A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo.
If one wishes to learn a new language, one does not only get insight into a new way of speaking through cramming glossary, rules of grammar or correct spelling. One also learns a new way of seeing and perceiving reality. This is one theme Xiaolu Guo discusses in her book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.
Xiaolu Guo is a writer and moviemaker, born in a fishing village in China. Her literary and cinematic project takes it’s basis on her own experiences and travels from growing up in a small Chinese village, to becoming an established writer in a foreign language. She explores alienation – how young people go forward in unknown territories and situations, and how they go about acquiring new knowledge.
The book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is originally written in English. (Keep a look-out on this blog for my forthcoming post about her book UFO In Her Eyes for closer information on how Guo has written her other books.) I read this book in a Norwegian translation.
We follow protagonist Zuang Xiao Qiao moving from the village she comes from in China, to London, where she is going to learn English. We start as Zhuang: as beginners. We are beginners in the West, and understand the things around us, the culture and society as Zhuang immediately does. This is expressed, among other ways, through language. At the beginning of the book, the language is simple, the sentences short. However, as she learns the language better, the text’s language also becomes more advanced. Every chapter deals with a new word, or a term – as if the book was a dictionary – and this word is the theme for that chapter. We learn how Zhuang is used to using the term in China, and how this is different from in London.
Not so long after she moves to London, Zhuang meets a man – twice her age, ex-punker, vegetarian – who she falls in love with. The meeting between the two, and their interactions together throughout the book, is Guo’s main tool in her project to highlight the biggest cultural differences between the East and the West’s perception of the world. One way in which Guo mirrors these, is how Zhuang consistently introduces herself to this nameless man and his friend, as simply ‘Z’. ‘Z’, and only ‘Z’, allegedly because she believes her real, full name would be too complicated for naïve English speakers to pronounce, or even to remember.
The book is also very much about differences, and the acceptance of differences, on an individual level. One example of this, is Z’s reaction to the man’s vegetarianism. She is unable to understand how he is capable of obtaining proper nutrients without eating meat. She is served self-grown greens and vegetables, while she misses the chicken and pork from home.
One of the first things that hit me in the reading of this book, was the author’s way of depicting how cultural differences – as well as individual perceptions of reality – is expressed through language. One country’s language is immensely important, not only when communicating with another person, but also when it comes to understanding the very way of thinking, and the philosophy of existence, belonging to another culture. Should we connect this to something abstract and difficult to define as the idea of love, then we have a foundation for a very interesting conversation – and Xiaolu Guo handles it masterfully. The book is above all an educational one: we get the opportunity to put ourselves in a completely different culture on an individual level. It is one thing to learn about a different culture in a huge and comprehensive lexicon – and quite a different thing to be placed in a simple, innocent destiny (as with Z’s).
My opinion is that in the work to achieve a bigger acceptance of a growing universal, social diversity, it’s important to try to widen one’s cultural horizon, put ourselves in foreign shoes, and question the most obvious of things. This book offers a step in the right direction. I look forward to reading more from Xiaolu Guo!