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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, January 6th, 2008
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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

by Xiaolu Guo

Love in a Second Language

A review by Gail Tsukiyama

In the last 20 years, the proliferation of Asian writers in Europe and the Americas has grown into a lovely chorus of voices, opening our eyes to the lives of people and cultures we've only known from a distance. Xiaolu Guo's debut English-language novel takes us a step further into the complicated landscape of the immigrant experience.

We immediately recognize the alienation of 23-year-old Zhuang Xiao Qiao, known as Z to Westerners who can't pronounce her name, as she arrives in London for a year to study English. Frightened and alone, her broken English no help when seeking housing from Arab landlords with equally limited language skills, Z finds London a "refuge" camp. Her parents, who own a shoe factory in rural China, believe their daughter will "make better life through Western education." What she will also receive is an education in love.

Z soon sees that "the loneliness in this country is something very solid, very heavy." In a city where everything is new and foreign, where the most precious reminders of her old life are gone, she gradually makes a place for herself, a process Guo cleverly describes through Z's steadily improving English. Word by word, month by month, her insight into this new culture grows until, at the cinema, she meets an older Englishman, a part-time sculptor, and embarks on a relationship that will change the way she sees the world.

What begins as a blossoming of love, sex and freedom gradually finds Z questioning the different ways in which each views their life together. Their relationship unravels when his growing need for solitude and his lack of commitment conflict with the closeness and community for which Z yearns. The collective society she left back in China values family and tradition; this Western concept of individuality and living only in the moment is hard for Z to understand. She is left to reconcile their essential difference: "'Love,' this English word: like other English words it has tense. 'Loved' or 'will love' or 'have loved.'...Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite....In Chinese, Love...has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future."

In her quest to find herself in the West, Z realizes just how Chinese she is -- and that learning to speak a language doesn't necessarily mean being able to communicate. Guo, also a filmmaker, has written an inventive, often humorous and poignant story of a woman's journey over cultural and emotional borders. While books with similarly suggestive titles may fall into the chick-lit genre, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is so much more.

Gail Tsukiyama is the author of six novels; her latest is The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.

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