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.