“Postcards from Tomorrow Square” by James Fallows

I recently finished reading Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows, which I found out about while reading Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows, his wife. James Fallows, a journalist for the Atlantic, moved to China for a few years and produced Postcards from Tomorrow Square as a collection of essays about various topics that struck him while he was there. Ranging from rural developmet, and internet censorship to cultural issues like the nouveau riche, Fallows addresses issues that would be of interest to those who have developed a curiosity about China.

I was entertained by Fallows relatively short and easily readable essays. However, reading this book in 2011 seems to be a little too tardy to absorb any profound learning from its pages – simply because I have the distinct impression that journalistic accounts of the “China experience” written before the Beijing Olympics in 2008,  by their nature, fail to take into account important developments in the issues that they once sufficiently addressed. Admittedly, I feel bit slighted by the fact that I waited until now to read this book and I have this unfortunate hunch that if I discuss the details of its contents with Sinophiles or Sinologists, I will come across as a recently buried time-capsule.

In an effort to not be overly dismissive, however, I will say that I found his assessment of the way that Americans view China to be quite accurate and still very relevant. Fallows asserts that Americans don’t really understand China’s trajectory and drastically overemphasize the “threat” that it poses to what Americans feel is (but do not refer to as) a sort of Pax Americana. In the same vein, most Americans fail to see the significant progress and accomplishments that have been made in China during its unprecedented push for development. Fallows points specifically at environmental regulation and China’s efforts to actively deal with environmental degradation as it happens (whereas Fallows claims that no other industrialized nations have engaged in this degree of environmentalism during industrialization).

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“Dreaming in Chinese” by Deborah Fallows

I was at a New Year’s Eve shindig and got into a good conversation with this girl who’s moving to China to work on an English teaching venture. We talked about her former experiences in China, her passion for the Chinese language, and how a foreign language can open a door to another realm of thought and social constructs. At that point, she recommended that I read Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows (bio and blog). A few days later I stopped by a book store and picked up a copy.

Dreaming in Chinese is not a novel. Its chapters are not linked together by plot or character development or something of that sort. Rather, the book is a series of linguistic  and cultural experiences organized into chapters by their topic or some overarching theme (sort of like vignettes).

Having a Ph.D. in linguistics, the author has a lot of fun musing about Chinese culture and language. She clearly has lots of enthusiasm for the language learning process and this struck a cord with my own interests. In terms of writing style, it is very pleasant and leisurely so you don’t have to worry about struggling with technical linguistic terms like “paradigmatic lexical relation” or “metonymy”.

While the cultural concepts that are encountered may not serve to enlighten those of you who are advanced sinophiles or have had long exposure to the Middle Kingdom, the book is entertaining and will help those who are unfamiliar with China to become more knowledgeable. It is a good book for someone who is just becoming interested in China and a must read for those who are about to get on the plane Beijing or Shanghai and aren’t exactly sure about where they’re headed.