2012-02-23 / Opinions

Book Review

Dreaming in Chinese

Deborah Fallows spent three years living in China with her husband, the journalist James Fallows. She was researching internet use in China, while he was writing articles for the Atlantic. Before they left, in addition to reading, studying maps, and talking to people who had been there recently, she took lessons in Mandarin. She is a linguist, and hoped to get a jumpstart on learning the language before she left.

The longer they were in China, “the more I became engaged with Chinese.” She worked and studied hard, but found progress excruciatingly slow. Eventually she “marked few milestones, cause for much selfcongratulation that was generally noted only by me.”

She found that knowing at least some of the language was vital to everyday survival. Her book is the story of what she learned about the Chinese language and what the language taught her about China.

She often felt that she was being abrupt and blunt when speaking Chinese, but discovered that what she might consider “rude” was the way the Chinese spoke. Her Chinese friends explained that Westerners use too many “please’s” and “thank you’s.” An abrupt way of speaking may be a way to honor the closeness between two friends.

Although English uses tones and stress to add meaning, it does not have the many words that Chinese contains which are exactly the same except in tone. She uses bao as an example. Depending on the tone, it can mean bag, hail, eaten your fill, a newspaper, or to hug. She would think back at times and wonder what she had really said.

Friends told them that they needed in China a mobile phone and a Chinese name. The phone was easy, the name less so. The order of names in Chinese is normally the other way around from Western names; the family name comes first, then middle, then first. Over a billion people share 100 family names. The Chinese use titles and nicknames to help keep things straight.

When her friends tried to help Deborah come up with a Chinese name, it unfortunately meant “to borrow a pen.” “So I more or less abandoned my Chinese name, and dodged along ingloriously for three years without one.”

Fallows collected maps (often erroneous) doggedly, supplementing them by asking directions. Direction-asking didn’t always work either. She learned that when you ask the Chinese where something is -- like a neighboring city -- they tell you how long it takes to get there, not how to get there. Further, one acquaintance told her that the deep-seated sense of face in China makes it difficult to admit that they don’t know an answer.

Through her study of the language, Fallows came to understand and appreciate the Chinese people. She “touched” a few people, one by one, and grew a little closer to their lives. “This reward gave me at least the illusion that I belonged, if just for a little bit, in this extraordinary country at this moment in history.”

Dreaming In Chinese is an engaging, informative book. It is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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