by XIAOLU GUO Chatto & Windus
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary gets to the heart of the gulf that exists between the East and the West. In this cross-cultural love story, it appears that beyond the language barrier, an even greater barrier of cultural differences might mean that never the twain shall meet. In The Ballad of East and West, Kipling lamented on how the culture of the East and the West will always be different. Ironically, a century later and despite the potential for the exchange of ideas through globalization, the gulf alluded to by Kipling and the clash of civilizations Huntington talks about in his influential 1993 thesis has only become more acute.
This chasm is contextualized in a love-story between Zhuang, (or Z as she calls herself, abbreviated presumably for the convenience of the native English speakers who can’t handle the Chinese pronunciation), a 23 year old Chinese immigrant and her older 40-something Guardian-reading, bi-sexual, hippie vegan boyfriend. The key element in Xiaolu’s writing style that has attracted as much hate-mail as it has fans is the broken English she writes in. It reflects Zhuang’s own difficulties with the language as she navigates her way through London and in that regard provides an element of authenticity. Granted, a bit too much authenticity for the purists, but if you can see past the stylistic choice, Zhuang’s prose soars high above its intended grammatical limitations. It challenges the reader to experience the moments of awkwardness, confusion, fear and feelings of alienation that an immigrant with limited language skills might experience - and if one can cross that divide it creates a powerful imagery and leaves an indelible impression that has the potential to alter one’s world view.
Each chapter opens with an English word or phrase and its equivalent dictionary meaning; a new word and a window into a new world that Zhuang explores in her foreign home. In uncertain and uncharted territory, Zhuang’s best friend is her Concise Chinese-English Dictionary, which she describes in the opening chapter as “the most important thing” she has brought with her from China. “Concise” she says, meaning “simple and clean”. In fact, nothing could have been farther from the truth. As Zhuang discovers there is nothing “simple’ about the English language and the interpretational difficulties only become compounded by cultural differences. A perfect illustration arises when Zhuang reflects after an English class on the bus as to the dominance of the individual in English syntax. She wonders if this means that individualism is prioritized ahead of the community in the West. Alas, it is also this cultural difference that sows the seed of discontent in her relationship with her English lover.
Various cultural differences thus become a source of attraction as well as a negotiating point. Some are hilariously highlighted. Food is a recurring theme, especially Zhuang’s carnivorous obsession for eating meat and eating well; a consequence of her poor peasant roots. This is in contrast to the boyfriend who abstains from meat and therefore in Zhuang’s mind lives like a peasant despite all the bourgeois privileges. “How come man is vegetarian?” she asks him whilst having a meal at Chop Chop, a local Chinese restaurant in Hackney. “Unless he is a monk” she proffers whilst stuffing another helping of duck, tofu and beef in her mouth as the vegan watches on. “My parents beaten me if I don’t eating meat or any food on table in meal. My parents curse me being picky and spoiled. Because others dying without food to eat.” Simple words but words that convey a fundamental element in the make-up of a generation of Chinese; that the instinct to survive combined with Confucian ethics is a driving influence that regulates choices, priorities and obligations. Zhuang’s lover on the other hand neatly embodies the free-spirit who in pursuit of individual goals and desires refuses or is unable to commit to intimacy or the traditional relationship which Zhuang is desperate to have.
A Concise Chinese- English Dictionary can be read at several levels. On one level, it is a cross-cultural love story but on another it is a primer that touches through a small story the clash of civilizations dominating global politics these days. It’s also very funny and should be read by anyone looking for an unconventional window into Chinese culture and mentality.