Derek Sivers
Dreaming in Chinese - by Deborah Fallows

Dreaming in Chinese - by Deborah Fallows

ISBN: 0802779131
Date read: 2024-03-12
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

American lived in China for three years and wrote this adorable book about the Chinese language and some cultural insights. Instead of shopkeepers saying “have a nice day” they say “walk slowly”. The word for “careful” means “small heart”. Many more like this. 热闹 “hot noisy” helped explain something I had always wondered about Chinese culture.

my notes

The Beijing tradition of màn zǒu.
Màn means “slowly”
Zǒu means “walk”
Together: “walk slowly.”
Màn zǒu is the tender goodbye offered from every small shopkeeper I have visited in Beijing.
It is usually spoken in a quiet voice, and somehow sounds so much more sincere than “Have a nice day.”

Westerners use way too many pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xièxie) when speaking Chinese.
The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you.
Saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.
Good friends are so close, they are like part of you.
Why would you say please or thank you to yourself? It doesn’t make sense.

Doubling the verb softens its impact.
xiū xiū = take a little rest;
xiū xiū shì shì, literally, fix fix try try, which would mean something like “have a try at fixing”

Chinese love idioms, proverbs, sayings and morals of the story.
They have particular esteem for four-character sayings that sum up a story or fable.

Lǎo + bǎi + xìng literally means “old” + “hundred” + “names.”
In Chinese it has become a shortcut to convey the sense of “everybody,” since most of the Chinese population share the same family names.
Indeed, today, some 85 percent of Chinese people share only 100 such names.

The melamine scandal, bird-flu outbreak, and various other tainted-product scares wiped milk, chicken, eggs and toothpaste from my shopping lists, and we got used to life without them.

Lǎobǎixìng (regular folk) aren’t as preoccupied as Westerners about free speech and an uncensored Internet.
What lǎobǎixìng really want are a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a color TV.

Two things you need to be considered a real person in China: a mobile phone and a Chinese name.

Since over a billion people share 100 family names, to help keep each other straight, Chinese titles are important:
Chén Lǎoshī, or Teacher Chén
Huáng Hùshi, or Nurse Huáng
Lǐ Yīshēng, or Doctor Lǐ
Zhāng Sījī, or Driver Zhāng
Zhōu Shīfu, or Master Worker Zhōu
Nicknames help, too.

Most Chinese whom Westerners meet will also have an English name. This makes it easy on us, and the Chinese seem to like it, too.

Early risers were practicing tai chi in the park.
We gingerly approached them. They figured out our intentions right away.
A very tiny woman beckoned us over with a little downward wave of her palm, and that was the beginning of my long relationship.
I realized my only mistake had been waiting so long to make an approach.
For the next five months, my new friends tucked me into their ranks, making sure I was always in eyeshot of someone to follow, and they gently bossed me around, all in the name of improvement.

From big to small:
Addresses: country, to city, to street, to number, to apartment.
Personal names are ordered to start big with the family name and end small with the personal name.
Dates are referenced from year to month to day.

East–west is the predominant axis, not our familiar north–south.
Southeast Asia is Dōngnán, or Eastsouth Asia

Shàng is a common word whose meaning extends to a lot of different words in English: “up,” “on top,” “above,” “on.”
Xià is its antonym, the word for “down,” “under,” “below,” “beneath,” “off.”
Shàng refers to the past, as in last or previous.
Xià refers to the future, as in next.

In Shanghai, I learned to wait patiently beside the cobbler repairing my shoes or risk them vanishing overnight along with the shop, sacrifices to progress.

Our teacher seemed surprised that we didn’t find it normal that place and time were melded into a single word.
If you ask someone where their home town is, they’ll say it is seven hours by bus. Or four hours by train. They won’t tell you where it is.
Hearing a question of where and giving an answer of how long.
Walking backward to get somewhere in front of you.
Reading maps upside down.
Absorbing that up in space also means behind in time and down in space also means ahead in time.
These are some of the points where East meets West.

Pronouns just aren’t that important to the Chinese, and they omit them frequently.
Unless you really need to use the pronoun to clarify the context, or highlight the antecedent of the pronouns, or otherwise draw attention in some way, just leave it out.

Xiǎoxīn means “Watch out!”
Xiǎo-xīn is literally “small heart.”
I envision my own heart closing tightly, becoming very small, when I see these dangerous acts.
Sometimes xiǎoxīn is used as an adjective that means “cautious” or “careful,” as in “He is a naturally cautious driver.”

