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Today from 2-3 p.m. PT: Live from the Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival—Authors Deborah Fallows and Lisa See on the Book Chat!

06.20.13

sandra_fallows_seeDeborah Fallows is the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language, a book about the three years she and her husband, James Fallows, spent living in China. Fallows, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics, says: "The lens of the language became my way to understand and explain many of the confounding things that I was seeing every day."

dreaming-in-chinese_300Lisa See is the author of bestselling books Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. Her book On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family was a New York Times Notable Book. Her works have been published in 39 countries.

Post your questions, observations, thoughts on Chinese language--its practice, learning it, speaking it, etc.--as a comment below. Deborah Fallows, Lisa See, and Sandra will respond from 2-3 p.m. Pacific Time.

Refresh your browser often to keep the conversation up to date!

71 COMMENTS

Sandra Tsing Loh

Welcome, Deborah and Lisa, and thanks for joining me here at Aspen Summer Words! This feels so swanky! Inspired by Deborah’s great book DREAMING IN CHINESE, I’m going to call today’s ostensible science topic “Chinese language vs. the Western brain.”

First I’m going to pose some questions for Deb, while the never-shy Lisa can lurk, question, or comment, then we’re going to open the question queue, then when Deb leaves us at 3:45 to prep for their panel with Yiyun Li, Lisa will be in the hot seat re: Chinese language.

———-

Deborah, or as I might call you by your Chinese name “To Borrow a Pen” (as opposed to your husband James’ fabulous Chinese name of FlyBoy), for those new to your book, can you give an example that illustrates the cultural complexities of translation between Mandarin and English?
(The word “love” is certainly a good one.)

deb

Sure! You can come up with literal translations pretty well, but there can be a lot going on in the background that sometimes causes confusion or misinterpretation. The word love, “ai” in Chinese, is one of them. I first noticed something strange about Love when a woman pointed to my two sons and asked me,” Which one do you love more?”

deb

Stunned! I couldn’t even answer. But I did file away that odd reference to love for a long time.
Later, I learned a lot about the word. Mainly, that the sense of love and marriage is changing in China. “Love” used to be arranged and appropriate, in imperial times. Then it was very practical, in Mao times. Now it is a mishmash. Young people have a strong sense of romantic love and looking for a love marriage. Their parents, including that woman who wanted me to make a Sophie’s Choice between my boys, was from an earlier generation that was more practical about Love and also wanted arranged marriages.

So, therein lies the trouble. Changing semantics and culture over time.

Lisa

I’m happy to be here too with Borrow a Pen and Sandra.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Can’t resist — there is a Chinese part of me that is actually a bit curious. . . “So which one DO you love more?”

Sandra Tsing Loh

You said you began the book taking bits of Chinese language—a word, phrase or grammar point—and then using language as a key to help puzzle out the mysteries of daily life in China. It’s brilliant and illuminating (with all the elegance of Strunk & White). You hold a PhD in linguistics (an academic field I myself am not an expert in), I wonder: Do you consider linguistics a science? Yes? No? How might you speak to this?

deb

Very funny. I never answered her and I’ll never answer you. But I do have a grandson now..

Sandra Tsing Loh

(In a weird way, as the mother of two ADORABLE girls–I kind of know what the Chinese mean. . . You love them differently, but of course the same amount.)

Sandra Tsing Loh

Lisa, as you’ve noted, the Chinese character for “mother love” marries the concepts of pain and love, which your novels set in China eloquently explore (particularly via foot-binding). I’m curious: Is mother love-as-pain a theme that comes to you first as a novelist, or do you find your Chinese stories/worlds in any way directed by these Chinese characters?

(I have completely incorporated the Chinese character “Crisis = Danger + Opportunity” into my own world philosophy, even though I’ve since heard that that interpretation is as accurately Chinese as. . . well, chop suey.)

deb

First, I noticed that you often say the “yeah, no” starter comment before you go on to speak. Yeah-no is a young people’s (even those young at heart!) new phrase and often heard in California. Do you notice that in yourself?

Anyway, about linguistics: I think it’s a combination of art and science. That’s what drew me to it originally. It’s about the humanity of language, but considered or studied in a rigorous, scientific way. Noam Chomsky started the kind of theoretical linguistics I studied, which was loaded with “scientific” description. But it was a good start to a deep understanding of and familiarity with language. And it helps you go on to think about lots of questions about language without being too mushy.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Yeah, no, Deb — I don’t think I do that. Oh, but yes! (Is there any similar phrase in Chinese that stands for this very important phrase?)

NickandAnn'sMom

Dear Deborah, I heard you on NPR a couple of years ago talking about your book. Great interview. Is it true that the Chinese LACK of please and thank you is actually a way of communicating intimacy? (Am I remembering that correctly?) If so, that is an idea we should NOT communicate to our American children (particularly in restaurants).  Is there anything to be learned from the Chinese do you think in making our children more polite?

deb

I’ve been thinking about that yeah-no. The Chinese say “dui” or “shi” for yes, which kind of mean yes, but literally “right” or “it is”. No is “bu shi”. So, you’d have to say “shi bu shi” , which already exists as a confirmation at the end of a statement, like saying “Isn’t that right?”

Confused yet? I guess my answer is I’ve heard “shi bu shi” a lot, but it doesn’t mean yeah-no the way we use it. it means “Isn’t that right?”

Hogwarts Mom

According to Tiger Mom, Chinese children are far more polite, but there wasn’t any analysis of language in her book. LOL This way of looking at Chinese culture is fascinating. Thanks!

Sandra Tsing Loh

Deb, all I can say to that shi bu shi explanation is: Can I borrow a pen?

Sandra Tsing Loh

Deborah, as you both struggled and succeeded to master Chinese while in China, you made an interesting distinction between the way you apprehended Chinese and the way your husband did. Can you explain?

Lisa

Mother-love is at the center of my work. I used to think it was about how a daughter would look at her mother, who was binding her feet –bindiing her daughter’s feet out of love through a very painful process. But then I realized it was really about how we, as mothers, look at our children. When they suffer, we suffer. When they’re little, we can hug them, carry them, and comfort them in so many ways. When they’re older — and they’ve lost a job, a wife, a husband, their house — all we can do is take their pain and carry it in our hearts. That’s a mother’s pain — mother-love.

deb

Thanks, NickandAnn’smom. You are right. If you say please or thank you, you actually insert some formality, and lose intimacy and closeness in your speech. So, it’s probably even more tricky to try to teach kids exactly when to say Please or Thank you.

Seriously, I think western kids could learn a little bit about respect from the Chinese. Respect for older generations. I don’t mean to sound too stuffy about that, but it is a nice trait.

Philip A.

What with all the (very telling) composite words in Mandarin, and the state of the eternally gray sky over Beijing, I am wondering if anyone knows what the Chinese word for “pollution” is? (Is there even a word for air pollution?)

Janice B.

Lisa, so happy to be on with you. So you think the mother-love-pain issue is both Western and Chinese?

Edward

Deb,

I enjoyed reading your book when it first appeared and saw you speak in Cambridge during the first book tour during which you said that you had mastered Mandarin more than written Chinese (and that your husband had the opposite experience).

I’m curious if your relative mastery of written Chinese has improved relative to the spoken language.. or not. It’s unclear whether you even have much opportunity to “practice” either since the end of your semi-permanent residency (for that matter, is it harder to remain ‘current’ than with other language skill that you’ve acquired over the years?).

Sandra Tsing Loh

Lisa, I’m wondering vis a vis the mother-love Chinese character question, if Chinese language/symbology/culture ever “corrects” a novelistic instinct that you have? Does that make sense?

deb

OK, about learning Chinese. I’m sticking to my (possibly wacky) theory that people are either more oral/aural or more visual in their approach. I’m definitely in the first category. My husband is much better visually. He could learn the characters with almost no trouble, while I struggled mightily. Mightily! In an attempt to triage and move forward quickly with Mandarin, I ended up concentrating most of my time on the spoken language.

The way this played out in life was that Jim, my husband, would look at a sign, read it, and tell me what it was about. Then I would start talking..

Our system for conquering China worked as long as we stuck together!

Rachel Norris

Lisa, do you think you would have bound your own daughter’s feet?

Nancy Liu

James and you sound like a left and right brain!

deb

Wuran. That’s the word (if I remember correctly) for pollution. In 2006, noone used that word. It was all euphemisms. By 2012, I heard the word a lot. TV weather was reporting data on air quality; it showed up in newspapers; people said it. It became officially OK to drop “foggy, misty, cloudy”, etc. and just talk about pollution.

deb

Edward, thanks and as far as keeping up with the Chinese. “We do what we can”. I watch a lot of Chinese TV. And movies. My old Mandarin program at Georgetown has closed down (!)
I have found a weird thing: when we’ve returned on frequent trips to China, I found that I am losing the Chinese much less and much more slowly than has been my experience with other foreign languages. I wonder if the struggle to learn Chinese has a payback in that it sticks with you longer. I hope so.

I’m still working on it.. just in fits and starts.

Catherine Jing Luo

I am curious about your take as a linguist on you approach in learn Chinese. I confess that I haven’t read your book yet. Are you familiar with Rosseta Stone? My husband wants to learn Chinese since my kids are in Chinese Immersion school he was motivated to be part of our conversation. I am looking for a self-paced learning program for him. I appreciate your suggestions and advises.

Laura M.

Thanks, Deborah, for the fascinating read. What do you see as the main benefits for our kids in a Los Angeles Mandarin immersion program? And from living in China, can you envision future opportunities for them, especially being able to read and write Mandarin?

deb

Nancy, OK, left brain and right brain. Jim and I are yin and yang on most everything. I guess it’s not surprising that we approach language differently, too.

deb

Catherine, I’m a firm believer, even as a linguist, that you take up the language-learning approach that works for you. I know Rosetta Stone, but I’m not a good match for that. I actually like working through grammar and understanding the system of how a language works. I am less happy “picking it up” from context and repetition of programs like Rosetta.

If you follow a program that you like, then you’re much more likely to keep at it. And that is everything!

Dr. Behrens

What advice would you give Westerners learning this most difficult of languages? “Move to China” might seem like helpful advice, but perhaps not given the sheer difficulty of daily life.

Nutella365

Lisa, big fan. Apparently you have the greatest mom on the planet and you have two sons. I’m wondering where you pull the inspiration from regarding your complex and painful mother/daughter relationships? Thanks in advance.

Lisa

Would I bind my daughter’s feet? If I lived in that time, absolutely yes. It was the only way to ensure a better future for your daughter. The other options: working in the fields until you die, being sold to another family as a “little daughter-in-law” (servant who turns into a sexual plaything for the men in the household), or being sold to become a low-price prostitute. Binding a daughter’s feet was the only way to possibly give her a better chance at life.

Susan

Lisa See, huge fan, what’s your next book about? Can you tell us? (And hi to Deborah Fallows!)

deb

Laura, I think it’s fabulous that your kids are in a Mandarin immersion program. I could go on forever about exposing children to foreign languages at an early age. I believe you can learn it later, but why not earlier if there’s an opportunity. As for Mandarin, surely a good choice. If my kids were little now, I would hope they would study Mandarin and/or Spanish. Who knows what the future will bring, but those two languages seem like a pretty good choice to have relevance in your children’s lives.

In my generation, it was all about Latin and French. Well, we know where that went! Yes, Latin taught me a lot about Language. And French was great in the day and still today, of course, when I visit France and some other places. Any foreign language is good, but some are more useful than others.

Natasha

For Deborah Fallows — I’m wondering if you can comment on language retention: what facilitates retention when learning the first time around, and what strategies have you found useful in keeping up language skills?

Hogwarts Mom

Instead of foot-binding, Tiger Mom chained her girls to the piano. Kinder times now. Maybe. Thank you for your candor.

Lisa

I do have the greatest mom, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t suffered in life. As for me, I’m very lucky to have muddled through. I draw on my fears and worries… And I have A LOT of fears and worries. I also follow something the women writers in 17th century China believes: you have to cut to the bone to write.

Sandra Tsing Loh

It’s 3:40 mountain time now and we have to liberate Deborah in five minutes. I have two more questions for Deb (which I will also post to Lisa at 3:55 mountain time).

For Deborah – by outward appearance and by your home’s U.S. location, you are a Westerner, but the other day on our China is Not One Thing panel, you have confessed that deep down you feel very Chinese. Can you explain?

deb

Dr. Behrens, I would look for a night program (even twice a week) or an online course or some way that imposed structure and organization of starting to study Mandarin. I found with Mandarin, that the beginning stages were extraordinarily hard. Much harder than with Romance, Germanic, or Japanese. There is very little to grab onto that is familiar, and no “systems” like verb tense systems, to memorize. Getting traction takes a while. So, having someone nudge you along, with explanations of the many unusual characteristics of Chinese, helps (or helped me, at least) a lot at the beginning. And of course the psychological pressure of trying to be a “good student”.

If that resonates at all, then try it. I found that it took me about 1 1/2 years to get anywhere. I am not alone in that experience.

