Characters, Themes, and Quotes

Main Characters
Additional Characters
Central Themes


  • Zhuang or "Z" – A 24-year-old Chinese woman whose parents force her to move to London for a year to learn and study English for a year. Z can eat everything that is put in front of her on a dinner table (especially meat) and she loves to garden and explore the country with her lover. Z struggles with loneliness and attachment issues with lover and has to learn to communicate her feelings in ways she didn't need to before. Z's family life in China explains a lot of her cautious, yet rebellious behavior because she suffered both verbal and physical abuse at times. Z does not know what she wants to be or do with her life but she tries to learn English to not waste her mother's money and to see if she can figure that out through English


  • Z's unnamed lover– Z's lover is a 44-year-old British man who is bisexual and vegetarian, two things that Z struggles to understand when she compares them to her life back in China. Z's lover also had a traumatic childhood because his dad was a drifter who eventually abandoned the family when he was a teenager. He decided to leave home to sail the world for 9 months and explore his sexuality with many young men. He became a drifter and a squatter himself before settling down and discovering his love for gardening and second-hand materials. He and Z met in a movie theater and she moved in with him a week afterwards.



  • Ms. Margaret - Zhuang's English teacher who likes to challenge Z with her English, and likes to drink tea.  
  • Zhuang's mother – Z's mother only comes up as a character through Z's memories but is important in understanding Z's behavior and why she acts certain ways, particularly when it comes to food, privacy, and relationships.
  • Jack – A friend that Z's lover goes to visit for a few days in the beginning of their relationship



  • Communication with a language barrier – As Z learns how to navigate physically through the streets of London, she learns that navigating verbally with her lover and the other Londoners is equally tricky. Misunderstandings are prevalent and important to the plot as many language blocks are what cause fights between Z and her lover. Z constantly makes fun of the English language for things like homophones and progressive tenses, but frequently these grammatical issues are what make it hard for her and her lover to fully communicate and connect with each other. Communication is difficult when it is between two people who fluently speak the same language, let alone between someone who barely speaks the language of the other. 


  • Balancing independence and dependence – Zhuang is lonely from the moment she steps off of the plane at Heathrow airport at the start of the novel. Since she was born she never had to live for extended periods of time without her family or someone close to her to talk to, but living in London she has nobody. While this is certainly a coming of age novel, for Zhuang specifically the biggest thing she learns is how to be content with being alone. The biggest challenge comes when she meets her lover (who also notices she is too dependent on him in the beginning of their relationship) because she tries to stay in the throws of her love while also trying to understand herself and what she wants to do with her life. 


  • Love across the world - Throughout the novel, Zhuang notices and comments on how the English throw around the word love more than the Chinese do. English people will frequently say things like, "I love that hat," or "I love that resaurant," while Chinese people use it much more sparingly and the word itself holds much more weight in their language. Additionally, the relationship that Zhuang has with her lover is unconventional because of their ages, cultures, and views on life, and the two of them both learn that while love transcends time, space, and different walks of life, it takes different forms, none of which are more or less valuable than the rest. 


Zhuang on time:


“About time, what I really learned from studying English is: time is different with timing.
I understand the difference of these two words so well. I understand falling in love with the right person in the wrong timing could be the greatest sadness in a person's entire life.”



Zhuang before breaking up with her lover:


“In China, we say: 'There are many dreams in a long night.' It has been a long night, but I don't know if I want to continue the dreams. It feels like I am walking on a little path, both sides are dark mountains and valleys. I am walking towards a little light in the distance. Walking, and walking, I am seeing that light diminishing. I am seeing myself walk towards the end of the love, the sad end.
I love you more than I loved you before. I love you more than I should love you. But I must leave. I am losing myself. It is painful that I can't see myself. It is time for me to say those words you kept telling me recently. 'Yes, I agree with you. We can't be together.”



Zhuang on love:


“Love', this English word: like other English words it has tense. 'Loved' or 'will love' or 'have loved'. All these tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, love is '爱' (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.”



Zhuang on vegetarianism:


“But what so different of eating plants? Everything has it's life. If you are so pure, why not just stop eating? So you can have no shit?”



Zhuang on lonliness:


“The loneliness comes to me in certain hours everyday, like a visitor. Like a friend you never expected, a friend you never really want to be with, but he always visit you and love you somehow,”



Zhuang on communication:


“I am sick of speaking English like this… 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… I am dominated by it… Why do we have to force ourselves to communicate with people? Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful?”



Zhuang on theft:


“In China we believe "rob the rich to feed the poor." But robbers here have no poetry.”




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John Quigley ’19

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