Far from home, in Rose’s memories, Ma had become like a black-and-white movie that she had watched on TV when she was a kid. Flickering and quaint. Up close in real life, Ma burned like a live coal against Rose’s heart.– Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories
Summary and Thoughts
In the title story of this timely and innovative collection, a young woman wearing a Prada coat attempts to redeem a coupon for plastic storage bins while her in-laws are at home watching the Chinese news and taking her private phone calls. It is the lively and wise juxtaposition of cultures, generations, and emotions that characterize May-lee Chai’s amazing stories. Within them, readers will find a complex blend of cultures spanning China, the Chinese diaspora in America, and finally, the world at large.
With luminous prose and sharp-eyed observations, Chai reveals her characters’ hopes and fears, and our own: a grieving historian seeking solace from an old lover in Beijing, a young girl discovering her immigrant mother’s infidelity, workers constructing a shopping mall in central China who make a shocking discovery. Families struggle with long-held grudges, reinvent traditions, and make mysterious visits to shadowy strangers from their past–all rendered with economy and beauty.
With hearts that break and sometimes mend, with families who fight and sometimes forgive, the timely stories in Useful Phrases for Immigrants illuminate complicated lives with empathy and passion. Chai’s stories are essential reading for an increasingly globalized world.
May-Lee Chai creates a immersive set of short stories, some more powerful than others in Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Her writing, though not particularly lyrical, reads with a direct, distant voice that’s also able to make room for beautiful similes, heart-warming reflections, and keen observations. Still, this collection didn’t seem to reach me, the subtle nature of the messages sometimes (but not always) lost. Some of my favorite stories include: “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” “The Lucky Day,” and “First Carvel in Beijing.”
Because this is a short collection, I would still recommend giving it a try, albeit my recommendation may come selectively depending on if the subject manner is interesting to prospective readers in the first place.
For Those Who Enjoyed
- Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang
- Hunger: A Novella and Stories by Lan Samantha Chang
- Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli