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

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Overview

Deborah Fallows has spent much of her life learning languages and traveling around the world. But nothing prepared her for the surprises of learning Mandarin, China's most common language, or the intensity of living in Shanghai and Beijing. Over time, she realized that her struggles and triumphs in studying the language of her adopted home provided small clues to deciphering the behavior and habits of its people,and its culture's conundrums. As her skill with Mandarin increased, bits of the language—a word, a ...

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

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Overview

Deborah Fallows has spent much of her life learning languages and traveling around the world. But nothing prepared her for the surprises of learning Mandarin, China's most common language, or the intensity of living in Shanghai and Beijing. Over time, she realized that her struggles and triumphs in studying the language of her adopted home provided small clues to deciphering the behavior and habits of its people,and its culture's conundrums. As her skill with Mandarin increased, bits of the language—a word, a phrase, an oddity of grammar—became windows into understanding romance, humor, protocol, relationships, and the overflowing humanity of modern China.

Fallows learned, for example, that the abrupt, blunt way of speaking that Chinese people sometimes use isn't rudeness, but is, in fact, a way to acknowledge and honor the closeness between two friends. She learned that English speakers' trouble with hearing or saying tones—the variations in inflection that can change a word's meaning—is matched by Chinese speakers' inability not to hear tones, or to even take a guess at understanding what might have been meant when foreigners misuse them.

In sharing what she discovered about Mandarin, and how those discoveries helped her understand a culture that had at first seemed impenetrable, Deborah Fallows's Dreaming in Chinese opens up China to Westerners more completely, perhaps, than it has ever been before.

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Editorial Reviews

Lesley Downer
Dreaming in Chinese is chatty and colloquial, with helpful photographs and drawings…The eager student will learn a fair bit about the history of the language and how its array of characters and tones were systematized, all the while gathering insights into the country's customs and culture. Rather than draw sweeping conclusions, Fallows sticks to her own experiences and observations, which makes her book all the more valuable. China hands will have many moments of recognition. For others, Dreaming in Chinese will be a fascinating introduction to a foreign culture.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher

“You don’t have to know Mandarin to be captivated by Deborah Fallows’s Dreaming in Chinese…. Forget Berlitz – that just teaches words. Deborah Fallows shows us that the cultural implications of those words teach us about each other.” —Sara Nelson, O: The Oprah Magazine

“While it isn’t necessary to know the language of a foreign country when you live abroad, studying that language can infinitely ease and illuminate your entrée there. Deborah Fallows underscores this lesson again and again in this compelling account of her own trials and triumphs with studying Mandarin while residing in Shanghai and Beijing. A linguist by training, Fallows shows how even small advancements such as mastering a single word or phrase can unlock grammatical and cultural secrets…. Over the course of her three-year immersion, her ever-deepening insights immeasurably enrich her engagement with China—and ours as well.” —Don George, National Geographic Traveler

“Fallows manages to take the relatively dry subject of translation and create a warm and witty memoir…. [taking] readers on a ride through Chinese culture that is as entertaining as it is informative.” —Colleen Mondor, Booklist

“Any traveler who shudders at the prospect of deciphering Chinese should be armed with a copy of this book.”—Evan Osnos,  The New Yorker

“China seems an impossible mountain to climb, yet Deborah Fallows takes a less traveled path, climbing the mountain from the inside. She recounts her journey with a perfect balance of wise observation and wit. To follow her climb yields startling insights about the Chinese people and culture, the kind of insights lugubrious China essays rarely yield. "Dreaming in China" is both vital and a joy to read.”—Ken Auletta

Dreaming in Chinese is a little gem, sparkling with wonderful tales about China, its language and its people.”—Rob Gifford, former NPR Beijing correspondent, and author of China Road

“In Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows opens up a window onto Chinese urban life through its notoriously difficult language. A charming and insightful book.”—Susan Shirk, author of China: Fragile Superpower

“While all too many books on China try to make sense of this infinitely provocative country from the top down, Deborah Fallows looks at it from the bottom up, trying to figure out what makes the place work through personal encounters, the language and everyday occurrences. She has written a refreshing and insightful book.” —Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations

"Dreaming in Chinese is original, entertaining, gracefully written and provides important insights into life and culture in contemporary China. Deborah Fallows is a gifted linguist who helps her readers understand the complexities of the Chinese language.  But she does much more.  She is an astute observer and through simple yet compelling anecdotes she helps her readers experience everyday life in China. This is a terrific book for anyone who wants to improve their understanding of this extraordinary country. " Laura D. Tyson, Professor of Global Management, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley

