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Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language Paperback – September 13, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Fallows manages to take the relatively dry subject of translation and create a warm and witty memoir. Dwelling less on her own feelings then on the intricacies of language mastery, she shares experiences after she and her husband moved to China that taught her just how complex Mandarin can be. Such as the fact that there are 400 syllables in Mandarin as opposed to 10 times that number in English, making tone crucial in conversation. Fallows makes all this fascinating by writing in a thoroughly engaging manner that not only invites readers into her experiences, but also delights them with her discoveries. There is confusion with a Cantonese cab driver, the manicurist who envisioned “almost perfect happiness,” and the employee at Taco Bell who thought Fallows wanted to hug him (she was inquiring about takeout). From observations about maps, naming children, and the struggle over one language for a nation where over 300 million speak something other than Mandarin, Fallows takes readers on a ride through Chinese culture that is as entertaining as it is informative. --Colleen Mondor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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, New York Times Book Review

“You don't have to know Mandarin to be captivated by Deborah Fallows's Dreaming in Chinese…. Forget Berlitz – that just teaches words. Deborah Fallows shows us that the cultural implications of those words teach us about each other.” ―Sara Nelson, O: The Oprah Magazine

“Fallows has a good ear for aspect, the way of stressing certain words and syllables to change or add layers of meaning to a simple word or phrase. She veers to the gentle, seeing the generosity behind brusque gestures, the intimacy and friendship behind rudeness and the priorities that language reveals. Playfulness, respect, affection and the virtues of solidarity with the common people -- a different traveler might miss all these but not Fallows.” ―Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“While it isn't necessary to know the language of a foreign country when you live abroad, studying that language can infinitely ease and illuminate your entrée there. Deborah Fallows underscores this lesson again and again in this compelling account of her own trials and triumphs with studying Mandarin while residing in Shanghai and Beijing. A linguist by training, Fallows shows how even small advancements such as mastering a single word or phrase can unlock grammatical and cultural secrets…. Over the course of her three-year immersion, her ever-deepening insights immeasurably enrich her engagement with China--and ours as well.” ―Don George, National Geographic Traveler

“Reading Dreaming in Chinese, we follow an intelligent, analytical, sympathetic -- and humorous -- guide who knows it's the journey, not the destination, that counts.” ―Patricia Hagen, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“For anyone with a connection to China (and particularly for anyone who has attempted Mandarin) her book is a gift: it's all the thoughts that escaped you in your travels and studies. It's as revealing of the way a Western, English-speaking mindset perceives China as it is of what "makes a billion people tick." For readers hoping to truly journey in China (rather than just plant your feet firmly on the Great Wall), Dreaming in Chinese is mandatory reading.” ―KJ Dell'Antonia, Double X

“Thinking of learning Mandarin? Read this…. For beginners, Dreaming in Chinese is an easy entry into an ancient land.” ―Tish Wells, McClatchy Newspapers

“Fallows manages to take the relatively dry subject of translation and create a warm and witty memoir…. [taking] readers on a ride through Chinese culture that is as entertaining as it is informative.” ―Colleen Mondor, Booklist

“Any traveler who shudders at the prospect of deciphering Chinese should be armed with a copy of this book.” ―Evan Osnos, former Chicago Tribune Beijing bureau chief, and staff writer at the New Yorker

“China seems an impossible mountain to climb, yet Deborah Fallows takes a less traveled path, climbing the mountain from the inside. She recounts her journey with a perfect balance of wise observation and wit. To follow her climb yields startling insights about the Chinese people and culture, the kind of insights lugubrious China essays rarely yield. Dreaming in Chinese is both vital and a joy to read.” ―Ken Auletta

Dreaming in Chinese is a little gem, sparkling with wonderful tales about China, its language and its people.” ―Rob Gifford, former NPR Beijing correspondent, and author of China Road

“In Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows opens up a window onto Chinese urban life through its notoriously difficult language. A charming and insightful book.” ―Susan Shirk, author of China: Fragile Superpower

“While all too many books on China try to make sense of this infinitely provocative country from the top down, Deborah Fallows looks at it from the bottom up, trying to figure out what makes the place work through personal encounters, the language and everyday occurrences. She has written a refreshing and insightful book.” ―Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations

Dreaming in Chinese is original, entertaining, gracefully written and provides important insights into life and culture in contemporary China. Deborah Fallows is a gifted linguist who helps her readers understand the complexities of the Chinese language. But she does much more. She is an astute observer and through simple yet compelling anecdotes she helps her readers experience everyday life in China. This is a terrific book for anyone who wants to improve their understanding of this extraordinary country.” ―Laura D. Tyson, Professor of Global Management, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley

“Deborah Fallows' sparkling memoir of her three years in China makes us feel we are on the streets with her in Shanghai and Beijing--haggling with merchants and cops and learning to be rude and friendly, Chinese-style. The joy of this book is its sense of humor and adventure: Deborah decided to live outside the expatriate ghetto: learning the language, drinking the water, living the real Chinese life like a laobaixing (ordinary person).Whether it's learning not to say ‘please,' or understanding why Chinese hate the number ‘4' or ordering take-away at a Chinese Taco Bell, Deb jumps in head-first and makes us laugh at her often comical embrace of this culture. I can't think of a better book for someone who wants to understand the lovable, infuriating and hilarious country that is China.” ―David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post and author of Body of Lies


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books (September 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080277914X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802779144
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #170,667 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Deborah Fallows has lived in Shanghai and Beijing and traveled throughout China for three years with her husband, writer James Fallows. She is a Harvard graduate and has a PhD in Linguistics. She most recently worked in research and polling for the Pew Internet Project and in data architecture for Oxygen Media. When in the U.S., she and her husband live in Washington, DC. They have two sons and two daughters-in-law.

