In Chinese, it is the same word “家” (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… Home, is a dwelling house for the family to live.
But in English, it’s different. In Roget’s Thesaurus, “Family” related to: subdivision, greed, genealogy, parental, posterity, community, nobility.
It seems like that “family” doesn’t mean a place. Maybe in West people just move round from one house to another house? Always looking for a house, maybe that’s the lifelong job for Westerners.
I keep telling you I need a home. Your face look gloomy, and seem disappointed that you cannot make me happy. (Guo 100)
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo—a long title for a relatively short book—is a novel that follows a young woman’s life over the span of one year as she leaves Beijing to learn English in London. Her name is Zhuang Xiao Qiao, but is known afterwards as Z because of the difficulty in pronouncing her name. She has left her family and home behind—and now her name—to learn the ways of a different culture that come along with its language.
I was drawn to this book because 1) I had previously read David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, which was (surprise) written in the style of a dictionary, so I was even more interested in the Chinese-English aspect of Guo’s novel; and 2) this book is written in Z’s broken English, but the language improves as time (and the novel) progresses.
The grammar in Dictionary for Lovers should have had me whipping out a red pen and circling the verb-noun agreement errors, and tearing out my hair at the complete misunderstanding of how to use the verb “to be.” It should have, but this book did not. Instead, I was aware of the grammatical, syntactical, and semantical mistakes, and it all fascinated me. Z’s struggle with language reflects how she is no longer in Beijing, but immersed in a completely new world and culture. It highlights the differences in values, such as family.
Perhaps it is because I grew up listening to my parents’ broken English that I understand the struggle of how nouns turn into adjectives, or how verbs change into adverbs. I have seen my parents’ confusion with pronunciation. They grapple with what is culturally accepted and what is not, just as Z does. We are often caught between Z and her English lover because we understand both of them. We are, or have been, exposed to different cultures when, for example, the holidays come around and time is supposed to be spent with family.
Z’s relationship with her parents is difficult. She hates her mother—and states this so explicitly at times—but she is aware of how she needs both her parents to survive and how she must respect their wishes for her to learn English and progress beyond the family’s shoemaking business. So it surprises her when she learns that her lover has broken away from his family. Not getting along with family who prove to be toxic to your well-being? Break away from them; care for yourself first. This is an unfamiliar concept to Z. It is even stranger to her when they visit other families that are not actually their family. She remarks, “Is not very normal you want see other family. Because you not really like family concept. You say family against community. You say family is a selfish product” (98).
What is home? Is family a selfish product? Generally speaking, Asian cultural values of family are usually group-oriented, extending beyond immediate family members. What happens to the idea of family and home when people like Z move away and grow attached to a different place? Dictionary for Lovers showcases some of the many differences between cultures, but also the process of learning to fit in. Perhaps with concepts like family and home in an intimate relationship as one of culturally different lovers, the best way to approach it is with an open mind and acceptance.