Fallows writes about her journey through the Chinese language — and her many missteps along the way — in her new book, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language.
Fallows recounts an embarrassing experience she had one day in Shanghai — that all started with an inexplicable craving for cheese. Wanting something — anything — with cheese, Fallows went to the local Shanghai Taco Bell, where she was greeted by a young Chinese man wearing a sombrero and a velvet vest.
“I had practiced very hard what I was going to ask him,” Fallows said. “I wanted to do takeout.”
Her tones weren’t very good at that point, though, so Fallows’ request for “takeout” — dabao — was met with a blank stare from the Taco Bell employee. Fallows tried saying dabao with every combination of tones she could think of — rising tones, falling tones — and when that didn’t work, she started pointing at the menu, and then miming the action of walking out the door with a bag of food. After a consultation with several other employees, finally — eureka! Yes, dabao! Yes, of course, they did takeout.
It’s hard to say what Fallows was actually saying to the Chinese men if not the word for “takeout”; she says there are a number of possibilities — “some of them more embarrassing than others.” The word for “hug” is close, as is the word for “newspaper.” No wonder the blank stares.