Book Review: “Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing up” by Xiaolu Guo

Written by Caterina Bellinetti (@ducky_cat)

“It’s difficult to say what English speakers with no experience of East Asia will make of the book.” This is how The Asian Review of Books end their critique of Xiaolu Guo’s memoir. They do have a point because “Once Upon a Time in the East” is not an easy read, especially for those who might not be familiar with Chinese society and history. The story of the author can only be fully understood if we are able to follow her into the contradictory depths of Chinese society of the decades in which she grew up, which were full of hardship but, thankfully, also love.

From her birth, in 1973, until 2002 when she moved to London, Xiaolu’s life was anything but simple. She was given away twice by her parents; the first time to a family who lived on the mountains near her city, Wenling, and the second time to her grandparents who lived in Shitang, a fishing village in Zhejiang province. At the age of seven her parents took her back. During her years in Wenling, Xiaolu and her mother never managed to develop a loving, healthy relationship; it actually grew more and more bitter with every passing year. Xiaolu remembers: “I hated her. I secretly wished she would die in an accident.” Throughout adolescence, Xiaolu was sexually abused, beaten by her mother, and had to go for a secret abortion at the age of fifteen because of an unwanted pregnancy that resulted from an affair with one of her teachers.

And yet, despite all this darkness, Xiaolu’s passion for the arts, cinema and literature, kept her going and with the help of her father, who always supported her dreams, she passed the selection to be one of eleven students at the Film and Literature Department of the Beijing Film Academy. Xiaolu moved to Beijing in September 1993. Intellectual life in the capital was fulfilling, but Xiaolu’s sentimental life remained drenched in sadness, first because of an abusive boyfriend, and then disillusionment, as the brief encounter with an American student did not result in a stable relationship as Xiaolu, maybe naively as she admits, hoped for.

While it was hard for me to relate to this chapter in Xiaolu’s life, I understood her struggles and the psychological impact that these events had on her personality and her perception of the world. The roughness of her mother, their inability to connect on any level, and the lack of intimacy among family members as well as between men and women clearly had an impact on Xialou’s life and her quest to find love and acceptance. In 2001, thanks to the prestigious Chevening scholarship to which she applied for as a film-maker, Xiaolu left China for the United Kingdom.

Even London was no paradise for her and the feelings of loneliness and exclusion that Xiaolu initially felt are very relatable for anyone who ever went to another country to study or work. In her case, the language issue was prominent. Languages are not just grammar, they are part of the culture that we, more or less consciously, absorb along the years; languages are part of who we are, how we feel and how we express ourselves. Xiaolu described how English tenses made no sense and the phrase “Peter had been painting his house for weeks, but he finally gave up” was weird to her, not from a grammatical viewpoint, but from a cultural one. It was the giving up part that negatively surprised her. “Why would someone give up after weeks?” She asked herself. This small episode is indicative of how resilient and determined Xiaolu was in the pursuit of her dreams; giving up after few weeks was not an option.

The British part of her story was for me more engaging and I became curious and emotionally involved in her adventures in the city. While I was still surprised by some of her naiveté —she described herself as “an ignorant person […], who neither read the papers nor listened to the news”, a weird combination for someone who wants to be a writer— I felt the same loneliness that all expats share. The lack of homemade food, the booze-centred (not food-centred as it is in China) social life and the inescapable presence of the cuppa as solution for whatever problem, were as puzzling for Xiaolu as they were for me the first year I came to the United Kingdom. The need to adjust oneself to new cultural, linguistic and social norms is far more challenging than it is usually acknowledged. Despite all the difficulties, Xiaolu mastered the English language, settled in London and called it home. She wrote: “It seems to me that people decide to settle somewhere not because they love the place, but because they value and cherish what they have invested in it.” I would add that we settle in those places that make us grow, that make us who we are, and it is in the precise moment in which we recognise our growth that the settling becomes love for that place.

I will not spoil the end of Xiaolu’s journey, but I would like to end this review talking about the most positive figure in the book: her father. There is one moment in the book when her father, an artist, a sweet and heartwarming man, the only person she ever felt connected to and understood by, asks Xiaolu: “Do you know what our family name, Guo, mean?” Xiaolu did not know, so her father explained: “It means ‘outside the first city wall’. In the old days, people built two layers of wall around their cities and Guo is the space between them. An in-between zone. That’s what our name means.” Nomina sunt consequentia rerum (names reveal the essence of a person/thing), wrote Dante quoting Justinian II, and Guo, the space in-between, couldn’t be a more appropriate name for a girl who made of her in-betweeness —in-between China and London, in-between rejection and acceptance— her strength and her gift to us with her writing.

Image Credit: CC/

Xiaolu Guo will be speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 6.30pm on Sunday 20th August. Her most recent novel is I am China. 

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