Kathrina's Reviews > Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, And Language

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows
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Sep 16, 2010

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bookshelves: china, bn-concept-group
Read from September 19 to 22, 2010

What this book has made immensely clear to me is that I have, at some vague point, clearly passed the era of my life where all-thing-are-possible. There are some things I'm good at, very many more that I am no good at, and those two lists are not likely to change a whole lot in the future. I know that I will never climb mountains, perform surgery, skateboard, or ever again have the complexion/figure of a 19-year-old. I don't mean to say that I've given up on striving or learning new things -- that's equal to death. I'm just saying, the world is not as limitless as I was once given to believe.
This book presented to me a brand-new limit to contemplate: I will never learn Cantonese, Mandarin, Wu, Gan, Min, Hakka, Yue, or Xiang, and I certainly will never keep room in my head for all those Chinese characters. Even if I learn a few helpful phrases -- where's the bathroom? no icecubes, please -- in the most popular Chinese language, Mandarin, I will probably pronounce them wrong and be utterly misunderstood. But, I can accept that. Having no pressing need to learn the language, I can be content with my ignorance. And I can enjoy the memoirs and stories of others who have tried and sometimes failed.
Fallows doesn't utterly fail, but even after years of living in China, taking endless classes and hiring numerous tutors, I still don't think she'd call herself fluent by any means. Unfortunately, her book doesn't feel fluent, either. She kind of tap-dances over ideas about the nature of Chinese people, Chinese language, and the learning of a language in general, without really making any solid, sustained case for anything. The book is too short and choppy to really be a memoir -- she gives barely any sense of self to her narrative -- she seems to have written out a few ideas that she kept in a notebook in her back pocket, without much sense of order or progression. The bits are interesting, but they remain just bits.
I think this book was interesting because Chinese languages are endlessly interesting, and she's dug up some fascinating facts and asked some good questions. But for me, the only question she's answered is, "Should I learn Chinese?"
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