Linguist and Writer Deborah Fallows

I Was the Skipper on an All-Girl Boat Crew

Photo by Aaron Salcido.

Deborah Fallows is a linguist and writer who holds a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics. She has written for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, and The Washington Monthly, and has worked at the Pew Research Center, Oxygen Media, and Georgetown University. She is the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, and with James Fallows co-authored the just-published Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America. Before taking part in a Zócalo Public Square event titled “Are Small Towns Reinventing America?” at The RedZone at Gensler in downtown Los Angeles, she spoke in the green room about learning Mandarin, meeting her future husband on a blind date, and surviving Harvard.

Q:
You’re from a small town, Vermilion, Ohio, which has a population of about 10,000. What’s most small-town about you?

A:
I’m a person of the people. I grew up with a huge demographic of friends, and that seemed like a very natural thing. But I realized later how poor a lot of my friends were. One of my friends was one of something like eight or 11 kids. And whenever we were playing and I’d have lunch at her house, her mom would always make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, plus potato chips. And I had this sense like I shouldn’t eat too much at her house because they didn’t have too much. That’s not what our life is like now. But living with friends of all economic backgrounds, and religious backgrounds, and [where] everyone was white—there were not blacks in town, there were no Jews in town, but in every other way it was incredibly diverse—that was small-town to me.

Q:
So what was it like to take a trip into Cleveland?

A:
There wasn’t a highway, like there is now, so it was a big, far-away deal, and a special deal.

Q:
What’s one of your happiest childhood memories?

A:
So we lived on Lake Erie, and all the kids sailed in little boats. And I was a skipper, which was interesting because there weren’t many girl skippers, and we had an all-girl crew. And we used to go to the competitions up in Put-In-Bay [on South Bass Island in Lake Erie]. That’s where Oliver Hazard Perry had his great victories in the War of 1812. And we did OK, but it was really fun, and we got the Best Sportsmanship award. I was about 16.

Q:
Even though you were coming out of Harvard?

A:
Maybe especially coming out of Harvard! Harvard is a mean place, and I think it was a shocking thing to me to really scramble and learn how to survive there. I feel like you’re a shrink! It was a time when advisors were useless; there weren’t any, they were not interested, there was no hand-holding whatsoever, it was just, “Go figure it out for yourself.” It took me a while to get through that, and I did fine. But it felt like I was playing catch-up for a long time. So going to graduate school, figuring out what I wanted to do, doing something well, and having somebody there say, “Hey, you’re good at this!” was like a growing-up experience.

Q:
Why did you decide to take up Mandarin?

A:
Well, we were in China, and we were there for almost four years. We were first in Shanghai for a year and a half, and then in Beijing. Jim was reporting for The Atlantic. It was clear that we were going to have to work pretty hard to survive on the economy there, and language is my thing, and one of us had to learn the language—so that would be me. And I kind of did. I did it as a linguist, which is primarily learning all about the language. I’m better at knowing how this language works than I am at speaking it, although I did everything. I can get around with street Chinese, no problem. It was a tremendous experience, and it completely helped our life in China for getting around and being on the streets all the time.

Q:
What’s the best advice you ever got?

A:
It was from my dad. I have one sister, so he had no sons. This is back in the 1950s. He didn’t raise us like boys, but he expected that we would do things that boys did, like mow the lawn and fix the car engine and things like that. And he always said, to no matter what experience came along, he said, “Just do it, it’ll be a good experience. Just try it.” Like you can’t really fail; whatever happens it will be good experience for you in your life. He was a really full-of-life person and I think he wanted my sister and me to have as many possibilities and experiences, not so much in a professional, aspirational sense, but just in a life sense.

Q:
If you could time-travel, where would you go?

A:
This is not an honorable answer, but I would go back to British colonial times, and I would be a Memsaab in Southeast Asia. That’s what I would do. We lived in Kuala Lumpur for a few years, and I just found the entire Southeast Asian experience so evocative and romantic and exotic. Certain places kind of stick with you, you just think, “I am at home here.” The maybe not so honorable part is that I would choose to be a Memsaab, but I would be a good one—maybe Africa, too, either East Africa or Southeast Asia—and I would be on a plantation and in a village and make a swimming pool for the kids, and make sure they had classes in English, and have informal parties, and get to know the families. So I’d be a good colonial Memsaab.

Q:
What was it like to travel 100,000 miles in a single-engine prop plane with your spouse? Did you learn something new about him?

A:
I would say no, to a surprising degree, because we’ve been together for a long time, 50 years.

Q:
Congratulations. Is this year the 50th anniversary?

A:
Well, it was the 50th anniversary of the blind date, which led to getting married in the years later. So it’s the 47th. And Jim has always worked at home, as a writer, in the attic or the basement, and I was an at-home mom for a long time, so he was witness to the scrum of everyday life, forever. So we really knew each other very well before we went on to this adventure. I think the interesting thing was that we didn’t even have to talk about how to divvy up anything in this project. We’d been doing that our whole life, and we knew who was good at what. I guess I had a closer view to what he is like as a journalist. I had observed it from afar, like overhearing him on the phone, but I’d never been in interviews with him before. So watching him maneuver through an interview, I found really interesting. He has a very delicate touch. He’s quiet even though he’s determined and insistent.

Q:
So tell me about the blind date.

A:
Well, it was all a [Harvard] Crimson story. Jim was president of the Crimson. It was a classic thing: I was a freshman in college, and a girl named Mona down the hall said, “Hey, my boyfriend Andy is having a party this Saturday, anybody want to go?” And I said, sure, because I didn’t have anything to do. And Mona and her boyfriend Andy and Jim were all on the Crimson together, and I wasn’t. And I don’t know if he’ll admit this: He was three hours late for our first date. But in a way it was kind of a good introduction to life with a journalist forever after.