The XX Factor

Book of the Week: Dreaming in Chinese

Deborah Fallows’ Dreaming in Chinese comes with two subtitles: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language or And Discovering What Makes a Billion People Tick . You can, if you’re an Amazon customer, also buy it in conjunction with James Fallows’ Postcards From Tomorrow Square: Reports from China , which is available with only one subtitle. All of those things together tell you something about the book: that publishers hope to market it in the United States with an Eat Pray Love angle but not in Britain, where a more comical title (and cover art) were deemed appropriate, that Fallows is likely linked to James Fallows, who is in fact her husband, and that that her knowledge of Chinese and China probably comes from the same source as his: a few years living there and many more years of travel. Finally it suggests that her approach (like his) will be both affectionate and perceptive.

Contemplating Fallows’ book in this way is a little like contemplating China through the lens of a non-fluent knowledge of one of its spoken languages: you’re still on the outside, but you’re getting something a little deeper than you get from a single glance at the cover. But that’s where my analogy fails. Fallows’ book isn’t a just another “eskimos have a hundred words for snow and the french have a hundred words for cheese: now, what do we know about their cultures?” style quick hit. It is, as I surmised, both affectionate and perceptive. Fallows claims that she’s still far from fluent in an extraordinarily difficult language (I speak from experience), but she uses what she’s learned of the structure of both spoken Mandarin and written Chinese to open a window into what can feel like an alien culture. The result is a series of vignettes based on everything from the lack of “politesse” in China, where phrases that mark good manners in Western languages, like please and thank you, are considered distancing (but where tricks of phrasing can have the same effect) to the way the language of earthquake coverage revealed to her the softer side of country that had felt and sounded harsh.

Dreaming In Chinese is absolutely no Eat Pray Love : it’s a memoir-style book with an outward focus. Fallows is writing less about her own experiences than about how a typical Westerner can grow in understanding of Chinese culture through language. But for anyone with a connection to China (and particularly for anyone who has attempted Mandarin) her book is a gift: it’s all the thoughts that escaped you in your travels and studies. It’s as revealing of the way a Western, English-speaking mindset perceives China as it is of what “makes a billion people tick.” For readers hoping to truly journey in China (rather than just plant your feet firmly on the Great Wall), Dreaming in Chinese is mandatory reading.