To Speak, Perchance To 'Dream In Chinese'

Chinese characters on a blackboard
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When Deborah Fallows went to live in China with her husband, she was armed with a few semesters of Mandarin lessons. But when she got to Shanghai, she found she couldn't recognize or speak a single word of what she'd been studying.

Fallows writes about her journey through the Chinese language — and her many missteps along the way — in her new book, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language.

Fallows — who has a Ph.D. in linguistics and speaks six languages — knew that learning Chinese as an adult wouldn't be easy. "Chinese is considered one of the world's difficult languages," she tells NPR's Melissa Block, "along with Japanese and Arabic and Russian."

Even with her background in languages, Fallows says learning Chinese was particularly challenging because it was so dissimilar from all other languages she had studied.

"I didn't feel like I had anything to hang my hat on with this language," Fallows explains. "It just bore no resemblance to romance languages, Germanic languages, Japanese — anything that I'd ever approached before."

Dreaming In Chinese
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language
By Deborah Fallows
Hardcover, 208 pages
Walker & Company
List price: $22
Read An Excerpt

Shi, Shi, Shi And Shi

Chinese only has 400 unique syllables — that's 1/10th of the number of the unique syllables in the English language. That means a lot of Chinese words sound alike to the untrained ear.

"Homonyms run rampant," Fallows says. (Think: "seal" the animal and "seal" as in "to securely close".) "In Chinese, you have just a plethora of things like that," she says.

The English language clusters consonants together, which results in a variety of complex syllables such as "stretch" and "plump." But Chinese syllables don't combine that way, so the only way to tell the difference between two otherwise identical syllables is by listening to the tone and the context.

To illustrate the many possible meanings of a single syllable, Fallows points to a playful, Chinese tongue twister called "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." On the page, the poem is made up of many different Chinese characters, but when read aloud in Mandarin, all of the syllables are different tonal variations of the syllable shi.

"The amazing thing ... is that you can tell this entire story using one syllable," Fallows says. "It's a real challenge to listen to — especially if your ear is not accustomed to listening [for] and using tones."

In "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den," shi — spoken in varying tones — means: lions, market, the number 10, eat, stone — and more. It makes for a fun tongue twister, but mastering a tonal language can be a frustrating experience for a non-native speaker.

Fallows recounts an embarrassing experience she had one day in Shanghai — that all started with an inexplicable craving for cheese. Wanting something — anything — with cheese, Fallows went to the local Shanghai Taco Bell, where she was greeted by a young Chinese man wearing a sombrero and a velvet vest.

"I had practiced very hard what I was going to ask him," Fallows said. "I wanted to do takeout."

Her tones weren't very good at that point, though, so Fallows' request for "takeout" — dabao — was met with a blank stare from the Taco Bell employee. Fallows tried saying dabao with every combination of tones she could think of — rising tones, falling tones — and when that didn't work, she started pointing at the menu, and then miming the action of walking out the door with a bag of food. After a consultation with several other employees, finally — eureka! Yes, dabao! Yes, of course, they did takeout.

It's hard to say what Fallows was actually saying to the Chinese men if not the word for "takeout"; she says there are a number of possibilities — "some of them more embarrassing than others." The word for "hug" is close, as is the word for "newspaper." No wonder the blank stares.

Deborah Fallows i i

Deborah Fallows has lived and traveled in China for several years with her husband, journalist James Fallows. She is also the author of A Mother's Work. Courtesy of Walker and Company hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Walker and Company
Deborah Fallows

Deborah Fallows has lived and traveled in China for several years with her husband, journalist James Fallows. She is also the author of A Mother's Work.

Courtesy of Walker and Company

Forget Your 'Please' And 'Thank Yous'

To someone who grew up learning all the "pleases" and "thank yous" of polite English, Chinese as it is spoken between family and friends can sound extremely terse and direct.

"I felt I was being very blunt, very abrupt and even often very rude," Fallows says. Chinese, when spoken between two people who are close with one another, leaves out what Fallows calls the "grace notes" — please, thank you, no thank you.

For example, if a friend offers you a glass of water, and you don't want a glass of water, the proper response translates as: "Don't need" or "Don't want."

There is a lot of "padding and softness" that Fallows says is woven into our everyday English, even when addressing people we know well. But in Chinese, "pleases" and "thank yous" are reserved for people with whom a degree of formality is expected.

"If you're inserting these niceties, these softeners ... the Chinese will see that as actually setting up a distance between you and the person you're talking to," Fallows explains. Trying to be polite can actually come off as offensive.

These are just a few of the many cultural and linguistic puzzles Fallows describes in Dreaming in Chinese, as she recounts her struggle to master the countless nuances of communication in another culture.

The few times Fallows actually dreamt in Chinese, she said it was a frustrating and "odd dictionary dream" in which she was looking for a word — trying to communicate, but unable to make others understand.