To learn more about Deborah Fallows, please visit

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Thom Mitchell VINE VOICE on September 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ms. Fallows does an admirable job breaking down and explaining what learning Chinese is all about - and does this in a very engaging fashion. Her skill as a linguist gives her the skill to provide insight covering not only the language aspect of learning Chinese, but more importantly into the cultural aspect of learning Chinese, which I think is even more valuable and much rarer. For example she discusses the ramifications of using a single spoken word "Ta", but different characters to mean he, she, it and the history of the word. Her chapter on direction, orientation and maps is especially interesting because of the difference between how the Chinese arrange maps and the Western world arranges maps.

I could continue talking about the specifics, but her book overall provides valuable insight and is a great foundation for anyone trying to learn Chinese, understand Chinese culture or is planning a visit to China. I wish Ms. Fallows book had been written five years ago when I started learning Chinese - it would have vastly shortened my learning curve. Get this book today - you'll be glad did.
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70 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Emily on October 8, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
I quite enjoyed this book. Like the author, I am a linguist who has studied Chinese, though I've only had the opportunity to make one short visit to China. This book was a chance to vicariously visit China with someone whose perspective I very much admire.

However, the type-setting in the Kindle edition was VERY disappointing. About half of the Chinese characters show up as little boxes. Another 25% are weirdly big and pixelated. It's as if they weren't aware that the book had non-Roman characters in it, or didn't proof-read. I expect better from the Kindle experience.
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50 of 58 people found the following review helpful By LibraryThingLoaf on September 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Dreaming in Chinese is a the story of how learning the Chinese language gives one a glimpse in the the Chinese way of life. It is written in a very straightforward style but is not without charm. Fallows can back the rather whimsical look at one of the world's hardest languages for western language learners with the poignant knowledge of a trained linguist. Her stories, which might seem to be light on content, are actually quick revealing and she chose each chapter's focus well as taken together, they do a decent job illustrating several key points of the Chinese mindset.

While language learners and linguists will enjoy the book, it might seem to others that the book is somewhat shallow. The author's life abroad, while a definite challenge, can come off sounding rather privileged. Learning a language is not easy and Fallows doesn't portray it as such, but she constantly references their travels and multiple homes which can make the trials of learning Mandarin seem like a luxury rather than a necessity.

As another reviewer mentioned, her presentation of Chinese varies and the lack of consistency can be disruptive to the flow of the text as well as the whole of book. If possible, the Chinese should be presented with the character, pinyin, and translation.

The book is very readable, mostly enjoyable, and well thought out.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By M. Mariba on August 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Chinese can not be ignored due their sheer numbers, economic muscle & unfamiliar customs. Too much of the world one may say, the sheer scale of China : 1.3 billion people over almost 10 million square kilometres, whose languages, customs, beliefs and politics are so vastly different from most of western society's - makes China seem an impenetrable monolith. Using her own struggles & triumphs with the study of Mandarin as a guide, Harvard linguist Deborah Fallows manages to describe the workings of the language & the country in a way that is intelligible to the non-expert; and her anecdotes & stories illustrate how Westerners do have to think in a fundamentally different way to survive in China. Based on her experiences of three years living & traveling in China, "Dreaming In Chinese : And Discovering What Makes A Billion People Tick" is a book to appeal to anyone with an interest in China, be they first time tourists, seasoned business people or even the idly curious. This book is accessible, relevatory & entertaining, it is an able guide to discovering this extraordinary nation for oneself. A recommended reading if you like to learn Mandarin, learn Chinese culture or/and visit China.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By dhydavid on January 5, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The book is moderately funny and informative. It should be useful to first-time travelers to China who do not know much about the Chinese language and culture. The tone of the writing is somewhat neutral, not very passionate or too negative. Actually I think it is a good thing. Then you know the author is telling her real experiences in China, which might be pleasant or unpleasant. Eventually, China becomes more real and less abstract.

On the other hand, if you have studied Chinese formally for a few months, you probably wouldn't learn much by reading this book. Many of the "surprises" that the author encountered are quite beginner-level knowledge, such as the order from big units to smaller units, the importance of tones, the lack of inflection, family name first, and the writing system. You would not have the same "surprises" as the author did if you took a formal course in college.

All in all, it is a good book that you should pick up and read before going to China or on your way to China. If you only have a vague interest in studying Mandarin, this book should be a good starting point.

Finally, pardon my nitpicking tendencies here.

The author mentions that the street signs in Xinjiang are written in four languages: Chinese, English, Arabic and Russian. It is actually wrong. Most street signs in Xinjiang are written in both Chinese and Uyghur only, as required by the relevant laws there. The Uyghur language uses a version of the Arabic script. So just as many languages use the Latin alphabet, they are not all "written in Latin". In some tourist destinations, you can see English signs. I guess that's normal. As for Russian, it might be for tourists only.

The author also tells a story about ordering takeout from a Taco Bell in Shanghai.
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