Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows is a nonfiction memoir that details a short and specific time in her life, that of living in China. It is part travelogue and part Chinese grammar. Fallows lived in China with her journalist husband for three years. Both of them struggled to learn enough Chinese to conduct their daily lives, although each relied upon a different method to gain these skills. They lived in Beijing and Shanghai.
This book does not attempt to teach the reader how to read or write Chinese, although you might pick up a few phrases from reading it. However, Fallows does try to explain the Chinese people as they are revealed through their language. This is the primary reason I picked up this book, in fact. I love languages. They are living creatures whose personality and exotic adornment reveal the history and temperament of its native culture.
Fallows prefaces each chapter with a brief lesson in Mandarin/Chinese. A Chinese character is shown with an accompanying English translation below it. This translated phrase is the theme of the following chapter.
Strengths of this book include an interesting story to tell, the appeal of exotic locales, and one woman’s earnest attempt to know the people of a different nation by actually interacting and working with them. I particularly liked Fallows’ anecdotes about speaking with women at her local manicure shop. It was relatable in context and emotions and yet foreign in culture.
A weakness of this book was, oddly enough, the translations. Fallows is a professional linguist, and I certainly don’t speak Chinese, so I can’t say that anything was incorrect. However, she appended a glossary phonetic cues to say the words she mentions throughout the book. I would have preferred these phonetic tricks listed in the chapter or footnoted at the bottom of each relevant page. By the time I was done with the book, I no longer remembered what the word meant or was interested in paging back through to discover it again.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was a brief story told in an interesting way. I love travelling, and this allowed me to journey from the comfort of my own home and still learn something about a different culture. I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy learning languages or travelling. In particular, I would recommend it to my amazing high school friend Elaine who has studied Chinese in China and now works in New York City for the UN. (I’m so proud of her, can you tell?!)