Americans should be careful not to overestimate China's power and influence, journalist Jim Fallows told an Occidental College audience in an April 4 lecture reflecting on the three years he and his wife, linguist Deborah Fallows, spent living and working there.
"There is this exaggeration in the U.S. and Australia about China's strength and power, and this has had both good and bad effects," said Fallows, whose China dispatches in The Atlantic have been compiled into his latest book, Postcards From Tomorrow Square (Vintage, 2009). "It exaggerates the view of America's decline and collapse."
In an informal talk and a subsequent lecture, Jim and Deborah Fallows spoke about their experiences living in China from 2006 to 2009, the state of U.S.-China relations, China's effect on the United States, and how young Americans can better navigate a world in which China is emerging as a superpower.
He learned many lessons abroad, Jim Fallows said, among them how China manages to circumvent many problems despite its many challenges. The central government, for example, quickly instituted village relief programs to help tens of thousands of migrant workers when the worldwide economic crisis hit in late 2008.
"The mental model is of a little raft going down whitewater rapids at a high rate of speed. At the very last moment, the raft avoids boulders, with a thousand boulders still to come," Fallows said. "The impediments in front of China are very serious-environmental, social, political. Yet it is impressive how the government adjusts at the very last second."
Fallows also emphasized that China is not a monocultural state but instead a diverse and at times rancorous country, much like the United States. There is another similarity, he said: "Both the U.S. and China are big continental powers interested only in themselves."
Deborah Fallows, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics and is fluent in six languages, compiled her China experiences into a new book, Dreaming in Chinese: Lessons in Life, Love, and Language (Walker & Company, 2010). The New York Times called the book "charming and witty" and "a fascinating introduction to a foreign culture."
Learning Mandarin, she said, was "extremely difficult, but also helpful in illuminating Chinese culture, society, and everyday life."
"I had a lot of epiphany moments: Why does this language have no tenses? Why should a language have tones?" she said. "Also, why was everyone shoving me all the time? Why were people rude in restaurants? Why don't people pay attention to traffic lights?"
Deborah Fallows learned that people did not say please or thank you to friends and family, but only to strangers. In fact, using such formal niceties can establish a distance between two people. She also found that unlike English, French or even Japanese, Mandarin did not borrow words from other languages. Instead, the Chinese create them wholesale. So, for example, the literal translation of computer in Mandarin is "electric brain."
Jim Fallows, who has written for The Atlantic for more than 25 years, has a popular blog on the magazine's website. Deborah Fallows also writes about her China experience in a blog. Both of their books are available for purchase at the Occidental College bookstore.