BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows [in Christian Science Monitor]

Dreaming in ChineseIn the book of Exodus in the King James Version of the Bible, Moses first called himself a “stranger in a strange land.” From then on up through Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 novel of the same phrase, the “stranger in a strange land”-genre has been (and remains) a staple of song, film, and literature. That a sense of cultural disconnect has long plagued – and fascinated – humankind.

Centuries ago, Marco Polo could never have imagined he was creating the ‘[western] stranger in a strange land’-niche with his ever-popular travelogues. Ever since the fin-de-siècle socialist capitalism that opened China, westerners are flocking to the seemingly unlimited potential of the ex-pat experience. Linguist Deborah Fallows becomes one of the latest with Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, an oddly hybrid mix of memoir, history, and cultural study.

Fallows and her husband, The Atlantic’s national correspondent James Fallows, are seasoned ex-pats; Fallows’s introduction describes the “pattern of [their] life” as “alternating several years at home in Washington DC, with several years out exploring the world.” Their first visit to China – recalled merely as “snapshots” – occurred briefly in 1986 while the family (with two then-small children) spent four years living in Japan and Southeast Asia.

Almost a quarter-century later, the couple returned to China when James accepted a three-year Atlantic gig. In spite of Deborah Fallows’s linguistic training and predeparture language classes, “Our entry to China was rough,” she confesses. “I could not recognize or utter a single word of the Chinese … and I even wondered if my teacher had been teaching us Cantonese instead of Mandarin.” (Fallows is careful to explain that “Chinese” is “technically a broader term that covers the family of many different languages and dialects of China.” As Mandarin is China’s official language, she uses the terms “Mandarin” and “Chinese” interchangeably.)

Fallows, of course, tenaciously progresses. In 14 chapters – each titled with a Chinese phrase, its English translation, and a summary remark about said phrase – Fallows charts how the Chinese language “became [her] way of making some sense of China.” In “1. Wo ài ni! I love you! The grammar of romance,” Fallows muses that “[m]aybe love, 爱, is a metaphor for much that is now unfolding and changing in China.” She offers disparate glimpses of the street vendor attracting foreign customers by yelling “I love you!,” the friend who confesses she loves her husband “for now,” and contrasts the commonplace public displays of affection in Beijing’s Yuyuantan Park to the parents who wander Shanghai People’s Park advertising their grown children’s virtues on homemade signs in hopes of arranging marriage.

In “2. When rude is polite,” Fallows observes how bluntness is a sign of closeness and intimacy; her overuse of “pleases” and “thank-yous” in China – expected in the West – actually emphasizes social distance. […click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, August 4, 2010

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010


1 Comment

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: