Dreaming in Chinese
This memoir, history, and cultural study, is a treasure-trove of clever party-ready tidbits.
It was in the book of Exodus, in the King James Version of the Bible, that Moses first called himself a “stranger in a strange land.” From then on up through Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 novel of the same phrase, the “stranger in a strange land” genre has been (and remains) a staple of song, film, and literature. It seems that a sense of cultural disconnect has long plagued – and fascinated – humankind.Skip to next paragraph
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And if you are a Westerner, where better to explore that disconnect than in China? Ever since the fin de siècle socialist capitalism that opened China, Westerners have flocked there and done their best to make sense of the ex-pat experience. Linguist Deborah Fallows becomes one of the latest with Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, an oddly hybrid mix of memoir, history, and cultural study.
Fallows and her husband, The Atlantic’s national correspondent James Fallows, are seasoned ex-pats; Fallows’s introduction describes the “pattern of [their] life” as “alternating several years at home in Washington D.C., with several years out exploring the world.” Their first visit to China – recalled merely as “snapshots” – occurred briefly in 1986 while the family (with two then-small children) spent four years living in Japan and Southeast Asia.
Almost a quarter-century later, the couple returned to China when James accepted a three-year Atlantic gig. In spite of Deborah Fallows’s linguistic training and predeparture language classes, “Our entry to China was rough,” she confesses. “I could not recognize or utter a single word of the Chinese ... and I even wondered if my teacher had been teaching us Cantonese instead of Mandarin.” (Fallows is careful to explain that “Chinese” is “technically a broader term that covers the family of many different languages and dialects of China.” As Mandarin is China’s official language, she uses the terms “Mandarin” and “Chinese” interchangeably.)