Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Deborah Fallows is the wife of Atlantic Magazine columnist James Fallows, and this pair, most notably for our readers, lived in China (Shanghai and Beijing) for three years. They traveled to many places in the country and interviewed many leaders, expatriates, and regular Chinese citizens, while also keeping house, shopping for groceries, and doing everything else normal people do.

Deborah’s PhD is in linguistics, so she was naturally inclined to pay attention to not just what people were saying, but how they were saying it. As she struggled to learn Mandarin (not enough preparation time in the States before moving to China; had to dive into the deep end of the pool when she got there) her observational skills were sharpened even more just to function in society at a basic level.

As she eventually got her head around the language she noticed how the language itself was affecting how people interacted with each other. By immersing herself in a different society, learn Mandarin, and talk with all kinds of people, she was able to test the question, “do our thoughts drive our words, or do our words drive how we think?”

After about a year of living in China, she started drafting essays to explain what she’d learned, using a particular word or phrase to illustrate a broader concept about Chinese society. This book is a compilation of those essays, 14 chapters in all, plus a question-and-answer section and pronunciation guide at the end.

Don’t mistake this for an instructional textbook; it’s much more a meditation on how everyday people get along in China, and how a Western stranger can start to make sense of all their different voices. Having said that, the book is an excellent complement to any language-learning you may want to do. She has chapters that explain tones, pronouns, and homonyms more clearly than almost any other source I’ve read, and the guide at the back of the book helps you clearly say nearly 200 common words and expressions. And the information and references are extremely current (hardcover was published in 2010; the paperback edition which just came out has updated web links for further reading.)

Each chapter is a quick read of 10-12 pages, and her writing style is relaxed and conversational. Spending time with this book is like having a cup of coffee with a good friend who’s just returned from Asia with a bag of little gifts just for you.


Standard blogging disclosure: this book was paid for with our own funds.

Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy

Mike Levy was a language-arts teacher from Philadelphia suffering from a crisis of faith post-9/11. Wanting to use his talents toward a Big Global Purpose, he found himself in the Peace Corps in 2005 assigned to rural Guizhou Province teaching English at the university in Guiyang, getting paid the same subsistence wage and living in similar apartments as the local professors, and figuring out everything on his own with no outside support, for a two-year tour.

The 29 chapters go by quickly in a conversational and often funny tone, similar to a Bill Bryson or Sarah Vowell travelogue. Outside of a few weeks' training in Chengdu, Mike doesn't get to travel outside Guizhou, but that gives us readers the chance to really settle in and view an area that will never see a Hollywood film crew or breathless Travel Channel documentary.

As Mike gets to know his fellow teachers, his students, and other local kids, we get to hear the personal stories and decisions from real-life people with real-life ambitions, problems, and responsibilities. Should a professor put substantial money into buying an apartment, and can she find a mate when she makes more than most men? Will a talented and dedicated masters-student from Guiyang, knowing she has no career future in her home province, be able to find a future in the costal cities? What will the fates be of twin sisters, bright and hopeful and thirsty to learn, but born as ethnic minorities and living with their grandmother because their parents have migrated to the coast to find work?

Guanxi and party politics, ethnic contrasts and Chinese stereotypes of Westerners are all shown matter-of-fact, but the people are never shown as villains, just everyday folks doing what they've been taught or repeating something they've heard. It's a refreshing contrast to sensationalized mass-media China reports that never take time to have an authentic conversation with citizens, or who never leave Shanghai / Beijing / Hong Kong.

For those of us with children from China, this book strikes a powerful nerve as we can easily see our daughters and sons in the situations Mike relates. Would my daughter have faced a childhood of having to collect plastic bottles for the recycling money, or working in a back-alley kitchen, sleeping on a cot because home is too far to walk and she couldn't afford bus fare?

My little girl has an unbounded future. Reading this book reminded me of how much of an honor it is to be her father, and how much I owe it to the kids left behind to make sure she has the ability to pursue any dream.

Kosher Chinese is a 2011 release, available in softcover at a retail of US$15. Well worth a read for adoptive parents, for travelers heading inland, and anyone wanting a better understanding of everyday life in modern China.


Standard blogging disclosure: this book was paid for with our own funds.