the next superpower | August 04, 2011

Deborah Fallows: A New (and Nuanced) Understanding of China

For three years, Deborah Fallows lived in China, using language—specifically Mandarin—as a prism through which to understand the Chinese people, their culture, their traditions, and their hopes and aspirations. Her adventures are captured, beautifully, in Dreaming in Chinese, a unique and illuminating book that is part travel memoir, part cultural reportage. Fallows’ ground-level and exceedingly humane view of China stands in contrast to that of many other U.S.-based commentators. By lifting the veil on a country cloaked in secrecy (at least to Western observers), Fallows provides a candid, refreshing and necessary look into a country that is often wildly misunderstood, and whose economic fate has become, for better or worse, inextricably linked with our own.

Here’s an excerpt from a TIME magazine interview with Deb Fallows:

Can you give an example of something you learned about China from Mandarin?

Their table manners seemed very normal or even excessively polite. You would never think of pouring tea for yourself until you had poured it for everyone else at the table. But there was a kind of contrast between that politeness and what I would see in public — the pushing and shoving on the street, for example. What I noticed from a linguistic point of view was that the appropriate way to say things in Chinese was to be extremely abrupt even to the point of being rude. "Please" and "thank you" is heard very little. If you're in a restaurant and the waiter asks if you'd like some more water, you just say buyao (don't want) — you don't use any of the normal softeners that make our language polite. I asked some of my Chinese friends, and they told me that in China when you insert words which we consider polite, they consider it as inserting a formality between you and your good friends or family members. It actually sets some kind of distance. So, in fact, saying "please" to your child or "thank you" to your best friend is heard as something that is very formal, very icy and like, "What did I do wrong?"

Read more about speaker on China Deborah Fallows