We don't have much the individuality concept in China. We are collective, and we believe in collectivism. Collective Farm, Collective Leadership. Now we have Group Life Insurance from the governments as well. When I was in middle school, we studied Group Dancing. We danced with 200 students as part of the school lesson. We have to dance exactly the same pace and the same movement in the music. Maybe that's why I never feel lonely in China.
But here, in the West, I lost my reference. And I have to rely on my own sensibility. But my sensibility toward the world is so unclear.
Back from my travels with a long-overdue look at the last of the Orange Prize shortlisters: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. Now, this one has proven controversial, if our blogroll is anything to go by; some loved it, some really didn't, and then there was a lively, um, discussion by email (which I absolutely didn't egg on in any way *whistles*).
I was, naturally, late to the party on this, and could hardly arrive unconditioned by what I'd heard. Indeed, of all the books on the Orange list, this is probably the one to which I've ended up devoting the most thought. It's a book that repays reflection, one whose surface stylistic devices conceal considerable depths, both charming and disquieting. Much, of course, like its narrator.
Zhuang Xiao Qiao - or 'Z', as she insists on being called, (characteristically) simplifying herself for the benefit of others - is a young Chinese woman, who travels to London to spend a year learning English. The book is an account of her time in Europe: of the (sometimes painful) growth of her self-expression and self-awareness, explored largely through her expanding English vocabulary and a relationship with an English man. It's not so much the narrative of clashing cultures that we might expect, more a coming-of-age story whose conflicts are made starker by being rendered in the limited literalism of pidgin English.
The development of Z's language skills is well-captured - her struggles with prepositions and pronouns, her overenthusiastic adoption (and misuse) of idiomatic phrases, her painstakingly careful spelling, and her confused syntax. As a prose style it undoubtedly will have its irritations for some readers. Interestingly (or problematically, depending on your perspective), this is a conceit of the narrator as well as the author; it is, explicitly, a tale told in retrospect. At the very beginning, Z says:
Beijing time 12 clock midnight.
London time 5 clock afternoon.
But I at neither time zone. I on airplane. Sitting on 25,000 km above to earth and trying remember all English I learning in school.
I not met you yet. You in future.
Z is aping - and perhaps exaggerating, or even parodying - her own early fumblings with English. It is hard to escape the conclusion that she could express herself more clearly, but chooses not to. It could just be an affectation on the part of the author; viewed more charitably, it gives us Z's experiences from her perspective, letting her narration become more sophisticated only as her past self's understanding grows. That this perspective is necessarily a reconstruction may be the point: she appears as a Chinese Candide, a charming innocent abroad who glides past the painful and views everything with an unfailing sunny optimism.
And, indeed, there is a sweet, infectious fun to her topsy-turvy prose and her observations and misunderstandings:
"Vegetarian means you don't eat meat."
"Oh, I am sorry," I say, swallowing big mouthful tofus and beefs.
Now I understand why never buy piece of meat. I thought it is because you poor.
...although quite a bit of this humour is at her expense, and filled with rather too deliberate winks towards the reader:
What is this 'baked beans'? White colour beans, in orange sticky sweet sauce. I see some baked bean tins in shop when I arrive to London yesterday. Tin food is very expensive to China. Also we not knowing how to open it. So I never ever try tin food. Here, right in front of me, this baked beans must be very expensive. Delicacy is baked beans. Only problem is, tastes like somebody put beans into mouth but spit out and back into plate.
Furthermore, the few short passages that are supposed to have been translated from the original Chinese carry much less artifice and much more resentment:
I am sick of speaking English like this. I am sick of writing English like this. I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison. I am scared that I have become a person who is always very aware of talking, speaking, and I have become a person without confidence, because I can't be me. I have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous. It swallows me, and it rapes me.
Whether Z genuinely does see herself as living in the best of all possible worlds, however, or whether this is a device by which she hides from her more disturbing experiences, depends on how you choose to read the book. Her relationship with her English lover, for example, frequently veers into trainwreck territory. Z's complete devotion to and dependence upon this (apparently largely indifferent) anarchist drifter is at times painful to behold. As Rebecca has pointed out, herein lies the true clash of mindsets: the very different, and mutually incomprehensible, ways in which they conceptualise themselves. Z's identity resides entirely in her relationship with others, in her membership of some form of collective. Individuality and selfhood, for her, imply loneliness ("In China I not have loneliness concept. Always we with family or crowd."); only through an all-encompassing intimacy and dependence, she believes, can she truly belong. Her lover could not disagree more; he is fiercely protective of his autonomy and privacy, and his sense of betrayal and invasion when, say, Z reads his diary is palpable. She, having rather different ideas about boundaries and personal space, interprets this as a lack of love:
And there is a line you draw between you and me. There is a limit, from your heart, from your lifestyle, which makes love feels like a friendship. You live inside of me, but I don't live inside of you.
Z is more clever and savvy than her broken English and her frequent faux-pas (like, at a party, mistaking a vibrator for an electric toothbrush...) make her appear; she is not unaware of the dangers of the world around her:
Walking around like a ghost, I see two rough mans in corner suspicionly smoke and exchange something. Ill-legal, I have to run - maybe they desperate drug addictors robbing my money.
But her deep loneliness and need for intimacy make her vulnerable. She has no sense of self-reliance, and is trusting to a fault if someone (read: a man) makes the right approach to her.
I need somebody protect me, accompany me [...] I longing for smile from man.
Which, of course, they do. Z's vulnerability is brought into sharp focus when - at her lover's insistence - she embarks on a miserable solo trip around Europe. She has a series of encounters with men (of obscure motives) in different stops along her route; she doesn't appear to see much of anything or anyone on her trip besides solitary men. All this is reported with a mixture of manic optimism and frantic emotion (her capacity for falling in 'love' is quite astonishing).
Finally, she fetches up in Portugal - where her naivete and her inability to communicate cost her dearly, trapping her in an unwanted, frightening sexual encounter.
"But no plugging in. Please." I don't know how to say that. And I am suddenly scared by what we are doing: "No. I don't want that. Just using sucking me. Please, please," I beg him.
I just realise I don't want he enter into my body. No. It would disgust me so much.
But he couldn't control himself anymore.
She never refers to this as a rape. Her immediate reaction speaks volumes - "the dirty feeling of my body is overwhelming", she notes - but she draws a veil over much of her response, mentioning only in passing how she stripped and washed herself in the toilet as soon as she left the man. Recounting the incident to her lover, later, she is clearly upset (and repressing) but also matter-of-fact, about both the situation and how she ended up in it:
"Nothing serious. Just, I had sex with a man who I only met for half an hour."
You stare at me. Your face is frozen. There is only four centimetres between my face and yours.
"But I didn't like the experience, actually..." I am a little worried to carry on this story.
[...] "So if you didn't like it, why did you do it?"
Finally, you are angry.
"Because... I don't like distance."
(Arguably, the incident functions as her first true (and violent) connection with her selfhood: she becomes properly aware of her individuality for the first time through its violation. Told you it was a disquieting book...)
Whether by artifice or not, however, the incident in Portugal does not overwhelm the remainder of the book, which is much more concerned with the death throes of Z's relationship, the end of her time in England. The novel ends on a note of more realistic (if bittersweet) optimism, with Z letting go of her past dependence and heading into her future: scarred but resilient, hurt but still capable of tenderness, alone and wiser:
I think of those days when I travelled in Europe on my own. I met many people and finally I wasn't so afraid of being alone. Maybe I should let my life open, like a flower; maybe I should fly, like a lonely bird. I shouldn't be blocked by a tree, and I shouldn't be scared about losing one tree, instead of seeing a whole forest.