30 May 2009

A concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Me no speekee Eengeeleeshee

I was drawn to this book by its bright cover and interesting title, and the easy flow of words carried me past the first few chapters very soon. The story is told by a 23-year-old Chinese woman who comes to spend a year in London learning English. To start with her language is broken but easy to understand and the narrative is quite engaging. At first I felt that there were glimpses of a higher understanding and better command over the language showing through, somewhat like a put-on accent slipping. But after I’d finished reading, I looked through the first few pages for this and couldn’t find it so maybe I had just imagined it, perhaps as a result of some kind of prejudice against an assumed or put-on voice, before I got properly engrossed in the story and began to admire the construction and the way strong characters had been developed using the broken language, and how creatively it had been used. In fact, as the months pass, her language does improve in a gradual and significant way.
English life is described and even with few words and poor grammar, there is beauty and poetry in the narration. Zhuang introduces herself as Z because no one can pronounce her name. She lives at first in a hostel, but soon looks for cheaper accommodation: “I checking all cheap flats on LOOT in Zone 1 and 2 of
London and ringing agents. All agents sound like from Arabic countries and all called Ali. Their English no good too. One Ali charges Marble Arch area, one Ali charges Baker Street area. But I meet different Alis at Oxford Circus tube station, and see those houses. I dare not to move in. Places dirty and dim and smelly. How I live there?
London, by appearance, so noble, respectable, but when I follow these Alis I find London a refugee camp.”
People shout at her, but they also avoid her, considering her very rude – though this is not innate rudeness but just a manner of speaking perfectly normal in her culture.
As a result of a misunderstanding (he says to her, “be my guest”) she moves into the home of a man she has just recently met and they become lovers. He is much older, and wants her to learn to be independent, so convinces her to travel to
Europe alone, and her observations and experiences there are interesting. In Tavira she writes, “They got a real sun here in their sky, not like in England. English sun is a fake sun, a literature sun.”
This book is rich with feeling. But more than just showing the difference between the feelings of an English man and those of a Chinese woman, their different expectations, habits, ways of thinking and so on, the book also gives a glimpse into their differing political views and, most interestingly, their differing philosophies. And it is the English man who believes in “living IN the moment” while the Buddhist woman who wants to plan for the future and who, having by now developed a far greater grasp of the language, accuses him of “living FOR the moment.”

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