Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dreaming in Chinese - Book

Character Building
The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, September 26, 2010, p. BR16

DREAMING IN CHINESE: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language
By Deborah Fallows
Illustrated. 205 pp. Walker & Company. $22

When I used to ask my mother about her family village in China, she always said it was three hours from Canton by bus. A hundred years ago, when my great-grandfather left China for good, that couldn’t have been far, but it was certainly no help in locating it. So I was pleased — though still mystified — to read in Deborah Fallows’s charming and witty little book that in China, “if you ask someone where their hometown is, they’ll say it is seven hours by bus. Or four hours by train. They won’t tell you where it is.”

Fallows spent three years living in China with her husband, the journalist James Fallows. Since she’s a linguist by training, her method of getting under the skin of the country was to immerse herself in its language. In “Dreaming in Chinese,” she uses key phrases and concepts to unlock aspects of the society that interested or surprised her, casting light along the way on many idiosyncrasies of the Chinese view of the world.

Fallows doesn’t arrive with many preconceptions. Instead, she takes the Chinese as they see and present themselves. And she soon discovers that what the Chinese think is important isn’t always what we think is important. One thing they’re interested in is ensuring good luck. This explains why the Beijing Olympics began on Aug. 8, 2008, at 8:08 p.m. Eight, ba, rhymes with fa, “as in fa cai, which means ‘to become wealthy,’ ” making it a very auspicious number. And even though Aug. 8 was well into the rainy season, it didn’t rain.

Auspiciousness also enters into the choosing of names, an art in itself. Most Chinese have three names: surname (there are just 100 common surnames in a population of 1.3 billion people), middle name (to identify your generation and connect you with your cousins) and personal name. Which yields the realization that — in a country where most people are allowed only one child — future generations will have no cousins.

On matters that Westerners make a fuss about, like human rights, Fallows presents the common Chinese viewpoint. At a conference on censorship, technology and commerce, she recalls that “one exasperated Chinese participant finally blurted out that people, the laobaixing, aren’t as preoccupied as Westerners about free speech and an uncensored Internet: what laobaixing really want, he said, is . . . a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a color TV.” For ordinary Chinese, material concerns come first.

Fallows has an endearing affection for these laobaixing, these common folk. Unlike conventional journalists, she’s not very interested in press conferences, in listening to what the politicians say. Little by little, she finds herself becoming more like the laobaixing: learning to deal with the plethora of rules as the Chinese do — by finding ways around them.

“Dreaming in Chinese” is chatty and colloquial, with helpful photographs and drawings, as well as a pronunciation guide. The eager student will learn a fair bit about the history of the language and how its array of characters and tones were systematized, all the while gathering insights into the country’s customs and culture. Rather than draw sweeping conclusions, Fallows sticks to her own experiences and observations, which makes her book all the more valuable. China hands will have many moments of recognition. For others, “Dreaming in Chinese” will be a fascinating introduction to a foreign culture.

Lesley Downer is the author of “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North” and other nonfiction books on Asia. Her most recent book is a novel, “The Courtesan and the Samurai.”

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