By Marta Cooper
As a long-enough suffering student of Chinese, it amazes me to hear from those who have tackled the language, with its thousands of characters, rote learning, four often indistinguishable tones and even more indistinguishable dialects, with unwavering enthusiasm. Deborah Fallows, wife of The Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows, epitomises this spirit. In her recent book, Dreaming in Chinese, she charts the joys and frustrations of learning one of the world’s most fascinating languages, and at one of the Shanghai Literary Festival’s glamorous lunches, Fallows shared her experiences as a student of Mandarin.
Fallows lived in Shanghai and Beijing with her husband from 2006 to 2009. A Harvard graduate with a PhD in linguistics, she prepared herself for the Far Eastern move with Chinese lessons before leaving their home in Washington, DC. However, as Fallows found out upon touching down in Shanghai, being taught by a Beijinger was little help when trying to decipher the Shanghai dialect. “I could not understand a single word,” she says of her arrival. This overwhelmed feeling did not stop at the local dialect: small, everyday things, from figuring out where to buy food to being able to cross the street safely, became part of an energy-sapping survival. “Nothing prepared me for how amazing it would be, I was flabbergasted.”
The shock did not deter Fallows, as she immersed herself in Mandarin at a Shanghai language school. Comfortable with studying, she saw it as the one aspect of her China life she had control over. “I had two small victories,” she says. “The first would be when I’d forget my dictionary but still accomplish daily tasks. The second was using what I’d learned in the classroom on the street.”
However, frustrations soon crept in. Most vexing of all was the all-too-common scenario of a Chinese person simply not understanding what a foreigner was saying. Fallows writes about a particular episode when she was trying to order take-away food (dǎ bāo 打包，literally, ‘package’), only to be met with a stunned blank look from the waiter. She tried countless tone combinations, including what would translate as ‘big hug’ in English (dà bào 大抱) until the waiter finally realised she did, in fact, want take-out food.
Despite how obvious it may seem to a Westerner that whichever version of ‘da bao’ used in a restaurant would inevitably be interpreted as ‘take-away’, the change in tones shifted the meaning so significantly for the Chinese that Fallows’ request was unfathomable. That she managed to dust herself off from this experience was a reminder that the best way to shoulder daily, seemingly unconquerable language frustrations is with laughter. The beauty of Chinese lies in its unique blend of the fascinating and the maddening.
Cultural and linguistic nuances also proved a challenge. In comparison to English, with its plethora of polite phrases and courteous requests, Chinese seemed abrupt, sharp and rude to Fallows’ ears. The lack of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ seemed drastically out of sync with a culture whose rules of politeness and courteous manners are vast and complicated. At dinners with local Chinese friends, Fallows observed how the guests would always be served first, but no one would ever add a “could you please” when asking to pass the salt.
Baffled, she put this to her tutor, who told her that the Chinese view linguistic niceties as a social buffer, creating an offensive barrier of formality between you and the person you are speaking to. Close friends and family are part of yourself, he said, adding, “why would you say please to yourself?”
As she studied deeper, Fallows also came to grips with various changes in word meanings that had developed over time. One word that she grappled with was ài, 爱，translated as ‘love’. During her first trip to China in 1986, locals asked her which one of her sons she ‘loved’ more, while a friend in Beijing commented that Fallows ‘must really love’ her husband after many years of marriage.
As with politeness, the notion of love in China was completely different from its Western counterpart. Confucian thought upheld it as something of harmony and obedience, while cultural and social movements in the early twentieth century saw the introduction of a new word, ài qíng, 爱情, meaning specifically the love between a man and a woman.
Harmony, practicality and obedience versus more modern, romantic notions of love are today on constant show on Shanghai’s streets. “You don’t need to look beyond People’s Square,” Fallows chirps, noting the weekly marriage market where ruthless parents attempt to set up their children with suitable candidates, while on the metro young couples have no shame when it comes to public displays of affection. “The language is a metaphor for a changing China,” she says. “Everything is in flux.”
What are Fallows’ words for anyone thinking of embarking on the language? Simply, anything is better than nothing. “Any Chinese you can pour into your head is good. Everything helps. It’s quickly rewarding considering how poorly you do.” And how should one manage the characters? Can we do away with them and just rely on Pinyin (Chinese in Romanised form)? “Do whatever works,” she beams, excited that more and more people are willing to take on this labour of love.
When asked what she misses about China, Fallows is brimming with fond memories. “I loved waking up every day and knowing whatever happened would a) not be planned and b) be marvellous and mysterious. Dinner conversations with my husband would often begin with ‘you’ll never believe what I saw today!’”
Her journey with the complicated, never-ending language and unpredictable cultural hurdles defined Fallows’ time in China. Both language and country are characterised by constant surprises, frustrations and moments of sheer excitement. “Just when you’ve got it figured out, something happened that made me think I had a lot to learn.”
Click here for an interview with Fallows on Danwei.