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Xiaolu Guo: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers

Xiaolu Guo’s first novel written in English is a semi-autobiographical account of her arrival in London and her early days in London. Zhuang Xiao Qiao is her name though, as English people mispronounce her name, she goes by the name of Ms Z. As the title implies, her initial struggle is with the language. She is the only daughter of a couple of successful shoe sellers in Zhe Jiang. As their only child (because of the one child policy – they naturally had wanted to have a son) she is to be educated and her parents hope that she will learn English and help them expand their show business. While she had learned English in China, she stills struggles with it and much of the charm of the book is about her struggles. The book is written not in perfect English but the way she speaks, with mangled prose, misspellings and grammatical infelicities, but it is clearly comprehensible to an English-speaking reader.

Each chapter is named after a word or phrase which she struggles with in the chapter, and gives the dictionary definition of that word/phrase. These may be words with dual meanings (such as drifter), words she is just not familiar with (such as homosexual – she has just seen a Fassbinder film) or words that seem to have a broader meaning than the dictionary definition (such as properly – a taxi driver tells her to shut the door properly and she cannot understand what it means to shut a door with correct behaviour, as her dictionary defines properly). Of course, she also struggles with other language issues, such as verbs (why do we repeat the word go in the phrase I am going to go and, of course, tenses), irregular plurals and word order. And she also struggles with other cultural matters such as food (a full English breakfast), the weather, humour and politeness. As the title implies, she carries her concise Chinese-English dictionary with her everywhere. However, as the title also implies, it is for lovers. While going to see a film, something she frequently does to stave off loneliness, she meets a man twenty years older than her. They start an affair. He had been a drifter and gay. He is now more settled and bisexual. He is a sculptor but does not seem to sell much of his sculpture, and earns his living delivering things for people in a scruffy white van. He is somewhat anti-establishment and a vegetarian. He hates new things and loves only old things. He does not like shopping at supermarkets. However, he does like some privacy and when he finds that she has been snooping into his diaries, letters and photos, he is somewhat annoyed, which she cannot understand.

However, her main difficulty with him is their cultural differences about intimacy. In China, she lived in a compound where everyone lived closely together. Her lover likes his space and will go off with his friends – he goes away for a week without her – or even persuade her to go away – he sends her off to explore Europe, something she is not particularly interested in doing but reluctantly does and, apart from being picked up by single men a couple of times, does not really enjoy it. However, it does give her an opportunity for more cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, as she mangles French more than she mangles English. She cannot understand this need for not being together when one is in an intimate relationship. Inevitably, the longer the relationship lasts, the greater the cultural differences seem to have an effect. Vegetarian shepherd’s pie is something she will never take to.

It is a fascinating account of cultural differences and made more fascinating by seeing it from the Chinese perspective of England and English culture rather than the English perspective of Chinese culture. Naturally, her main linguistic lapses and cultural faux pas give rise to many humorous situations so the book is funny. But it does have a serious intent and Guo does bring this out, not just with cultural differences but differences between the sexes. Indeed, is the difference between men and women greater than the differences between the English and Chinese generally?

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Chatto