"Dreaming in Chinese"

When one of her Chinese friends asked her casually, “Which of your sons do you love more?”  Deborah Fallows was stunned to hear that in China, love seemed to be measured out “as some kind of a zero-sum calculation.” It was, she said, “a question so alien that it sent me on a mission to find the true Chinese meaning of  ài, the Mandarin word for love.”

She talked with Julia, who like many Chinese women in their 30s she met, has a husband, a career, a new baby. “Julia figured rightly, that my husband and I had been married for a long time,” Fallows writes, “She said that I must love my husband very much to be married so long. An odd comment, I thought. I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment, or a statement of longing, or an opening for a question back.  'Of course,' I said, and added rather lamely, 'I’m sure you must love your husband a lot, too.' 'Yes,' she said, 'I love him for now.' ”

For now? Was this all about cold convenience? Did her husband suspect she might be here right now confiding in me, someone she barely knew? Or was there something else, some veil across the language between us?

This is one of many conundrums Fallows explores in DREAMING IN CHINESE: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, as she discovers and uses the Mandarin language she is learning – a word, a phrase, an oddity of grammar – to open windows into understanding romance, humor, protocol, relationships, and the overflowing humanity of modern China.


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