Basically, "the story of my life in China," she says with a laugh.

Excerpt: 'Dreaming In Chinese'

Dreaming In Chinese
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language
By Deborah Fallows
Hardcover, 208 pages
Walker & Company
List price: $22

Introduction

I first saw China in the summer of 1986. My husband and I had packed up our then small children, left our home in Washington, DC, and gone to live in Japan and Southeast Asia for four years. We jumped at a chance that came our way to visit China for several weeks, after living in Tokyo and before heading for Kuala Lumpur.

The China we visited then was still emerging from the Cultural Revolution. Most of the young people, dressed in their drab Mao suits or simple, cheap clothes, were seeing Westerners for the first time. They would race to scoop up our blond children in their arms for pictures and to practice "Hello! Hello!" in English. The Chinese who greeted us were light and playful; we felt their high-spirited welcome, especially after the constraints of living in traditional, culture-bound Japan.

My recollections of that brief time are in snapshots: I bought bottles of bright orange soda that lay cooling on slabs of ice in vendors' carts. We went to the Beijing zoo, which was dreary and untidy, to look for pandas. The skies in Beijing and Shanghai and Hangzhou were clear and blue. We guessed that the cheerless Stalinist government rest houses where we stayed were probably bugged. On our domestic airliner flying to the south of China, we sat toward the front of the plane in big overstuffed armchairs and held our collective breath on take off, peering through gaps in the floorboards to see the tarmac racing by below.

Almost 20 years later, my husband and I set off to return to China for three years, where he would be reporting and writing long stories for the Atlantic. I would be working on my research for the Pew Internet Project, looking at Internet use in China. This excursion fit into the pattern of our life, alternating several years at home in Washington, DC, with several years out exploring the world.

We knew before we headed to China again that our old memories would seem quaint and charming, and that we would be in for a different kind of adventure this time in a modern, booming China. We did what we could to prepare: went to movies, read books, looked online, studied maps, talked to people who had been there before us. We got a glimpse here and an insight there, but we knew it wasn't adding up to much of anything. In the end we took a leap of faith and boarded the plane for Shanghai.

I did one other thing to prepare: I studied Mandarin a few nights a week for a few terms at Georgetown University in DC, figuring that a jump-start on the language could only help as we tried to set up some kind of normal life in China. I have been studying languages and linguistics for almost all my life, and at least the process of studying the language felt comfortable to me, even if the language did not.

Our entry to China was rough. The first month went by in a daze, but our first impressions and experiences remain perfectly vivid to me: I could not recognize or utter a single word of the Chinese I had been studying, and I even wondered if my teacher had been teaching us Cantonese instead of Mandarin.1 My husband said, in an anxious sweat, "I will never learn enough about China to write anything."

The hot Shanghai wind blew at 40 knots for many days, like the famous Santa Anas in California. My husband was very, very sick for ten days from drinking the water. We wondered if we were being followed, or if our phones were tapped.

Slowly, of course, everything began to change. My teacher had indeed been teaching me Mandarin, although without the heavy Shanghai accent I heard all around me and later sorted out. My husband went on to write many, many articles about China and had the journalistic time of his life. We became immune to every germ we ran into and were never really sick again in China. The weather changed, although we grew never to expect the skies to be clear or the air to be fresh. We know people were indeed watching us, but far from being a bother, they would invite us out to lunch to keep an eye on us and were friendly.

As for the language, the longer we were in China, the more engaged I became with Chinese. Part of that experience was true tribulation: I worked and studied hard but felt like I was only inching forward, my progress barely measurable. Eventually, finally, I marked a few milestones, cause for much self-congratulation that was generally noted only by me: the first day I ventured out without my dictionary and did OK; my first complete phone conversation in Chinese; the first time I followed the entire plot of a soap opera episode on TV; and my pièce de résistance, the day I chewed out a Shanghai taxi driver in Chinese for an egregious overcharge, and got a refund of 100 rénmínbì (then about twelve US dollars).

The language paid me back in ways I hadn't fully anticipated. It was my lifeline to our everyday survival in China. My language foibles, many of which I have recounted in this book, taught me as much as my rare and random successes. The language also unexpectedly became my way of making some sense of China, my telescope into the country. Foreigners I met and knew in China used their different passions to help them interpret China: artists used China's art world, as others used Chinese cooking, or traditional medicine, or business, or music, or any number of things they knew about. I used the language, or more precisely, the study of the language.

As I tried to learn to speak Mandarin, I also learned about how the language works — its words, its sounds, its grammar and its history. 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.

This book is the story of what I learned about the Chinese language, and what the language taught me about China.

Excerpted from Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language by Deborah Fallows. Copyright 2010 by Deborah Fallows. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company.

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