A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Xiaolu Guo)

Before joining my professional writing and communications class, Re-languaging: Writing Across Cultures and Languages, I had never heard of Xiaolu Guo. I’m aware that there are many writers out there whom I have never heard of before and will never encounter before I die. But Guo is someone with a message that I wish I had heard earlier.

Her novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, follows a Chinese student in her early 20s, Z, on her way to England to study. Her understanding of the English language is weak in the beginning of her journey; her sentences are incomplete, she constantly looks up the meanings of words that she’s never heard before, and she doesn’t fit in very well with the new culture.

Her time in England seems to soften, though, when she meets an unnamed man in a movie theatre whom she promptly moves in with. Their relationship inevitably suffers from the end of the honeymoon phase, which only serves to make her time in England as sour as it was when she first moved there.

Now, putting aside the obvious plot, which is implied in the title, one of the biggest things to take away from the novel is the expansion of Western culture and, namely, the English language. Having grown up using it my whole life (and studying it now in school), I know it’s a difficult language. There must be hundreds of thousands of words that I don’t know the definition of and may never even find out in my life. But while listening to Z’s narrative, you can’t help but feel sympathy for her as she tries to understand an entirely new culture.

The inadvertent humour in the novel is something that adds to the richness of the story. Z’s attempt to make sense of what is being said to her or what she’s learning leads to some pretty great misunderstandings on her end.

Additionally, there are some powerful passages in the book that delve deeper into her troubles of adapting to a new place. One that stood out for me the most was when Z reflects, “I am sick of speaking English like this […] 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.”

This is one of those novels that has something interesting to say but may lose readers on the execution of these ideas. I know for myself that reading sentences like, “That’s how all start. From a misunderstanding […] A week later, I move out from Chinese landlord,” can be very taxing. But I think that’s the point. It’s taxing for us to read, but imagine how taxing it must be to learn a language when there are so many rules and restrictions. However, this is something that can endured if you’re willing to hear Guo’s message.

My overall thought on the book is that it’s worth a read if you’re interested in learning about the struggles one goes through when adapting to a new culture. But Guo’s very literal translation of Z’s thought process may be a turn-off for some people.

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