“Deborah Fallows' sparkling memoir of her three years in China makes us feel we are on the streets with her in Shanghai and Beijing--haggling with merchants and cops and learning to be rude and friendly, Chinese-style. The joy of this book is its sense of humor and adventure: Deb decided to live outside the expatriate ghetto: learning the language, drinking the water, living the real Chinese life like a laobaixing (ordinary person).Whether it's learning not to say "please," or understanding why Chinese hate the number "4" or ordering take-away at a Chinese Taco Bell, Deb jumps in head-first and makes us laugh at her often comical embrace of this culture. I can't think of a better book for someone who wants to understand the lovable, infuriating and hilarious country that is China.” —David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post and author of Body of Lies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802779144
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 9/13/2011
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 276,054
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Fallows has lived in Shanghai and Beijing and traveled throughout China for three years with her husband, writer James Fallows. She is a Harvard graduate and has a PhD in Linguistics, and is author of A Mother's Work (Houghton Mifflin). She most recently worked in research and polling for the Pew Internet Project and in data architecture for Oxygen Media. When in the US, she and her husband live in Washington, DC. They have two sons and two daughters-in-law.

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Read an Excerpt

DREAMING IN CHINESE

Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language
By DEBORAH FALLOWS

Walker & Co.

Copyright © 2010 Deborah Fallows
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-7913-7


Introduction

I first saw China in the summer of 1986. My husband and I had packed up our then small children, left our home in Washington, DC, and gone to live in Japan and Southeast Asia for four years. We jumped at a chance that came our way to visit China for several weeks, after living in Tokyo and before heading for Kuala Lumpur.

The China we visited then was still emerging from the Cultural Revolution. Most of the young people, dressed in their drab Mao suits or simple, cheap clothes, were seeing Westerners for the first time. They would race to scoop up our blond children in their arms for pictures and to practice "Hello! Hello!" in English. The Chinese who greeted us were light and playful; we felt their high-spirited welcome, especially after the constraints of living in traditional, culture-bound Japan.

My recollections of that brief time are in snapshots: I bought bottles of bright orange soda that lay cooling on slabs of ice in vendors' carts. We went to the Beijing zoo, which was dreary and untidy, to look for pandas. The skies in Beijing and Shanghai and Hangzhou were clear and blue. We guessed that the cheerless Stalinist government rest houses where we stayed were probably bugged. On our domestic airliner flying to the south of China, we sat toward the front of the plane in big overstuffed armchairs and held our collective breath on take off, peering through gaps in the floorboards to see the tarmac racing by below.

Almost 20 years later, my husband and I set off to return to China for three years, where he would be reporting and writing long stories for the Atlantic. I would be working on my research for the Pew Internet Project, looking at Internet use in China. This excursion fit into the pattern of our life, alternating several years at home in Washington, DC, with several years out exploring the world.

We knew before we headed to China again that our old memories would seem quaint and charming, and that we would be in for a different kind of adventure this time in a modern, booming China. We did what we could to prepare: went to movies, read books, looked online, studied maps, talked to people who had been there before us. We got a glimpse here and an insight there, but we knew it wasn't adding up to much of anything. In the end we took a leap of faith and boarded the plane for Shanghai.

I did one other thing to prepare: I studied Mandarin a few nights a week for a few terms at Georgetown University in DC, figuring that a jump-start on the language could only help as we tried to set up some kind of normal life in China. I have been studying languages and linguistics for almost all my life, and at least the process of studying the language felt comfortable to me, even if the language did not.

Our entry to China was rough. The first month went by in a daze, but our first impressions and experiences remain perfectly vivid to me: I could not recognize or utter a single word of the Chinese I had been studying, and I even wondered if my teacher had been teaching us Cantonese instead of Mandarin. My husband said, in an anxious sweat, "I will never learn enough about China to write anything."

The hot Shanghai wind blew at 40 knots for many days, like the famous Santa Anas in California. My husband was very, very sick for ten days from drinking the water. We wondered if we were being followed, or if our phones were tapped.

Slowly, of course, everything began to change. My teacher had indeed been teaching me Mandarin, although without the heavy Shanghai accent I heard all around me and later sorted out. My husband went on to write many, many articles about China and had the journalistic time of his life. We became immune to every germ we ran into and were never really sick again in China. The weather changed, although we grew never to expect the skies to be clear or the air to be fresh. We know people were indeed watching us, but far from being a bother, they would invite us out to lunch to keep an eye on us and were friendly.

