Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language

When I was a Chinese language student, I sat in an old classroom where the "ping....ting" noises from the rickety radiator made listening class vexing because I couldn’t tell the machine's emissions from the teacher’s. It is an admittedly extreme example of the obstacles that – equally truly -- most Westerners face with Chinese. Among them is Deborah Fallows, a Harvard-trained linguist who speaks five languages . She lived in China between 2006-2009 with her husband, namely James Fallows, national correspondent for the US magazine The Atlantic.

Fallows notes that Mandarin has only 400 syllables versus 10 times more for English. How can the Chinese, who speak of the world of “10,000 objects,” make these limited syllables correlate to thousands of objects and actions? It is through tones. As those who live in Asia know but many in the west don’t, she warns that if you change the tonal inflection, you alter the meaning. Mandarin has four tones while Guangzhou Cantonese has seven -- or is that just a strange rumor?

Fallows also correctly points out that the language and social mores are linked. For instance, she finds the Chinese use personal pronouns far less often than those in the west. The Chinese, she writes, “aren’t as smitten with using pronouns at all.” Chinese in fact often feel uncomfortable being too self-referential with the use of “wo” or “I”, especially compared to Westerners. Or they just prefer a spare use of language, leaving out pronouns unless they’re really necessary for meaning. A Chinese friend insists that teachers do not drill pronouns. These social and institutional-pedagogic explanations could overlap.

At times, the adjustments are hard on her. To reject something, for example, the Chinese bluntly say "bu yao," -- literally, “don’t want” or "don't need”. Fallows find that feels rude to be speaking so bluntly, but the language's norms can be practical and pithy. At other times, e.g. the written characters, the language seems mystical.

Many lost foreigners ask, “Why do Chinese maps sometimes put south at the top?” In early maps of the Forbidden City, for example, the main gates are at the top, the “south” end of the map. “South was auspicious [for] warm breezes and the best sunshine,” Fallows explains, “offering a good reason to orient maps that way.”

Regarding orphans, she observes that their administrative caretakers often give them familiar names such as Chen or Wang to make the children fit in and share common names that everyone else had. Then the public is less prone to stigmatize them. Such is the link between names and public face. The -- correct -- implicit message of her book is that the language and its uses reflect the full range of the Chinese experience.

In Beijing during the runup for the 2008 Olympics, Fallows also observed how much of the Chinese mind set is wrapped up with superstitions about good or bad fortune, to a far greater extent than notions of lucky 7 or dismal 13 in the West. Recall that the games kicked off on August 8, 2008 at -- strangely -- 8.08 p.m. This is because the word for eight, namely "ba," rhymes with "fa," the first sound in "fa cai." It means to attain wealth.

Fallows also demonstrates the immense creativity of Chinese. She presents Chao Yuen Ren's famous poem, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den.” One single syllable-- namely "shi" -- is repeated 92 times. The different tones give “shi” widely varying meanings. With even more homonyms of shi in any given tone, it can mean many things, e.g. “to be”, “ten”, “lion” and more. Chao told a complete, fanciful story (see here).

The language also taught Fallows about love, she writes. For instance, Fallows described to me how cavalierly Westerners use the word “love” in English or Chinese versus the tentative Chinese practice. It frequently causes humorous but real tensions in mixed marriages. “The Westerner becomes frustrated that his Chinese spouse rarely says ‘I love you.’ But the Chinese feels that so many 'I love you's’ from her Western spouse seem gratuitous."

As for her own cocktail party stories, Fallows recalls that in a Taco Bell, she was inquiring about take-out, using the Mandarin word “bao.” But her difficulty finding the right tone makes her think that the baffled male employee thought that perhaps she was asking for a hug instead of take-out. Fallows showed grace and good humor in her foibles and says that her collective adventures "made living in China a humbling experience." This fellow traveler on the road of public linguistic embarrassment praises her grace and open mindedness. Otherwise, one gives up on learning the tongue or becomes resentful and -- unfairly -- transfers the bitterness to the society.

Instead, the husband and wife team were creative. Fallows told me that “each leaned toward our own strengths. My husband is better at reading and writing characters, and I’m better listening and speaking. Together, we were a pretty good team. But when apart, our weaknesses showed!” As for maintaining her Chinese after returning to Washington, she states that, "Fortunately, our cable TV channels include a few Chinese stations. I often watch Chinese programs."

She advises students, "Start as early as you can, but you’re never too old to begin. It takes longer time to get traction with Chinese than with French or German. But eventually, Chinese becomes tremendous fun and offers surprising insights into the Chinese heart and soul.” Overall, Fallows has written a funny, authentic memoir brimming with insights that will have veteran students of Chinese chuckling in agreement. So don't say by yao to her book.