirement three months ago 28 years ago. We were facing our first year together in marriage and embarking on this Grand Adventure that we've been on and we find ourselves facing our first year of retirement together and looking forward to a new series of Adventures. So Peter, I love you. Happy anniversary. Love you. Happy anniversary.