Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language
Review posted March 31, 2011.
Walker & Co., New York, 2010. 205 pages.
I've always loved books about the cross-cultural experience of living in another country. Deborah Fallows has a PhD in Linguistics, and makes her story even more interesting by reflecting on aspects of the Mandarin language and the ways they are reflected in the Chinese people and culture.
She and her husband lived in China for three years, and this book is a fascinating look at her experiences. Don't tell, but I'm already plannning to give a copy to my nephew for his birthday -- He just spent two semesters studying in China. I wonder if he will have noticed some of these same things.
The author explains why the language lens worked so well for her:
The language paid me back in ways I hadn't fully anticipated. It was my lifeline to our everyday survival in China. My language foibles, many of which I have recounted in this book, taught me as much as my rare and random successes. The language also unexpectedly became my way of making some sense of China, my telescope into the country. Foreigners I met and knew in China used their different passions to help them interpret China: artists used China's art world, as others used Chinese cooking, or traditional medicine, or business, or music, or any number of things they knew about. I used the language, or more precisely, the study of the language.
As I tried to learn to speak Mandarin, I also learned about how the language works -- its words, its sounds, its grammar and its history. I often found a connection between some point of the language -- a particular word or the use of a phrase, for example -- and how that point could elucidate something very "Chinese" I would encounter in my everyday life in China. The language helped me understand what I saw on the streets or on our travels around the country -- how people made their livings, their habits, their behavior toward each other, how they dealt with adversity, and how they celebrated.
This book is the story of what I learned about the Chinese language, and what the language taught me about China.
Her result is completely fascinating. You will enjoy this book if you are at all curious about people and language.