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3 April 2014

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers
Xiaolu Guo
Publication Date
03 January 2008
novel, romance

No, not a dictionary I'm introducing today and no, I'm not starting to learn Chinese (that would be cool though!). This is a wonderful romantic comedy which I feel deserves more recognition. 

From the blurb: 
Xiaolu Guo's first novel in (deliberately bad) English is a romantic comedy about two lovers who don't speak each other's language. The heroine is a Chinese girl who has been sent to London to duty by her parents. She calls herself Z because English people can't pronounce her name, but when she arrives at Heathrow she's no better at their language. Set loose to find her way through a confusion of youth hostels, full English breakfasts and a lack of the famous London fog, she winds up lodging with a Chinese family in Tottenham, and thinking she might as well not have left home. But then she meets a man who changes everything. From the moment he smiles at her, she enters a world of sex, freedom and self-discovery. But she also realises that, in the West, 'Love' does not always mean the same as in China, and you can learn all the words in the English language and still not understand your man.

I absolutely adored this book. Maybe because my English was not perfect when I first came to England? And in the first few weeks, I sometimes had trouble understanding my than boyfriend (now my husband of 21 years). The book is written in first person by  'Z', or by her full name known in her passport as Zhuang Xiao Qiao.  Don't let the writing in deliberate simple and grammatically not correct English put you off, as you will quickly fall in love with this unlikely heroine. When Z first arrives in London, her vocabulary is very poor and all she has is the Concise Chinese-English Dictionary as her lifeline. 
Is unbelievable, I arriving London, 'Heathlow Airport'.Every single name very difficult remembering, because just not 'London Airport' simple way like we simple way call 'Beijing Airport. Everything very confuse way here, passengers separating in two queues. Sign in front of queue says ALIEN and NON ALIEN. I am alien, like Hollywood film Alien. 

The way she tried to stumble through London in her sweet and innocent way is wonderful. It's not just the language, as she also has to cope with the many cultural differences and 'English-ness' which only English people seem to understand. 
First time you make food for me it is some raw leaf with two boiled eggs. Eggy Salad. Is that all? Is that what English people offer in their homes? In China, cold food for guest is bad, only beggars no complain cold food.

The writing is full of deep humour. Here, one of my favourite passages from the book where Z discovers Shakespeare in the library. 
One thing, even Shakespeare write bad English. For example, he says 'Where go thou?' If I speak like that Mrs Margaret will tell me wrongly. Also I finding poem of him call 'An Outcry Upon Opportunity': 
'This thou that execut'st the traitor's treason; Thou sett'st the wolf where he the lamb may get.'
I do not understanding at all. What is 'is', 'execut'st' and 'sett'st'? Shakespeare can writing that, my spelling not too bad than.

When Z meets her boyfriend, the main focus of the story slowly changes from her trying to adjust to life and language in England the the trials of the relationship which is by no means straightforward. Her boyfriend is about 20 years older than her, not really belonging anywhere, an ex-anarcist, a drifter, a bisexual. When she talks about sex with him, it is again written in her naive and innocent language. As the book progresses, her language skills and vocabulary is improving which is quite cleverly reflecting in the narrative. Z has a lesson in language, lesson in love and lesson in life.

Another reason why I enjoyed this book so much is that I do know many of the places in London she talks about.

About the author: 
Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973 in a finishing village in South China. She studied film at Beijing Film Academy, worked as a screenwriter and film teacher as well as writing several books in Chinese. Xiaolu moved to London in 2002 where she began a diary written in English which became the seed for the novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Village of Stone, a novel first published in China, appeared in English translation in 2004. Xiaolu had directed award-winning films including The Concrete Revolution and How is Your Fish Today? She divides her time between Europe and China.