Kāixīn = kāi (open) + heart = joyous
Fàngxīn = fàng (put in place) + heart = set your mind at ease
Shāngxīn = shāng (wound) + heart = heart- broken
Rèxīn = rè (hot) + heart = enthusiastic or warm- hearted

Simple words cover the basics of civilization - words like hot, cold, sun, moon, food, tree, mother, hand, walk and die - then compound words step up to the next stage with words like whirlpool, snowman, brainstorm, sunglasses, skyline, tiptoe, heartbroken.

One way Chinese makes a lot of compound words is to glue together two antonyms, or opposites, into a new whole.
This fits right in comfortably with the concept of yīn yáng, two opposing forces connect or meld into each other and make up a greater whole.
Kāiguān is kāi (open) + guān (close) = a switch, as in to switch a light on and off. “Will you open-close the light?”
Hǎohuài is hǎo (good) + huài (bad) = quality. “The good-bad of this cloth makes it look cheap.”
Duōshǎo is duō (many, much) + shǎo (few, little) = how many or how much. “Do you have much-little time to spend with me?”
Hūxī is hū (exhale) + xī (inhale) = breathe. “Exhale-inhale polluted air is bad for you.”
Zuǒyòu is zuǒ (left) + yòu (right) = approximately, nearly or about. “There is enough coffee to make left-right one more pot.”
Dōngxi is dōng (east) + xi (west) = stuff or things. “I’m going out to get a few east-west for the house.”
Gāoǎi is gāo (tall) + ǎi (short) = height. “I started to notice the number of newspaper ads for jobs that came with prerequisites for a candidate’s minimum tall-short.”
Dàxiǎo is dà (big) + xiǎo (small) = size. “Which big-small do you want to try on?”

Diànhuà = electric + huà (speech) = telephone or telephone call
Diànnǎo = electric + nǎo (brain) = computer
Diànshì = electric + shì (view) = TV
Diàntī = electric + tī (stairs) = elevator
Diànyǐng = electric + yǐng (shadow) = movie or film

Fùmǔ = fù (father) + mǔ (mother) = parent

Míngbai = míng (clear) + bai (white) = understand

Yānhóng = yān (eye) + hóng (red) = jealous

Niánqīng = nián (year, age) + qīng (light) = young

Tiānqì = tiān (heaven) + qì (breath) = weather

Huǒchē = huǒ (fire) + chē (car, wagon) = train

Mǎshàng = mǎ (horse) + shàng (on, above) = on the horse, meaning “immediately” or “right away.” “I’m coming right away.”

Some compound words that go right to the heart of Chinese life.
Rènao = rè (hot) + nào (noisy).
My dictionary defines rènao 热闹 as “noisy and exciting in a pleasant way, boisterous, bustling.”
This odd definition doesn’t do justice to the real-world connotations of the word.
Rènao is all about the revelry of a festive, chaotic gathering.
Think of a raucous, beery sports bar during the Super Bowl, or a loud, sweaty pub during the World Cup.
Rènao is the default mode of Chinese social life; it is the standard to strive for.
At a rènao restaurant in China, 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.
A good train ride is also rènao.
People jumbled together with their snacks, papers, children, thermoses of hot tea, ringing mobile phones, bags of belongings, all amid loudspeakers, pushcarts of food, and dashing up and down the aisles.
It was a whole village life re-created inside one car of the train.
On overnight rides, people change into sleeping clothes, trail back and forth to the bathroom, play cards, tell stories, make new friends.
Foreigners are exhausted by rènao, Chinese are energized by it.

Chinese had borrowed a lot of diàn words from Japanese.
Japan modernized earlier, and they created new compound words for technological terms and Western ideas based on their own characters, some of which Chinese later adopted.

The language reforms of the twentieth century represented a massive, daunting linguistic engineering task.
Languages are constantly changing, but normally they change slowly and organically, with less imposition and decree.
These reforms, and many of their final implementations, represented something more like the sudden shift of tectonic plates during an earthquake, akin to the degree of the political and social shifts in China during the same time.

Chinese seem to have an inner compass about which rules to take seriously and which to ignore.
There is surprisingly little deference toward people in uniform in China.

Chinese hate to pay to transport anything they could theoretically carry by themselves.

“Hǎohǎo xuéxí, tiāntiān xiàngshàng” = literally: “Good good study, day day up.”