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Review: Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-Lee Chai

Author May-Lee Chai’s charming collection “Useful Phrases for Immigrants” centers around the lives of Chinese immigrants to the United States and migrants in China as they navigate a series of new experiences – from the seemingly mundane, such as purchasing a first training bra, to the more complex. Written in an accessible style and filled with poignant moments and memorable characters, Chai’s collection is a marvelous account of small, shifting moments of consciousness.

In “Fish Boy” a young man from the country, Xiao Yu, works gutting fish at an upscale restaurant in Zhengzhou and discovers that his formal education won’t help him navigate the gangs the populate the back alleys behind the restaurant. In “The Lucky Day” the narrator, Rose, drives all night from Colorado to Iowa to visit her dying mother, who simply wants a shower and to go bet her life’s savings at Prairie Meadows. In the title story Guili and her husband moved to California from China for a better life, only to discover their timing was off. “Chinese who’d come earlier, bought real estate when it was cheaper, started mindless businesses, and made a fortune….she felt she’d arrived at the state only to find the train departed five minutes early, leaving her stranded on the border of her dreams, unable to make the cross.”

 “Useful Phrases for Immigrants” won the 2018 Bakwin Prize, beating out over 200 other entries to secure a publishing contract through Blair Press. It’s easy to see Chai’s talent in these eight stories, particularly in “Canada,” which details young Lu-lu’s trip with her mother to a department store for a training bra. Desperate to keep her purchase under wraps, Lu-lu stumbles upon a family secret her parent’s thought was well-hidden, and on her own must decide on a course of action.  

A thoughtful collection about the lasting implications of migration, “Useful Phases for Immigrants” is a thoughtful – and at times humorous – new work.