A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
by Xiaolu Guo - CHATTO

Baked beans? Incomprehensible

By Scarlett Thomas
Published: 04 February 2007, the Independent, London

Many critics of multiculturalism seem to believe that assimilation is the way forward: if only we all felt the same way about the Brussels sprout, Last of the Summer Wine and Woolworths, then culture would thrive as we all march forward, obediently singing from the same hymn sheet, never questioning our Britishness (which seems to be based on us all consuming roughly the same things at roughly the same time of year). But while all having the same sense of humour, using the same language and sharing the same cultural reference points might help us to escape Sartre's hell of other people (because there would seem to be no other people), it seems more likely that we would actually end up wallowing blandly in Baudrillard's hell of the same. Abandoning multiculturalism means not only losing those differences that make us interested in one another, but that allow us all to consider ourselves from other perspectives: to question the commonplaces of our culture and language and, perhaps most interestingly, to allow ourselves to be satirised by the unassimilated.

This novel, part satire and part love story, tells of Zhuang Xiao Qiao, a young Chinese woman who comes to London to learn English. Much authenticity in the novel comes from Chinese author Xiaolu Guo deliberately writing the hilarious, broken English of an ingénue abroad for the first time, someone who cannot comprehend baked beans ("Only problem is, tastes like somebody put beans into mouth but spit out and back into plate"), or weather reports. "Z", as she becomes known (no one can pronounce her name), is confused but not intimidated by British culture. While struggling with her English course, led by Mrs Margaret, she attempts various extra-curricular activities, including buying a porn magazine - which she then reads in a greasy spoon café, unable to understand why you shouldn't read something publicly that is so easy to buy.

When she meets a man in a cinema and he invites her to visit his house, she ends up moving in, believing this is what he means by the throwaway phrase "be my guest". He is a middle-aged, Guardian-reading guy with issues: some of these are suggested by a garden full of male nude sculptures and a vague desire to eschew Sainsbury's and "get back to nature". While in places Guo overdoes the language-barrier humour, her characterisation of Z's lover is subtle and profound. We are able to know this man without judging him, and Guo, like her narrator, finally resists the urge to change him.

This novel will be compared with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, but it is so much better than that. Guo uses her minimalist, messed-up prose not just to tell an affecting coming-of-age story, but to ask deep questions about the real differences between Chinese and British culture and language. Why do we, for example, insist on putting ourselves at the front of sentences (rather than location, as in Chinese)? And why, asks Z at one point in the novel, is political unrest in this country so peaceful and, ultimately, impotent? It seems that there are some questions only outsiders can ask and Z, an antihero for our times, does us all a favour by asking them - until, of course, her visa runs out.


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