We're going to China! (Sorry about not mentioning it earlier, Slushy.)
In fact, we're leaving home in a week and I'm kind of freaking out.
Meanwhile, I've been reading books about China and have book review for you:
Foreign Babes in Beijing
You really need to click on the link to see how embarrassed I was to be reading a book with this cover. But! It's actually quite good.
I first read about it in an alumni magazine -- Rachel Dewoskin was an English major who graduated three years after me and then went to Beijing to live the expat life from 1994-99. She's not totally naive, though. Her father is a Sinologist and she spent her youth traveling through China with her family, took two years of Mandarin in college and spent a summer in a Chinese language program. So she arrived relatively fluent, but not totally aware of colloquial phrases.
She hated her job in a P.R. firm but they were nice enough to be flexible with her when she is offered the part of Jiexi in a Chinese soap opera called "Foreign Babes in Beijing." One thing I loved about the book was her breakdowns of Chinese phrases. "Babes"? I thought. Is that really a word? But it turns out it is -- it's the standard sign for girl with some extra strokes to indicate ... well ... babeitude.
The soap opera becomes a metaphor for cross cultural learning and misunderstanding. Jiexi is a hussy who steals a Chinese man away from his wife and then takes him away to America (although she is redeemed by calling her father-in-law Baba). Dewoskin writes about how odd it was to find out what Chinese scriptwriters thought Americans thought about the Chinese. Yes, a double mirror. Both distorted.
The book is a good overview of China in the late 1990s, from a very particular perspective, but you get to know her voice and character well enough that as a reader you can decide how comprehensive it is. One nice feature is a series of chapters that profile Chinese or expat friends and how they are responding to the changes in China as artists, journalists, businesspeople, etc.
Some interesting things she mentioned: she went out with some Chinese men but a reversed relationship -- Chinese woman with Western man -- would often end up with the man punched out by strangers at a bar. (She doesn't mention that Bush went over to China when his dad was Ambassador expressly to pick up Chinese girls. Macho Chinese guys thirty years ago would have saved us all some trouble today.)
On language: I didn't realize that ma shang (immediately; "tout de suite") is made of the words horse and on/above. In other words, it's literally "on horseback." Also, luan chi ba zhao (chaotic, often used to describe my room while growing up) uses the numbers seven and eight in the middle of the phrase.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, I felt like I learned something. (Unfortunately, I looked her up on NPR after finishing and heard an interview with her and her speaking voice was off-putting. This bothers me.)