Title: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Author: Xiaolu Guo
Publisher: Nan E. Talese
Acclaim: Shortlisted for 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction
Hailing from Zhe Jiang, a province of southern China, Guo wrote several chinese books before writing for the English audience. Originally she wrote several award-winning documentaries and screenplays including her first feature film 'How is your Fish Today' which won the Grand Jury prize at the 2007 International Women's Film Festival. Shortlisted for Orange Prize, this novel is her debut work. Drawing from own diaries she used to keep when she moved from China to London, she paints a humorous, albeit poignant story of a 23 year old Zhuang, a peasant girl from rural china, who embarks on a journey to London to study English.
'I not having life in West. I not having home in West. I scared. I no speaking English. I fearing future'. If reading these broken sentences puts you off, then it might be hard for you get into this book. However, I think thats what makes this book very authentic, though I promise the writing improves gradually. The protagonist of the novel, Zhuang, finding that English people finds it difficult to pronounce her name, calls herself 'Z'. Z's parents sold their land to start making shoes for a living. As per her parents wish, she arrives in London to study English, to earn a diploma from the West. 'Birds have their bird language, beasts have their beast talk. English they totally another species'. Often, frustrations accompany when you begin to learn a new language. It only compounds when you live in an alien country, grappling with the cultural etiquette and language nuances. Especially, try learning Japanese or Chinese, the hardest of all (at least for me). Many times in the past, I have failed miserably trying to learn Mandarin and even during my visits to China, I have never spoken any more than 'Ni hao' and 'she-eh she-eh'. It is interesting to see that Zhuang finds English equally difficult to learn too. 'Chinese, we not having grammar. We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language. But, English language is boss of English user'. Often, her observations about the nuances of English grammar are hilarious, at times even astonishing. 'Mrs. Margaret teaching us about nouns. I discovering English is very scientific. She saying nouns have two types - countable and uncountable. You can say a car, but not a rice" she says. But to me, cars are really uncountable in the street, and we can count the rice if we pay great attention to a rice bowl'.
Zhuang find the cultural clashes a bit jarring, even those immigrant Chinese family she lives with, finds her alienated, nervous and scared. Similarly, Zhuang finds them rude, mean and distant as well. No wonder, she comes across like an alien in the Eyes of English. 'The day I arrived to the West, I suddenly realised that I not Chinese. As long as one has black eyes and black hair, obsessed by rice, and cannot swallow any Western food, and cannot pronounce the difference between 'r' and 'l', and request people without using please - then he or she is a typical Chinese: an ill-legal immigrant, badly treat Tibetans and Taiwanese, good on food but put MSG to poison people, eat dog's meat and drink snakes' guts'. A month into her stay, she moves in with an unnamed Englishman, about twice her age, an ex-anarchist, eccentric fellow who makes grotesque nude sculptures that he keeps in the garden at a cinema hall. She struggles to make him understand her feelings, owing to the cultural divide and his bisexual nature. 'Love, this English word: like other English words it has tense. 'Loved' or 'will love' or 'have loved'. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love is 'ai'. It has not tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future. If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last for ever. It will be infinite'. She finds her love with the English man eccentric, as much as the language itself. She grapples with many Western concepts like loneliness, privacy, financial independence. Like Zhuang observes 'I think the loneliness in this country is something very solid, very heavy. It is touchable and reachable, easily. In the West, we are used to loneliness. I think it's good for you to experience loneliness, to explore what it feels like to be on your own. After a while, you will start to enjoy solitude. You won't be so scared of it anymore'. I feel strange to be saying this, but I agree that I could relate to some of these issues myself. Back home, you always find yourself in the company of people, sitting and eating together. Festivals, Weddings and Religious ceremonies bring people close, make them happy. In Western World, opportunities for social gathering seldom arise, making us lonely, deprived of family togetherness. Many of Zhuang's observations are shockingly true, some I have wondered myself. 'So woman and man pay half half even when they live together. And woman and man have their own privacy and their own friends. And woman and man have their own separate bank account. Is that why Western couples split up so easily, and divorce so quickly?'
A rural peasant girl struggling to fathom the nuances of Western life is not surprising. Yet, I find it hard to empathize with her one-sided love with the English man, mainly because she has no moral values to begin with. At some point in the story, her lover insists that she should go on an Europe tour by herself to raise her self-confidence, its a pity she hardly gets anything out of her travels. It is disgusting that she longs to be with her boyfriend writing him love letters, while having sexual encounters with strangers. The naivety of her character is seemingly lost in her twisted moral values. Otherwise, it is an entertaining read full of insights into a different culture many Westerners can hardly understand.