A Concise Chinese ~ English Dictionary For Lovers is written from the first-person perspective of a young Chinese woman named Zhuang who travels to London to study English. As the novel centers around Zhuang’s struggle to learn English, every episode in her life corresponds to an entry in the Concise Chinese ~ English Dictionary.
Significantly, the first chapter opens with the definition of ‘alien’:
alien adj foreign; repugnant (to); from another world n a foreigner; being from another world
This perfectly complements Zhuang’s mindset as she arrives in Heathrow Airport and enters the foreign streets of London. The novel explores Zhuang’s struggle to comprehend certain aspects of British culture, and is primarily focused on the capacity of language to reflect culture. Studying a second language allows Zhuang to look back on her native culture with a new perspective. For example, she reconsiders her initial view that the English language is sexist, and instead examines what this difference reveals about her mother tongue: ‘Person as a dominate subject, is main thing in an English sentence. Does it mean West culture respecting individuals more?’
As this quote shows, Xiaolu Guo has designed the narration to mimic the speech of an English-learner. Initially, I found this slightly disconcerting, but overall it lends a great degree of sincerity to Zhuang’s story, as the author refuses to speak on her behalf. Zhuang’s inability to articulate her feelings in English is contrasted on two occasions by a brief switch into Chinese (which was, fortunately, translated back into English for this monolingual reader!). Reading Zhuang’s ‘true’ voice has a tragic effect, as it reveals how much of her personality is lost in her broken English.
Just as Zhuang’s study of English enables her to reflect back on Chinese culture, the reader is led to re-examine the assumptions of their own culture through this encounter with an outsider perspective.