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Book Review: A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

I always find myself gravitating towards books written by women of color, particularly Asian women. They have no qualms about writing things plainly. When they talk about poverty, they lay it out for all to see. There are no pretensions, no shame. They have no trouble writing about taboo subjects. For instance, the shortcomings of their parents – the mothers who can’t read, the fathers who don’t provide. Moreover they don’t write in such a way as to manipulate the reader’s emotion. They write in a matter of fact way. Something about that fascinates and perplexes me. I think it is because I feel that style of writing is out of my reach. I admire it. 

This week I finished reading A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers by Guo Xialu. At just twenty three years old, Zhuang Xiao Qiao moves from China to England to study English. Her parents send her on this immersive language learning program in the hopes that her ability to speak English will open up better opportunities for her.

Naturally, she is scared and lonely when she first arrives in London. Gray, dreary London. She does not find a Chinese community in Diaspora. Those she does find speak Cantonese as opposed to her Mandarin, so they do not understand each other. Her budget, funded by her parents who own a shoe factory in China, only allows her to stay in these awful little places; musty old houses in unsafe neighborhoods that quickly disabuse her of any notions of a western utopia. 

One night, she goes to the movies and makes eye contact with a man. He has a kind face and a gentle smile. One might say they hit it off, or perhaps that is what she desperately wants. Within a week of meeting, they start living together. Things are good in the beginning. They tend to his little garden in the back yard together and make love in the sunshine. But soon enough, the cracks start to appear on their idyllic veneer. The man has secrets – pretty significant secrets. However, Z is unwilling to let go of her newly found comfort. She fumbles along, taking the hits as they come. 

He feels suffocated by her needs and begins to put distance between them. They’re little things, but they matter. Suddenly he wants them to go Dutch whenever they go out to eat. This is a foreign concept to Z and it does not land well. In her opinion, he should pay for her meals since they live together as a couple. It is a given. He thinks he doesn’t have to pay since she doesn’t hoover the floors. The honeymoon period is over. Now the blinders have fallen and they are firmly in the bickering stage. 

Soon afterwards he sends her away for travel. She is to visit some countries in the Schengen area. France, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Portugal… On her journeys, she meets men. Some of them she likes and some of them desire her. She manages to avoid the dangers of travelling alone as a woman for the most part. Unfortunately she cannot escape what is often part of a girl’s initiation into womanhood. Up until this point, she has bobbed along conflating love and sex without being set right. She thinks that sex is love, but soon finds out that sex can sorely be devoid of love. After a gnarly experience with a strange man in Portugal that walks the line of consent, she realizes that it can just as easily be a mallet used to pummel the innocence out of a person. 

A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers is sort of a coming to age book. Or perhaps it is more like a shedding of childhood story. Z suffers in an undefined relationship with her London man. He refuses to commit to her even though he enjoys living with her, and in his own way treats her like family. To him this would result in a loss of freedom and autonomy, but to Z, these things represent stability, security, comfort, and even happiness. She does not understand why he resists this, why he chooses solitude over companionship. To her, to be alone is to be lonely. But her older gentleman lover, twenty years her senior, has lived long enough to distinguish between the two. To him, to be alone is to be peaceful. 

She professes her love for him over and over… But again, like aloneness and loneliness, she is yet to distinguish between love and need, love and attachment. She wants him because she wants to be saved from herself. From her loneliness, from her lack of belonging, from her uncertainty about the future. She needs him.

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What she calls love comes from a place of deep weakness. She is always acting from a place of fear so great that if things don’t go exactly as she needs, she feels like it will annihilate her. This is where the impulse to control comes from. She is afraid to lose him, so she tries to cut him off from the other facets of his life that are real or perceived threats to her position. She hogs his attention and nags him when she feels neglected. She tells him hurtful things to elicit a reaction. Not as a mind game, but as a buffer against his deadened demeanor, his resistance to engage her and engage with life in general.

Her love is mired in lack and need, and asks too much of him. He finds it smothering and refuses to give in. On some level, I think he is aware that if he gives in, they will both become stunted. She will continue to need him, and he will continue to hate being needed so much that it becomes no longer clear whether it is her he hates, or her need of him.

All in all, A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers is a thought provoking book. Even though the narrator is a student of English, and the story unfolds in broken English, it is well done. In fact, I think it is a clever device that adds to the authenticity of the story. The reader is compelled to read it in a Chinese woman’s accent which makes it that much more immersive. With a reading time of seven and a half hours, it is a quick and easy read. I highly recommend. 

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book review. I’ve had my web doctor hat on for the last few months, bringing the blog back from the brink and setting up the online bookstore. Check it out here. But now that the waves seem to have evened out a bit, I may be able to put my writer’s hat back on. Thank you for growing with the writer.

Love & Light,

Wanjiru Ndung’u

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