A Review of “Dreaming in Chinese” by Deborah Fallows

After spending three years in China, linguist Deborah Fallows decided to write this book which uses the prism of the Mandarin language to explore the patterns and subtleties of Chinese culture.

In her introduction Fallows talks about her memories of China as being a series of snapshots, and this book has a certain “looking-through-the-photo-album” quality about it, a series of short meditations on her experiences with the language and the Chinese people.

While other books want to show the sweep of a society’s history and culture, this book focuses on little moments and little insights that will be a delight to anyone interested in knowing what it is like to live in China.

Through her eyes we see the little evocative moments:

– Her satisfaction when she can complete everyday tasks in Mandarin: conversing on the phone, watching soap operas, and what she calls her “piece de resistance,” chewning out a taxi driver in Shanghai for overcharging her.

– How mobile phones and texting have caught on in a big way in China. Even street sweepers or recyclers pedaling their carts can afford phones, and apparently reception is good just about everywhere: subway cars, elevators, and even in the countryside.

– How a Chinese person’s orientation to the world in terms of order, place, direction, and time is different from that of a Westerner’s. While she was practicing tai chi in the park with a group, a man walked by at a brisk pace, facing backward the whole time. None of the other Chinese people near her seemed to think that it was at all unusual.

– Things are changing so fast in China that she learned to wait at the cobbler’s for her shoes to be repaired. If she left them overnight, the shop might be gone when she returned in the morning. Apparently of the officials had the power to make the shopkeepers leave at a moment’s notice.

– How metaphor and turns of phrase are used to create Chinese words. For example, the word for “heart” is included in many compound words. If you combine the word for “open” with the word “heart,” you get the word for “joyous.” If you combine the word for “hot” with the word for “heart,” you get the word “enthusiastic.”

Fallows writes with poignancy about the aftermath of the 2008 earthquakes. She describes how the news coverage was more raw, less manufactured by the government. She talks about how she saw a new gentleness in Chinese society after the tragedy. She had grown used to a China that was “rough and harsh — .bruising, wearing, and battling encounters of simply getting through everyday life.” But after the earthquake, she saw Premier Wen Jiabao comfort crying children staying with them much longer than he would have needed to just for a photo op.

All in all, Fallows provides us with a window into Chinese culture, a few glimpses of how the language informs the people and vice versa. In her last chapter “A little goes a long way,” she poses the question “How hard is it to learn Chinese, really?” Her answer is perhaps dispiriting to those who would want to learn it; perhaps comforting to those who have tried and found it daunting. She was watching a travel program about Spain for Chinese tourists that was partly in Spanish and partly in Chinese. She realized that after two years of being in China, she could understand more of the Spanish than the Chinese, even though she had never studied Spanish.

It is a difficult language for Westerners to learn, but with her book, we can at least get some of the sense of the meaning embodied by the Chinese language and its people, even if we will never be fluent in the language itself.

(Note: Deborah Fallows accompanied her husband, James Fallows, to China when he was assigned there is a correspondent for the Atlantic. His book, Postcards from Tomorrow Square is also well worth reading.)