Lisa

The new book is CHINA DOLLS. It’s about Chinese-American nightclub performers here in this country druing the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve spent the last two years interviewing the Chinese Ginger Rogers, and other wonderful performers. I’m going to send the book to my publisher next week, so it’s almost done. Yippee!!! I’m so happy.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Deb, I completely relate to that in terms of tai chi. One keeps going back for 1 1/2 years and not really improving. (I would like to note to everyone that Deb Fallows did tai chi with us the other day and seemed pretty great, although she tends to demur!)

Susan

Thanks Lisa! Can’t wait!!!

Sandra Tsing Loh

Deb, before you go, please take a guess at our following Question of the Day (which we ask all of our book authors to play with!)

Question

Which of the following did 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe NOT have?

A silver, gold, or copper nose
A giantess astrologer
A drunken pet moose

Sandra Tsing Loh

Lisa, here is a favorite passage from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that I have to quote whole.
It’s about the female practice of “nu shu” (secret writing):

“It is said that men have hearts of iron, while women are made of water. This comes through in men’s writing and women’s writing. Men’s writing has more than 50,000 characters, each uniquely different, each with deep meanings and nuances. Our women’s writing has perhaps 600 characters, which we use phonetically, like babies, to create about 10,000 words. Men’s writing takes a lifetime to learn and understand. Women’s writing is something we pick up as girls, and we rely on context to coax meaning. Men write about the outer realm of literature, accounts, and crop yields; women write about the inner realm of children, daily chores, and emotions.”

Reading between the lines, which type of writing do you think is more important?

deb

Ha ha. Sandra is a fantastic person to follow for tai chi. High pat the horse! I’m inspired to return to it, although in the area where I live, tai chi is hard to find! Yoga seems to be the next best. And actually pretty good!

Thanks, Sandra, for the chance to be here today. Tai Chi and Chinese language are fun to talk about.

Deb

Oskar Sonntag

Lisa: In light of your new book, I was wondering if you know the actress Jody Long, whose parents were Chinese performers on the American vaudeville circuit? She directed a short documentary on the subject called “Long Story Short.”

Rachel Norris

Lisa, may I say that you seem to have the greatest mom in the world. Love Carolyn See. (I’m sure she would have bound your feet but with much love, and I can’t even believe I’m saying that but it seems appropriate to the conversation.)

deb

OK, probably a trick question. But I’ll go with the drunken pet moose. I bet he found a copper nose and an attractive giant astrologer somewhere! And he probably ate the moose.

Edward

Thanks for your observations, Deborah… and for what it’s worth, I was very pleased (and relieved) to see that our son has retained and even enhanced his fluency in Chinese since moving to Bordeaux for grad school; if anything, he had as much difficulty with his native language, French, that he had used almost exclusively until age 12… strange?

A question for Sandra, if I may: do the majority of pre-university students in China study math and the sciences (esp. physics) in Mandarin and in written Chinese? How about the sciences and engineering at university and grad school levels? Is there a difference in technical education at the “major” institutions like Tsingshua (sp?) in comparison with less prestigious institutions?

PS: Thanks, Sandra, for hosting this exchange…

Marcia Seligson

Thank you for this great and interesting conversation!

Lisa

They’re so different! Traditional Chinese is so deep and meaningful, and it’s one of the things that I love about the language. In English, when we read a word like “mountain” we see in our minds a mountain (like the ones outside the window where we are right now in Aspen). But the Chinese will interpret the character for “mountain” very differently,depending on their education or personal interests. They might think of a mountain, they might think of a Sung Dynasty landscape painting with great mountains (and man’s insignificance in the face of nature), they might think about Li Bai and f he ever wrote a poem about a mountain, or if there was a battle by a mountain.

Aspen Larry

Lisa: On yesterday’ s panel, I believe you mentioned that you wrote your first novel in Aspen. What is your connection here?

Sandra Tsing Loh

Deb is out prepping for her and Lisa’s next panel. East Meets West on the Page. Bye Deb, and thanks!

Edward

Just to be clear… our son has studied Mandarin for over nine years and graduated UMass/Amherst w/ a BA in Chinese Language and Culture (or something like that). He’s in the equivalent graduate study program at the fac in Bordeaux. His French actually returned pretty quickly, but the mix with Mandarin was challenging and he found it easier to communicate w/ his prof in Chinese rather than in French (English being discouraged, if not verboten, of course…)

Lisa

Nu shu, on the other hand, is a phoentic version of the local dialect. That means it’s much easier to learn. From those 600 characters, the nu shu writers couldmake every combination of words. Only one big problem: it was phoentic, so things could get lost. So which was more important? I’m really glad the women had a way to communicate, but the depth of traditional Chinese characters is unparalleled.