As for the language, the longer we were in China, the more engaged I became with Chinese. Part of that experience was true tribulation: I worked and studied hard but felt like I was only inching forward, my progress barely measurable. Eventually, finally, I marked a few milestones, cause for much self-congratulation that was generally noted only by me: the first day I ventured out without my dictionary and did OK; my first complete phone conversation in Chinese; the first time I followed the entire plot of a soap opera episode on TV; and my pièce de resistance, the day I chewed out a Shanghai taxi driver in Chinese for an egregious overcharge, and got a refund of 100 rénmínbi (then about twelve US dollars).

The language paid me back in ways I hadn't fully anticipated. It was my lifeline to our everyday survival in China. My language foibles, many of which I have recounted in this book, taught me as much as my rare and random successes. The language also unexpectedly became my way of making some sense of China, my telescope into the country. Foreigners I met and knew in China used their different passions to help them interpret China: artists used China's art world, as others used Chinese cooking, or traditional medicine, or business, or music, or any number of things they knew about. I used the language, or more precisely, the study of the language.

As I tried to learn to speak Mandarin, I also learned about how the language works—its words, its sounds, its grammar and its history. I often found a connection between some point of the language—a particular word or the use of a phrase, for example—and how that point could elucidate something very "Chinese" I would encounter in my everyday life in China. The language helped me understand what I saw on the streets or on our travels around the country—how people made their livings, their habits, their behavior toward each other, how they dealt with adversity, and how they celebrated.

This book is the story of what I learned about the Chinese language, and what the language taught me about China.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from DREAMING IN CHINESE by DEBORAH FALLOWS Copyright © 2010 by Deborah Fallows. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Co.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 11

1 Wo ài ni;! I love you! The grammar of romance 17

2 Bú yào! Don't want, don't need! When rude is polite 29

3 Shi, Shí, Shi, Shí Lion, ten, to make, to be Language play as a national sport 39

4 Dabao Do you do takeout? Why the Chinese hear tones, and we don't 51

5 Laobaixìng Common folk China's Ordinary Joe 63

6 Ni hao, Wo jiào Mínyì. Hello, my name is Public A brief introduction to Chinese names 77

7 Dongbei Eastnorth Finding your way in China-the semantics of time and place 89

8 Wo, Ni, Ta, Ta, Ta I, you, he, she, it Disappearing pronouns and the sense of self 103

9 Rènao Hot-and-noisy Think like the Chinese think 115

10 Ting bú dong. I don't understand. A billion people; countless dialects 129

11 Hànzí Characters The essence of being Chinese 145

12 Bù keyi Not allowed Rules to follow and rules to break 157

13 Dìzhèn Earthquake Out of calamity, tenderness 169

14 Ni de Zhongwén hen hao! Your Chinese is really good! A little goes a long way 183

Pronunciation guide 191

Acknowledgments 203

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 13, 2010

    Defective book--cannot display characters

    I bought this book as a pre-publication order, and when it was published I found it did not properly display either the Chinese characters or the pinyin characters with first or third tone marks. After four calls to the service center and four days' wait I got my purchase price refunded and was assured that the book had been reissued in a corrected version. Trusting as I was I went ahead and bought it again and was disgusted to find the same problem with the new one. At least B&N agreed with me that the e-book ought to be as good as the print book, but it doesn't look like they're able to achieve that standard. I'm pretty disappointed. I hope it doesn't take another four days to get my money back on this one.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 5, 2010

    Not Just For Those Learning Chinese!

    This is an enlightening insight into the inner workings of the Chinese language, but it will delight anyone who loves languages and how they work. Written by a professor of linguistics who hit the "Great Wall" of how Chinese really works and must be learned, the book is totally accessible to non-specialists as well. It is a memoir of Fallows's own experience in China rather than a "scholarly study," and it runs the gamut from clear explanations to wonderfully funny anecdotes. I highly recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 2, 2010

    for Chinese language scholars only!

    This is very short book and consists mostly of a discussion of the finer points of the Chinese language. The author does include some fascinating information about the Chinese culture which I had not known before. But as a non-linquist, I found a lot of this book inaccessible. Disappointing!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 28, 2010

    A fascinating book! HIGHLY recommended.

    Ms. Fallows uses her 3 years in China and training as a linguist as fascinating lenses for approaching the country, the culture, the people, and the language of China. She approaches the Chinese honestly, but with an obvious warmth and affection. She also makes admirable use of her academic training in linguistics to elucidate without ever talking above or down to her readers. Those who know China intimately and those who have never visited will be equally rewarded by this perfectly constructed gem.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2012

    interesting for anyone interested in languages

    nice mix of personal reactions to China and Chinese, and fascinating tidbits about the differences between English and Chinese uses of words.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2011

    Recommended for those learning Chinese

    My granddaughter who has been to China found the book interesting and her husband who is now studying Chinese with her also read the book when it was available. Both seemed satisfied with the book.

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