Photo: vendors food market Beijing
The nuances of learning a foreign language are explored in Dreaming in Chinese.

Photograph by Iain Masterton, Alamy

By Don George

August 2010

Book of the Month
Dreaming in Chinese,
by Deborah Fallows

While it isn’t necessary to know the language of a foreign country when you live abroad, studying that language can infinitely ease and illuminate your entrée there. Deborah Fallows underscores this lesson again and again in this compelling account of her own trials and triumphs with studying Mandarin while residing in Shanghai and Beijing. A linguist by training, Fallows shows how even small advancements such as mastering a single word or phrase can unlock grammatical and cultural secrets.

One of the insights her linguistic adventure reveals is the richly textured meaning of laobaixing – roughly translated as "common people," but almost impossible to understand until you’ve spent a day bargain-hunting elbow-to-elbow with them. One of my favorite passages describes the quintessential character of a restaurant that is rènao – "noisy and exciting in a pleasant way": "At a rènao restaurant in China," Fallows writes, "diners squeeze around too-small tables that are squeezed into too-small spaces. They toast, drink, tell stories, pass food, hop from their seats to drink to each other, sing, laugh, eat. Servers bustle from table to table, bringing more and more dishes, opening more and more bottles. Diners call after servers, servers run faster. The measure of a great evening is the hotter and noisier the better."

Fallows also evokes the frustrations and fascinations of expat life in China—for example, Chinese tonal distinctions are virtually impossible for foreigners to recognize and master, gender designations are equally foreign for Chinese speaking English, and some maps have south at the top while others have north.

Over the course of her three-year immersion, her ever-deepening insights immeasurably enrich her engagement with China—and ours as well.

Savory Scenes

The Dog Who Ate the Truffle, by Suzanne Carreiro, celebrates the Italian region of Umbria with recipes and anecdotes about a year and a half spent living in Umbertide—attending villagers' birthday and graduation ceremonies, gathering truffles and wild asparagus in the forests, and harvesting grapes to make vinsanto, a dessert wine. In American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, James Beard Award-winning author Rowan Jacobsen travels all of North America to find out how terrain ("terroir" in French) helps produce specific tastes of apples in Yakima, Washington, chocolate in Chiapas, Mexico, and other local foods. Recipes round out each chapter.

If You Liked ...

...Jack Kerouac's On the Road, check out The Great Typo Hunt, by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson. The premise behind this account is irresistible. In 2008, former copy editor Deck and bookseller Herson set out across North America with a noble goal: "to change the world, one typo at a time." Beginning in Massachusetts, they move on to Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia, and eventually all the way to Vancouver and San Francisco, fearlessly correcting mistakes in restaurant blackboards, store signs, and highway billboards as they go. Like a geeky version of Kerouac's classic road trip, this orthographic odyssey offers a clever and spirited education in American grammar—and the American grain.

One Last Thing:

Mars or Bust

Mary Roach's new book, Packing for Mars, is the ultimate travel planner. In this hilarious, intelligent, endearing account, Roach ventures into research facilities and simulated space stations around the world to explore the complexities of space travel. She elucidates the psychological challenges of long-term confinement in a capsule, exults in the liberation of weightlessness, expounds on the intricacies of space motion sickness and rovers over the officially selected Martian landscape of Devon Island in Canada’s High Arctic. She even examines the feasibility of sex in space. For wannabe pioneers to the final frontier, Roach packages a rewarding primer.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Join Nat Geo Travel's Communities




2014 Traveler Photo Contest

  • Picture of a supercell storm in Colorado.

    See the Winners

    See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.