November 28, 2007

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

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A slow, gentle rain falls lightly, rhythmically, comfortingly, in the gray afternoon light. The final words of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo wash over me “I remember how it rained. The rain was ceaseless, covering the whole forest, the whole mountain, the whole land.” The book is very similar to the rain that Zhuang Xiao Quao (known simply as Z by the Westerners who can’t pronounce her name) describes. It too is gentle and rhythmic, simultaneously beautiful, sad, and haunting. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary is the story of Z’s year long stay in England, but more than that, it is the story of the young Chinese woman’s self-discovery.
From the very start, everything about Z’s journey is new. She experiences her first plane ride, her first time seeing the ocean, her first time “feeling as alien.” With a humorous wisdom she wonderingly describes the idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and general insanity of Western language and culture: “English words made from only twenty-six characters? Are English a bit lazy or what? We have fifty thousand characters in Chinese.” To combat her confusion and isolation, Z begins her own version of a Chinese-English dictionary, documenting the strange new words she acquires during her daily life. Using this original medium, Guo presents poignant, reflective snapshots of Z’s new life. Her early entries overflow with improper grammar, misspellings, and jumbled syntax. In spite of these errors, or maybe because of them, the writing is powerful and truthful.
Living in a strange land filled with strange people and customs takes its toll on Z. She is plagued by the novel concept of loneliness, something she never felt in her group-centered Chinese life. Her introspective writing on ideas of individuality and happiness in the West are thought provoking and fresh. As Z settles into her new environment, however, she begins to do more than simply observe the culture: she joins in when she meets an intriguing English gentleman and falls in love.
The book progresses month by month as Z learns that her vague concept of romance and the reality of a relationship are as distinctly different as her familiar Chinese culture and the bewildering Western world. Z’s insight and intelligence continue to shine through the language barrier. However, in the final quarter of the book, the plot stagnates under the weight of Z’s faltering confidence. Her worries and writings fall into a rather frustrating cyclic pattern. The book’s strong start stutters in the middle comes to a slightly disappointing conclusion.
In spite of the wavering intensity, Guo’s writing is noteworthy for its unyielding realism, provocative edge, and tenuous hope. Z’s emotional development reflected by her increasing mastery of English is both as beautiful and difficult to experience as her honesty about love and human nature. Z may struggle to grasp the Western concept of tenses- of past, present, and future, of change, of short-lived love, but her observations will certainly leave a lasting impression.