By LESLEY DOWNERWhen I used to ask my mother about her family village in China, she always said it was three hours from Canton by bus. A hundred years ago, when my great-grandfather left China for good, that couldn’t have been far, but it was certainly no help in locating it. So I was pleased — though still mystified — to read in Deborah Fallows’s charming and witty little book that in China, “if you ask someone where their hometown is, they’ll say it is seven hours by bus. Or four hours by train. They won’t tell you where it is.”
Fallows spent three years living in China with her husband, the journalist James Fallows. Since she’s a linguist by training, her method of getting under the skin of the country was to immerse herself in its language. In “Dreaming in Chinese,” she uses key phrases and concepts to unlock aspects of the society that interested or surprised her, casting light along the way on many idiosyncrasies of the Chinese view of the world.
Fallows doesn’t arrive with many preconceptions. Instead, she takes the Chinese as they see and present themselves. And she soon discovers that what the Chinese think is important isn’t always what we think is important. One thing they’re interested in is ensuring good luck. This explains why the Beijing Olympics began on Aug. 8, 2008, at 8:08 p.m. Eight, ba, rhymes with fa, “as in fa cai, which means ‘to become wealthy,’ ” making it a very auspicious number. And even though Aug. 8 was well into the rainy season, it didn’t rain.
Auspiciousness also enters into the choosing of names, an art in itself. Most Chinese have three names: surname (there are just 100 common surnames in a population of 1.3 billion people), middle name (to identify your generation and connect you with your cousins) and personal name. Which yields the realization that — in a country where most people are allowed only one child — future generations will have no cousins.
On matters that Westerners make a fuss about, like human rights, Fallows presents the common Chinese viewpoint. At a conference on censorship, technology and commerce, she recalls that “one exasperated Chinese participant finally blurted out that people, the laobaixing, aren’t as preoccupied as Westerners about free speech and an uncensored Internet: what laobaixing really want, he said, is . . . a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a color TV.” For ordinary Chinese, material concerns come first.
Fallows has an endearing affection for these laobaixing, these common folk. Unlike conventional journalists, she’s not very interested in press conferences, in listening to what the politicians say. Little by little, she finds herself becoming more like the laobaixing: learning to deal with the plethora of rules as the Chinese do — by finding ways around them.
By DEBORAH FALLOWSTo outsiders, China may seem purposefully dynamic. To its own people, the same ceaseless change can seem frighteningly chaotic. During my own recent three years of living there, I was often startled by the dramatic stories told by my Chinese friends — both the terrible parts (famine, split and scattered families, trust betrayed, fortunes lost) and the astonishing rebounds (an against-all-odds admission to a university, a fearless gamble that paid off, a random kindness from a generous stranger).
But China has gone through previous periods of tumultuous change, as Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller’s “Fortunate Sons” makes abundantly clear. Their story begins with Yung Wing, who came to America in the late 1840s. The first Chinese student admitted to Yale, he returned to his homeland in 1854, determined not to be the last. Under his tutelage, 120 Chinese boys crossed the Pacific in the 1870s, intent on learning Western skills that might help their country modernize. Yet mixed fortunes awaited them on their return to a country whose Qing-era imperial rule was crumbling, where their schooling at various colleges in New England made them both influential and, in some cases, rootless and estranged.
The boys arrived in an America that was going through its own post-Civil War transformation, and Leibovitz and Miller use the newcomers’ experiences as pretexts for discourses on extraneous subjects. One such observation — “For the boys,” the story of the transcontinental railroad’s creation “could have contained many lessons about the contrasting outlooks of imperial China and the young American republic” — is followed by a lengthy discussion of the Central Pacific Railroad, ethnic tensions involving its Chinese work crews and how John Deere tractors tamed the prairie.