Dreaming in Chinese by William Tsung starred book review
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STARRED Book Review: Dreaming in Chinese

DREAMING IN CHINESE by William Tsung is an act of resistance and self-preservation; an ode to the resilient human spirit. Check out what Samantha Hui has to say in her book review of this indie memoir.

Dreaming in Chinese by William Tsung starred review

Dreaming in Chinese

by William Tsung

Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir

Print Length: 277 pages

Reviewed by Samantha Hui

An act of resistance and self-preservation; an ode to the resilient human spirit.

The punishment should reflect the crime, and no crime justifies the exploitation of prison labor.”

One can tell a lot about a country from the way it treats its most affluent citizens; one can tell a whole lot more from the way it treats its lower class citizens. William Tsung’s memoir goes on the offensive, toe-to-toe with the Taiwanese penal system. The memoir captures the grim reality that Taiwanese prisoners experience day-to-day for multiple years and for some, even decades. Tsung took the challenge of making sympathetic characters out of criminals and felons and thoroughly succeeds in his endeavor. Dreaming in Chinese challenges the reader’s understanding of fair punishment by highlighting the corruption of a system that benefits from prisoners’ forced labor. 

Familiarity breeds contempt; insignificant problems festered until they became enormous problems. Resentment builds. Eventually, it exploded.”

William Tsung, a thirty-one year old, Taiwanese-American man, was taken into custody by the Taiwanese police on suspicions of smuggling ketamine into the country. Tsung, prone to bouts of anxiety, merely made the mistake of bringing cannabis edibles in his luggage, prescribed for the purposes of alleviating his anxiety. This mistake would cost him over two years of his life stuck in the inhumane conditions of a Taiwanese prison. Tsung’s memories, written on prison-purchased paper with a prison-purchased pen, were smuggled out for the purposes of educating the public on the cruel and unusual practices inflicted on him to “punish” him for his petty crime. 

A running joke was whoever showered first that day yelled out the water color. It never looked like water; sometimes it was yellow, sometimes it was black. We used it no matter what color it was. It was that or nothing.”

Tsung describes the prisons as a sort of “ecosystem,” and that “ecosystem” is governmental hypocrisy. Prisoners could work for money, but not enough money for it to matter. During his time in prison, Tsung had the benefit of supportive friends and family, dropping food and money off whenever they could. But even love and support couldn’t protect Tsung from the rashes that sprouted all over his body. 

Prison guards would tell the prisoners that it was their responsibility to maintain their health, yet failed to provide the prisoners with sanitary water to bathe themselves or wash laundry in. Rotten teeth could be pulled, but the dentists were so inexperienced, they’d pull the wrong tooth. Life in prison was so backwards that criminals who went in for petty crime could leave more aggressive and with newfound drug addictions. 

Instead of getting counseling, offenders went to the black room, then returned to gen pop angrier than ever. No wonder the black rooms were always full. It was an ouroboros of human misery.”

Tsung incorporates a sort of poetic rhythm throughout his book with the repetition of certain experiences. For example, he would repeatedly write “they did their thing” as a euphemism for regular cavity searches. Or, he’d repeatedly write “the line disconnected” to demonstrate the brevity of his calls with those on the outside. He also repeated the sentiment of “pills to celebrate” or “pills and codeine to cope” to demonstrate how pills quickly became an addiction. Tsung’s writing is not only accurate and visceral to his experience, but there is a lightness and poeticism in his writing that easily attracts his readers. The memoir is so personal that sometimes it feels like a secret being whispered in our ears. 

I used to eat until I was full. In prison, I ate until I wasn’t hungry.”

Dreaming in Chinese is a condemnation of a system designed to see and even benefit from under-resourced people failing. In Tsung’s experience with Taiwan’s prisons, this book also calls into question America’s penal system. I highly recommend this book to those dedicated to social justice. Readers of this memoir will reconsider their understanding of criminals as antithesis to those deserving of basic human dignity.

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