A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

I just finished reading this book: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo.  Here’s the synopsis:

Twenty-three-year-old Zhuang, the daughter of shoe factory owners in rural China, has come to London to study English. She calls herself Z because English people can’t pronounce her name, but she’s no better at their language. Set loose to find her way through a confusion of cultural gaffes and grammatical mishaps, she winds up lodging with a Chinese family and thinks she might as well not have left home. But then she meets an English man who changes everything. From the moment he smiles at her, she enters a new world of sex, freedom, and self-discovery. But she also realizes that, in the West, “love” does not always mean the same as in China, and that you can learn all the words in the English language and still not understand your lover.

Drawing on her diaries from when she first arrived in the UK, Xiaolu Guo winningly writes the story in steadily improving English grammar and vocabulary. Freshly humorous, sexy, and poignant, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is an utterly original novel about language, identity, and the cultural divide.

While this book is fiction, it is jam-packed with observations about British versus Chinese culture and the English and Chinese languages.  One passage that resonated with me was this:

I am sick of speaking English like this.  I am sick of writing English like this.  I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison.  I am scared that I have become a person who is always very aware of talking, speaking, and I have become a person without confidence, because I can’t be me.  I have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous.  It swallows me, and it rapes me.  I wish I could just go back to my own language now.  But is my own native language simple enough?  I still remember the pain of studying Chinese characters when I was a child at school.
Why do we have to study languages?  Why do we have to force ourselves to communicate with people?  Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful?

Have you ever experienced this?  Do you have answers to the questions she poses?  Have you read the book?