Xiaolu Guo: “A concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers”

Review by Jana Koetter


„Beijing time 12 clock midnight. London time 5 clock afternoon. But I at neither time zone. I on airplane. Sitting on 25.000 km above to earth and trying remember all I learning in school.”


Xiaolu Guo already shows within the first sentences of “A concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers” what is most important about her heroine Z: First of all, she doesn’t speak English very well. Or, she hardly doesn’t speak English at all. Second, Z is torn apart between her Chinese home and England which becomes her new home for a year.


The 23 years old arrives in London to spend a year learning English. Here, she is struggling to find her way through the city, and through the language which is so difficult for her. But while the reader recognizes her English becoming better from page to page, there is one part in her life which does not become easier: love. Because Z falls for an older Englishman, and soon, she begins to realize that love can be even more difficult and trickier than English grammar.


Often, it is the language barrier that stands between the lovers whose daily life is full of misunderstandings. But mostly, there are all those cultural differences which make it even more difficult, eg when it comes to privacy:“You’ve invaded my privacy! You can’t do that!” First time, you shout to me, like a lion. “What privacy? But we living together! No privacy if we are lovers!” - “Of course there is! Everybody has privacy!”- But why people need privacy? Why privacy is important? In China, every family live together, grandparents, parents, daughter, son, and their relatives too. Eat together and share everything, talk about everything. Privacy make people lonely.”


This way, the reader gets an original, humorous and wise insight to the thoughts of a young Chinese woman who tries to start a new life in the West. Also, there are dozens of interesting and arresting asides: we learn the Chinese names for potatoes and daffodils - 'earth beans' and 'fairy maidens from the water'; and the fact that in China there is no distinction between mental and physical work; all jobs translate to 'scavenge the living'.


The imperfect language is a feature that might annoy some people – however, I found it a very interesting approach to show all the difficulties that foreigners who come to a different culture struggle with. Of course, the typically harsh and sexual language of Xiaolu Guo can be found at many places of the book as well.


Overall, “A concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers” is a book which is very different to most other books. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can get over getting annoyed with the almost diary-style and imperfect language, it will be a very special read as Xiaolu Guo creates a unique and brave insight to Z’s life – and therefore to Chinese thinking.


Xiaolu Guo: “A concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers”, Vintage Books, 9,10 Euro, ISBN 978-0099501473



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© Jana Kötter 2014