"One spring day in Beijng, I was trudging home from the local market with bags of bright vegetables and fresh, soft tofu. Few people were out, and my eyes were on the ground to watch my step around the minor rubble and broken bits of pavement. It was not a pretty walk. Then I heard it, sotto voce but clearly distinguishable above the whine of nearby traffic, "Hello, I love you. Buy my jade. I love you!"
This paragraph makes me see and feel and breathe Beijing every time I read it--and I feel a mixture of envy and gratitude surging toward the woman who wrote it. A linguist who has a Ph.D in linguistics, Deborah Fallows decided to study Mandarin during the three years that she spent in China--and lived to tell the tale in a collection of perceptive and sparkling essays about a country that can be puzzlingly opaque to those without a knowledge of its language.
She is a woman whose descriptive talents are as sharp as her powers of observation and sense of humor. Whether she's prowling through a Beijing weekend "dirt market," watching people bargain for jade, agate, lapis and"petrified-looking walnuts," or shopping at a Wal-Mart "with touches like duck carcasses hanging from hooks," she discovers unexpected dimensions through the language she has painfully and painstakingly learned. The abrupt and brusque delivery of requests in Mandarin troubles her until she learns how to soften this impact with a double verb, and when finding out the reason why 4 is shunned and 8 sought after in China, she also understands why clocks are never given as wedding gifts.
Using a faulty tone when satisfying her craving for cheese in a Beijing Taco Bell leads her to a thoughtful exploration of why Chinese people hear tones while Westerners don't, and her explanation of the word renao (hot and noisy) is a brief and brilliant dissertation on life in China.
Chinese, Deborah Fallows says, is one of the most difficult languages to learn; it took, she says, " a good eighteen months before I pummeled enough in my head to accumulate a critical, usable mass of vocabulary." Once this is acquired, she is able to use language to help her in a traditional Chinese custom, breaking the rules, as she assures a security guard at the Beijing Olympics that a forbidden Toblerone bar is actually her much-needed medicine.
Looking at China through its language allows Fall0ws to look at a certain amount of the country's psychology: why "please" and "thank you" are infrequently used among close friends and are actually considered impolite; why "I love you" is seldom voiced; why pronouns are often omitted in speech. And she learns at a Beijing conference from "one exasperated Chinese participant," what the ordinary Chinese person really wants--"a flush toilet, a refrigerator, and a colour TV."
It'a possible to spend time in China--or at least Beijing--without knowing any Mandarin, but Deborah Fallows makes it clear that the more language we acquire, the more at home we will feel, "if just for a little bit, in this extraordinary country." by Janet Brown