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

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BY DEBORAH FALLOWS

NEW YORK: WALKER AND COMPANY, 2010

208 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0802779137, HARDBACK

Breaking the Code: Language Is Key

At once charming, eye opening, and educational, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language is a literary journey using the Mandarin language as a tour guide. Deborah Fallows intends to unlock Chinese culture for her readers through an exploration of the language and of the nuances of Chinese communication. She uses her own experience of living in China to illustrate the depth, texture, and often unexpected tenderness of the Chinese people. The work has value as a classroom tool due to a scope that encompasses linguistics, Asian culture, personal memoir, history, and travel. Students and teachers of a variety of subjects can appreciate the book, as it is not a pedagogical language text but rather an immersive cultural experience.

Fallows, a PhD in linguistics, reflects on the three years she spent living in Shanghai and Beijing. She shares her experience through a Western lens, admitting, “Our entry to China was rough. The first month went by in a daze…As for the language, the longer we were in China, the more engaged I became with Chinese” (14).

While reading, I was sometimes unsure whether I was reading a personal memoir or a text on Mandarin; in actuality, the work falls somewhere between these two topics. A discussion of the construction of the written or spoken word, combined with an illustration of the words or phrases as part of daily life, completes the body of each chapter. By the end of these chapters, Fallows is able to skillfully tie the language, the history of the language, and the influence of the language on the culture of everyday contemporary Chinese life together. She says,

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. (15)

Fallows readily admits that Mandarin is one of the most difficult languages to learn, but she acknowledges the difficulty cannot simply be explained by the seemingly arbitrary nature of the language but more so by the intricacy and complexity of it. She deconstructs the language layer by layer and examines the written as well as the spoken word. She explains that most people, including the Chinese, are not equally fluent in both the spoken word and the written. Each element of the language has its own intricacies and difficulties.

This cleverly constructed memoir was an enjoyable read and a truly refreshing discussion of Chinese culture. Fallows employs her engaging writing voice to undermine stereotypes in her discussion of Chinese life, love, and culture, and I found the work to be interesting, intriguing, and intelligent.