As the child of immigrants, I was immediately intrigued by the title of May-Lee Chai’s “Useful Phrases for Immigrants.” The slim yet powerful short story collection was chosen by Tayari Jones for the 2018 Bakwin Award, beating out 233 entries to be published by Blair, an independent press that supports underrepresented writers.
Chai’s stories alternate between depicting Chinese immigrants in the United States and migrants in China, reminding the reader of the ties between those who left their homelands and those who stayed. In the eponymous story, Guili, an immigrant in California, prepares to move her family after 15 years of economic hardship. The story begins with Guili trying to buy plastic bins with coupons. When the cashier claims the coupons are invalid, Guili thinks back to the English she has learned: “What she’d said to the girl at the customer service counter was ‘I’ll take a rain check!’ (She had learned this term from a book she’d picked up at the Chinese bookstore on sale, Useful Phrases for Immigrants.)” The title sets up the central theme that drives this collection. As Guili confronts an unfavorable medical diagnosis, her family’s impending move and a cantankerous mother-in-law, she thinks, “This feeling of hopeless hope or suspended despair or temporary consolation amidst unknowingness . . . was the phrase missing from her book. How useful it would have been to name this feeling exactly in this new and perilous land.”
All of Chai’s characters are lost in some way, struggling with “unknowingness”; characters navigate new cities, new countries, a new life stage. “Fish Boy” focuses on a young boy who has migrated to Zhengzhou. Xiao Yu finds work in a restaurant kitchen and is eager to one day report the restaurant’s corruption to the police. However, after an encounter with local bullies, Xiao changes. He becomes one of the slick city boys, “shoplifting with his friends, extorting money from younger kids on their way to and from school, and fighting with rival gangs.” Xiao comes to understand the “real world,” for “he was a good student after all. He’d just been studying the wrong material.”
Chai also writes about the children of immigrants, who grapple with their hyphenated identities. In “Ghost Festivals,” Lu-Ying remembers the summer she first realized her mother may have loved her gay uncle more than her father. In “Canada,” Chai captures adolescence in precise, humorous prose: “Mama told Aunt Mei about my needing a training bra,” the teenage Lu-lu remarks. “I couldn’t believe my ears, the way she just blurted it out. I would have thought having gone through this herself when she was young, my mother would have had some sensitivity, but adults were always disappointing me.”
Two other stories, “The Lucky Day” and “First Carvel in Beijing,” are less developed but still felt critical, focusing on the adult second-generation who have their own questions about their cultural backgrounds.
“Useful Phrases for Immigrants” ends with the particularly entertaining “Shouting Means I Love You,” where an adult daughter chauffeurs her elderly father to a lunch with a man who helped procure passports for their family years ago. Full of parent-child yelling in between acts of filial piety, the story perfectly shows the ways in which immigrants and their children take up space together, holding fast to their past in a new world.
Immersive and complex, Chai’s characters confront questions about class, family, sexuality, love, longing and more. The sign of a strong collection is one where the stories work together to inform the reader, and Chai’s eight tales do just that.
Crystal Hana Kim is the author of the novel “If You Leave Me.”
By May-Lee Chai
Blair. 166 pp. $16.95.