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Xiaolu Guo's Third Novel is Set in London

abstract: A poet from the age of fifteen, Xiaolu Guo first came to London in 2002 as an experienced novelist and filmmaker from mainland China. Her observations led to her third book, the first in English, a remarkable mix of eastern and western ideals with a clever, funny, often profound and engaging writing style. Titled A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers: A Novel (Published by Nan A. Talese, September 4, 2007), The novel explores a subject that many people can relate to, the acquisition of a new language. This book was nominated for the 2007 Orange Prize for fiction. Read the review then listen to the interview, and view clips from her filmography. Xiaolu Guo is a talent we will see and hear more.


December 09, 2007

“At any moment at least 600 million Chinese citizens are studying English.”

Guo gives us an insight into a very personal and under-studied area and delves into this in such detail that the reader can see the mechanics and thought process behind each step. Raised in a fishing village in Taiwan by her grandparents, Guo is the first to say that even though the observations she made were her own, the main character is not an extension of herself but a "Chinese peasant's" outlook, much more naďve.

"As a foreigner in London, I feel I become more aggressive as a person and louder as a writer, to hear my voice in the crowds." She often expresses the frustration that the West has not incorporated Chinese literature in its mainstream reading material, “I want to write more and more, to publish a lot–just in case people don’t know that Chinese literature exists.”

It is a shame that there aren’t more studies, and books, that touch on the same subject, as there are often many misconceptions that could easily be understood if we spent more time trying to understand each other's cultural differences.

“…you don’t understand my visa limited situation. I am native Chinese from mainland of China. I am not of free world….I am not free, like you.”

This would surely have a knock-on effect with the uptake of the English language, how can we teach what we don’t understand ourselves, and how can we teach to someone whom we don’t understand either? “Currently around 10,000 students a year in the UK and the US, plus others elsewhere…The total studying abroad is expected to reach 200,000 in the year 2010.” (China Daily, 17.10.06) "Language" and "Communication" are very broad terms for a much more complex idea; you can learn a word but to understand it fully you must study its semantics and usage.

“Driver say: ‘Shut the door properly!’…I am a bit scared. I am not understanding what is this ‘properly’…Later I go in bookshop and check ‘properly’ in Collins English Dictionary (“THE AUTHORITY ON CURRENT ENGLISH”). Properly means ‘correct behaviour’. I think of my behaviour in the taxi ten minutes ago. Why incorrect?...In China we never think of ‘correct behaviour’ because every behaviour correct.”

As the main character ‘Z’ starts to learn English, a native speaker gets the chance to experience their own language from a different view point. ‘Z’ comes up with some great questions that often left me either reeling with laughter or thinking about them into the night.

“Eggy salad. Is that all? Is that what English people offer in their homes? In China a cold food for guest is bad, only beggars no complain cold food.”

Seeing a language you have spoken since birth being scrutinized and puzzled over brings a whole different perspective to certain turns of phrase that are so often used they are taken for granted.

“Be my guest. That’s how all start. From misunderstanding. When you say ‘guest’ I think you meaning I can stay in your house. A week later I move out from Chinese Landlord.”

As our protagonist battles with the linguistics we see her battle with a change in culture, the main issues being that of love, family, and the home.

“But why people need privacy? Why privacy so important? In China, every family live together, grandparents, parents, daughter, son, and their relatives too. Eat together and share everything, talk about everything. Privacy make people lonely. Privacy make family fallen apart.”

The constant comparison lets the reader engage with another culture that has been restricted in the past, opening the mind to a different approach to life that makes everyday occurrences take on a completely different spin.

“My Mother had very bad temper. Maybe she hated me because I was a useless girl. She cannot have a second child because we have one child policy. Maybe that’s why she beated me up. For her disappointment.”

Professor Greg Philo from the University of Glasgow has done some research into the expectations and actual experiences of Chinese students travelling to the UK to learn English. His findings tie in very well with some of the experiences ‘Z’ goes through. As he conducted his interviews, Professor Philo found that on average the expectations of Britain were that the people would be "gentlemanly" and "polite," as well as "well-educated" and "brave."

“Many of these images come from classic authors such as Dickens and books such as Pride and Prejudice as well as characters like Sherlock Holmes.” ("Culture Transfer – The Impact of Direct Experiences on Evaluations of British and Chinese Societies" by Professor Greg Philo.)

Obviously many of these expectations turn out to be disappointing, though there were quite a few things the students definitely found better about the UK. The other finding was that we are perceived as a much more open and tolerant country where talking about sexuality is not taboo.

“Do I feel shame about sex? Yes, I do, in beginning. A lot. Is such taboo in China. I never really knew what is sex before.”

While reading this book I realized there is so much that we could learn from the Chinese. Their idea of family is something that struck home with me several times and I’m sure different readers will find their own parts of interest as they read through. It also made me proud that my nation is liberal and accepting, but sometimes ashamed at what we still have to work on and accomplish.

“In Chinese it is the same word ‘jia’ for ‘home’ and ‘family’ and sometimes including ‘house.’ To us, family is same thing as house, and this house is their only home too.”

This book made me laugh and wonder at the complexities of language and culture, and how different people cope when left in a world that is so different from their own. I found this book entertaining, intelligent and thought provoking.

“I confusing again when I look at ‘whipped cream’ on little blackboard. What is that mean? How people whip the cream? I see a poster somewhere near Chinatown. On poster naked woman only wears leather boots and leather pants, and she whipping naked man kneeling down under legs. So a English chef also whipping in kitchen?”

—By Dee Raffo, a BookBuffet Reviewer whose home is in the UK

Excellent Links

  • NPR Interview
  • imdb Filmography Listing for Xiaolu
  • "How Is Your Fish Today" Click link to view Xioaolu's wonderful film that has been winning accolades at the film festivals in Vienna, San Francisco, China and others.


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