“You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard of that we Chinese have 5000 years of the greatest human civilisation ever existed in the world…Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq. And our Chinese invented compass for you English to sail and colonise the Asian and Africa” (289)
“In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner. An alien from another planet” (154)
Prejudice enrages me. Freedom of movement fills me with hope.
I love the feeling when you read a book and think, however delusionally, ‘Wow, this was written just for me’. That is how I felt when I turned the last page of Xiaolu Guo’s novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, set in Hackney, in the City of London.
Zhuang Xiao Qiao – or ‘Z’, as the English are encouraged to call her since “my name too long to pronounce” (48) for them – is a twenty-three year old Chinese woman who travels to London for one year from her simple, rural home in China, in order to learn English. She struggles. England is “cold”, the people unfriendly (“nobody smile to me” (43)) and their system of etiquette in social situations a complete minefield. Trudging between her befuddling English classes, her bleak hostel and the late-night cinema showings (just to have something to do) Z is lonely and racked with confusion. It seems as though the Chinese and English cultures are just too different – seemingly incompatible. Even her beloved Chinese-English dictionary has difficulty defining the meaning she desperately needs; among other words, “romance not to be found in my Concise Chinese-English Dictionary” (91).
Guo makes this incompatibility between cultures all the more obvious and effective by setting out the novel in the style of the protagonist’s notebooks, in which she records new vocabulary and pens her diary entries, side by side. Through this original and compelling format, the reader is exposed to Z’s innermost thoughts and frustrations as well as her battle with the English language and with finding a place for herself in her new environment: initially, she feels like “a little alone teacup” or “like cat without master” (90).
On her journey, Z meets and starts living with an older Englishman and soon realises that the fight for understanding is not limited to nations, but occurs between individuals too. “You a free man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “You possess my whole body. […] My whole body is your colony” (132). What is more, the waters of love – or dependency – are treacherous: there is so much Z does not understand above love, sexuality, men and women; there is so much she is ready to give if she can…but when language between individuals fails, is physical proximity enough?
“After all these fightings, all these miseries, you don’t talk as the way you did before. You just listen; listen to my words; then stop listening and think of your own world. But I can’t stop talking. I talk and talk, more and more. I steal your words. I steal all your beautiful words. I speak your language. You have given up your words, just like you gave up listening.” (293)
The language Guo uses is simple (both because Z doesn’t know much of it and, later, because Z’s style is always innocently direct) but the emotions are complex – and, for me, painful. It is not so much the plot that makes me feel that this book is so personally relatable (although in many ways it is), but rather the fear of loneliness contained within every page and every exchange between characters. A person’s loneliness is something to which my heart almost always responds, wrenchingly.
At the end of the novel, Z sums up England as “the country where I became an adult, where I grew into a woman, the country where I also got injured, the country where I had my most confused days and my greatest passion and my brief happiness and my quiet sadness” (353). It is not only London that Z gets to know, but it is to London that she responds. Unlike the novel’s representations of the English themselves, who see “London is a place sucks”, “the place making everybody aggressive” (167), where “you can’t find love and keep it” (168), Z “loves these old oily cafes around Hackney. Because you can see the smokes and steams coming out from the coffee machine or kitchen all day long. That means life is being blessed” (118).
This is not a happy novel, but it is a phenomenally beautiful one. I love it. 4/5 stars.
Next week I’ll be reading East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, set in Greater London. Come and have a look-see then.