Dreaming in Chinese

Memoirs from a Taiwanese Prison

Non-Fiction - True Crime
277 Pages
Reviewed on 01/29/2023
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

Dreaming in Chinese: Memoirs from a Taiwanese Prison by William Tsung is a relatively short but impactful account of life inside a Taiwanese prison. The author is what was known as an ABC (American Born Chinese). When he traveled from California to Taiwan in January 2016 to visit family, he had no idea a simple decision would cause him so much pain and grief. “Edibles” i.e. marijuana-laced food was now legal in the States and he gave no thought to the dangers of bringing these legal drugs into Taiwan in his luggage. Arrested at the airport, William found himself caught up in a justice system hell-bent on teaching him and others like him a lesson. He became the government’s face of Taiwan’s “war on drugs” and was charged with importation for supply. Despite understanding and speaking some Chinese, William found himself swept along in a court system that he had little understanding of and little ability to defend himself in. Although ultimately his charges would be reduced, he would eventually be sentenced to two years in Taiwan’s prison system. It was there he would begin to understand the true magnitude of what his mistake would cost him. He would endure the uncaring, unhelpful, downright unsanitary, and dangerous conditions within prison walls in Taiwan but he would also discover the kindness and support of many of his fellow inmates as well as that of his family as he struggled to hold onto his dignity, humanity, and identity in this faceless monolith called the Taiwanese prison system.

Dreaming in Chinese is a clarion call to those of us who travel overseas, especially around Asia, highlighting the need to be very aware of the local laws in the counties we visit. Some countries treat drug offenses extremely harshly and traveling to them should never be taken lightly or in the belief that “it’s okay because I’m just a tourist”. Author William Tsung pulls no punches as he describes the sheer filth and hopelessness that pervades the prison system in Taiwan. Well-written and based on Tsung’s journals written in prison and later smuggled out by him, this story is deeply personal and moving. I’m sure some readers will shudder at the conditions the author describes as well as identify with the intense frustrations and loneliness he would experience from time to time. I appreciated that the author was upfront and honest about himself when he entered prison and accepted that there were parts of his character that required work. I enjoyed watching his development as a person within the prison walls and his acceptance that certain things would need to change about him once he was released. Perhaps the most striking thing about his time in prison, for me, was the way the rules were used to induce doubt and anxiety into the prisoners as if this was some sort of additional punishment invented by the regime on top of their loss of liberty. William Tsung would only serve a “short-term” sentence but it was clear he could identify with and share the pain of those who were there, not just for years, but for decades. This was an excellent read that I can highly recommend.

Grace Ruhara

Dreaming in Chinese: Memoirs from a Taiwanese Prison is a story based on the experiences of William Tsung as an inmate. He recounts the events that occurred during his two years of incarceration in Taiwan for drug possession. After being arrested, he is taken to an interrogation room and denied a lawyer. As an American citizen who barely spoke Chinese, his application for a translator is also rejected. Instead, he is forced to sign a confession in which he incriminates himself. He endures the authorities' negligence, corruption, and incompetence inside the prison. Not only does he have to sleep on the floor, but he is also locked in a crowded cell and gets sick from contagious diseases that the medical unit takes a long time to diagnose and isn't competent at treating.

One of the reasons that William Tsung started writing Dreaming in Chinese was to have a place to vent his emotions and feelings since he had no one to talk to or share them with. He also identifies the need for men to be able to express their emotions without fear of ridicule or judgment. William concludes by advocating an end to the gender-based stigma around emotional expression, hopefully leading to a healthier society. The author describes the abuse and appalling conditions inmates face while serving prison terms. This mistreatment continues to occur in prisons worldwide. It is an eye-opening read that will leave you shocked and horrified at what goes on behind bars.

Pikasho Deka

Being incarcerated in prison has to be one of the most traumatic experiences anyone could undergo. Being jailed in a foreign country only compounds this tenfold. This is exactly what happened to William Tsung and Dreaming in Chinese: Memoirs from a Taiwanese Prison is his story. On 21 January 2016, MJIB agents ambushed William at the airport, and he was charged with smuggling, trafficking, sales, and possession of marijuana edibles. After a grueling court case, he was eventually given a two-year prison sentence. William had his life turned upside down, sharing cells with meth dealers, heroin smugglers, rapists, and all kinds of criminals. The biggest shock to him was the state of the justice system in Taiwan itself, as inhumane living conditions only exacerbated the self-destructive tendencies of many a cellmate.

Most justice systems all over the world are in dire need of reform. Dreaming in Chinese showcases how the incarceration of non-violent criminal offenders often results in the opposite of the desired effect. Prisoners not only fail to be rehabilitated but are also at risk of becoming more prone to addiction, self-harm, and other negative behavior. William Tsung gives a thorough and unflinching account of his life in a Taiwanese prison. In this book, Tsung shares his harrowing experiences that include surviving bed bugs and scabies, developing an addiction to pharmaceutical drugs, and navigating a corrupt and fundamentally dysfunctional justice system hostile to foreigners. Highly recommended.