Lisa

Oskar, I know Jody and her documentary. She really helped me. She has so many wonderful memories of being a little girl a the Forbidden City and other nightclubs. To have that child’s eye view was priceless.

Sandra Tsing Loh

All right, Lisa, here’s a bit of a loose baggy monster of a question that brings our science theme back (if with hernia-inducing effort–which I love!). A few weeks ago we hosted Caltech grad Michael Chwe, author of “Jane Austen, Game Theorist.” His belief is that women are better at Game Theory, i.e. anticipating how different people will react, and hence being better able to strategize. He believes this applies to female (rather than male) characters in Jane Austen, and that Austen was openly interested in dissecting the strategizing process.

Do you find this with your characters—that the females are more interesting to write because between first wives and concubines and matchmakers all anyone HAS is strategy (and golden lilies, if they are “lucky”)?

Lisa

Aspen Larry! I’ve been coming here since1981. I’ve written or edited parts of all my books here. To me it makes a lot of sense that I’m finishing China Dolls here.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Edward, thanks for your question and hello out there to Massachusetts (if I remember right). I am no expert on current university practices in China, but I’d love to answer this question. My father studied math and science in China in the 1940′s before emigrating to America to get science degrees at Purdue, Stanford and Caltech. . .

Sandra Tsing Loh

All of that was in Chinese, but my father also studied I think at a German university–or at least learned German, and hence was always quoting Goethe (his favorite quote was the one about boldness in beginnings, which I can’t quite remember because it was all interlaced with Chinese flash cards).

Lisa

Sandra, I dare anyone to tell me that women aren’t SUPREME STRATEGISTS. Women, especially in the women’s chambers of ancient China, had to be strategists in order to survive. They lived in a cuthroat world with, as you say, their mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and girl children. I doubt I would have lasted a week. But beyond the basics of strategy, women are able to use their intuition and their observing skills of emotion.

Nancy Liu

Lisa, I’m wondering if you felt it was important to teach your own children Chinese or what Chinese heritage you wanted to impart to them.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Lisa, same almost final question as we put to Deb – by outward appearance and by your home’s U.S. location, you are Western, but you have confessed that deep down parts you feel very Chinese. Can you explain?

Lisa

My older son and I had a Mandarin tutor for four years. My younger son lasted about two lessons. But I don’t worry that they don’t get a lot of Chinese culture in their lives. Last weekend, we were at the one-month party for our new baby cousin. And they have about 400 Chinese relatives who keep them very in touch with the culture.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Lisa, before you go, please take a guess at our following Question of the Day (which we ask all of our book authors to play with!)
(If you haven’t already–long Comment Thread and I’m losing track. . . )

Question

Which of the following did 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe NOT have?

A silver, gold, or copper nose
A giantess astrologer
A drunken pet moose

And. . . thank you!!!

Lisa

Sandra, To answer your question I can refer to my answer to Nancy. What goes for my kids goes for meas well. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in Chinatown with my family. How do we identify ourselves? By the people we see around us. they’re our mirror. When I looked around me, I saw Chinese faces and Chinese culture. It never occured to me that I was anything other than Chinese.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Final comment to Edward. . . But I continue to be interested in the notion that because Chinese numbers are more logical shr ee shr ar shr san as opposed to ten eleven and twelve Chinese are innately more comfortable with math. Neuroscience could prove me wrong though.

Thanks to all! Especially to Deb and Lisa (whose next panel literally starts in 15 minutes)!!!

We end with the same Chairman Mao quote Deb references at the end of DREAMING IN CHINESE, “Good good study, day day up.”

Loh Down on Science

For closure re: Lisa See, she tried to post her QOTD answer but it didn’t go through. For the record, while exiting the room, she was heard to gaily say “The drunken pet mouse!” ‘Til tomorrow!

Amy Kwei

Great interview, Sandra! Does your program go on the radio in the East?

I love your humor. I am a fan. I wonder if I may send you my book, A Concubine for the Family, and hope you may want to review it.

If you ever go to Boston or Cambridge, please let me know. Warm regards, Amy Kwei

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