Dreaming in Chinese by Deb Fallows


Deb Fallows has lived and travelled in China for four years. She studied at Harvard and has a Ph.D. in linguistics, and is author of A Mother's Work. She and her husband, writer James Fallows, have two sons.

You can find the book on Amazon here and her work at Pew Research Center here.

Danwei: The experiences you describe in the book are all tied closely to the Chinese language. Was that an angle you consciously chose, or was your China experience filtered that closely through the language?
Deb Fallows: Well, I’d say Yes to both those questions. When we first arrived in China, I found myself overwhelmed by all that was coming at me, rapidfire. Where to live, what to eat, finding my way, how to communicate, even how to cross the street! I needed something to grab onto, and I hardly knew where to start. For me, that became the language. While Mandarin is difficult, the process of studying the language was familiar to me, from my background in linguistics and from studying lots of different languages. Working on the language was a refuge for me, and it became perhaps the one thing where I felt I was in at least a little control of my China experience. Interestingly, I began to see that other newcomers to China were doing something similar; many were finding something they were passionate about to focus on and use as a lens to get more comfortable or find more sense in their own China experience. For others, maybe it was cooking, or martial arts, or the arts, or business. For me, it was the language.

Danwei: Is exposure to Chinese necessary for understanding contemporary China?
DF: I feel like I’m supposed to answer “yes” to that question, but I’m going to demur/ take a broader view! Of course the language helps; a little helps a lot, and a lot helps more. I wish I were fluent, because I know that better language skills could take me deeper into understanding China. But we do what we can, and I hope that meager language skills need not be a stopper to understanding China. I believe it is possible to compensate for quite a lot by being a good observer, by reading body language, by plunging into the moment. One of my best learning experiences was my daily morning tai chi with a group of 70-somethings over 5 months in Shanghai. We could barely exchange a word. They spoke only Shanghainese, and I had all I could do to wrestle with Mandarin. But being with them day in and day out, showing them my good will and accepting theirs toward me was a compensation for the difficulties we had talking to each other. I may have missed out on their life stories, and what they worried about or celebrated, but I learned a lot about about the kinds of people they were and how they treated others.

Danwei: What are the major misconceptions Americans have about Chinese people and are you hoping to address them in the book?
DF: Wow, that is a big question. I’ll answer in a small way. Unless you’re lucky enough to spend a while in China and make some friends, it is hard to not think of the Chinese en masse – 1.3 billion people who look pretty much the same, sound pretty much the same, and seem to behave and believe pretty much the same things. A monolith. Of course we all know better, and being in China for a while helps you get some bearings on seeing that the country is actually 1.3 billion individuals, who by the way, seem as individualistic-leaning in many ways as Americans. Maybe I back into addressing this question in the book by describing snapshots of many small experiences with different people. Those experiences – one by one - humanized China for me, and maybe they can for readers as well.

Danwei: Did you tailor your book for these audiences? In which ways?
DF: I didn’t intentionally tailor the book for audiences. In a way, I was my own audience for this book, and here’s why: My husband and I came to China without a support network of any sort. We had no office, no assistants, no driver or ayi, no fixer or handler. I was desperately trying to survive and to make sense of life in China. I was trying to explain what I saw by telling myself stories.

Danwei: Did you leave anything out from the book that you would have liked to write about?
DF: Well, a book is never finished; you just have to stop at some point because you run out of time. And yes, there is one thing I particularly think about where I ended up short: Chinese women. I loved reading books by Xinran, who first rose to fame when she took to the airwaves and invited callers to phone her to bare their souls and tell their stories. The lives of the women Xinran writes about are so rich and complex, that I knew I hadn’t learned enough about them for myself. Next time I return to China, I would like to meet more women and hear their stories for myself.

Danwei: Speaking as a linguist, how did you find living as an expatriate in China compared to Japan or other foreign countries you have lived in?
DF: Japan is the perfect test case: we lived a similar kind of existence there many years ago. At that time, we had our then-young children with us, and they went to Japanese public school. It was, uh, difficult. The language-learning aspect was similar, in that we were all struggling to keep our heads above water with a very tough language. But the social experience with the language was very different. In China, I felt that people were almost always ready to work with me on the language, be patient with me, even cheer me on! (Except for tones; that is another story. At first, I thought the Chinese were being intentionally stubborn when I used the wrong tones. I later began to think that most Chinese just can’t hear the word without the proper tone, and just can’t imagine what it could possibly be. Read about that in Chapter 4!) In Japan, on the other hand, I found that most Japanese were not as encouraging about their language. It even felt like they were lying in wait for me to make mistakes! That was demoralizing in a way that China never was.

There are currently 1 Comments for Dreaming in Chinese by Deb Fallows.

Comments on Dreaming in Chinese by Deb Fallows

Good interview questions and responses.
I am American, born and raised in South Louisiana; and of course, we have our own version of English down here. I have a Chinese wife who is learning English, (God help her please!), and I (at a much slower pace) am learning Mandarin. Almost always, I pronounce what I think is correct Chinese to her, being conscious of the tones and phonics, and she will not have a clue as to what I am trying to say. After struggling back and forth, she eventually realizes what I want to say and repeats back to me what sounds exactly like what I originally uttered. It is very frustrating. I know she is sincerely trying to understand me, but I always wonder how I could be so close to correct pronunciation and tone, and she still not recognize it. Our little joke which is my response to my Chinese wife which is, “You don’t know Chinese!”

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