“Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories” by May-Lee Chai

May-lee Chai May-lee Chai

Before I read this wonderfully quirky book of stories, I had never given much thought to such things as trainer bras or lucky dry fruit, both of which feature in two of May-Lee Chai’s stories about Chinese immigrants and their reactions to their experiences in new countries.

The trainer bra is at the center of a story simply entitled “Canada”, and the lucky dry fruit appears in “The Lucky Day”, although it isn’t the main thrust of the story. Chai’s use of these simple and even mundane items is just one of many effective devices in this book, and part of her refreshingly oblique approach to the immigrant experience. These objects exude ordinariness, but at the same time the bra is perhaps more “western” than the lucky fruit; the former is familiar to a western reader, the latter to a Chinese reader. As both stories are set in the west, one may be seen as learning to cope with new customs and the other as retaining some of the old ones. The protagonist of “Canada” is coming of age in that country, whilst the protagonist of “The Lucky Day” is older, dying of cancer at home in her new country and wanting to place one last bet on the horses.


Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories, May-lee Chai Blair (November 2018)
Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories, May-lee Chai (Blair, November 2018)

Chai (who writes in English and is herself the daughter of the distinguished scholar Winberg Chai and a professor at San Francisco State University), uses ordinary and familiar events in her stories, situations which one would expect to find in anyone’s lives. She alternates between the experiences of immigrants in their new countries (Canada and the United States) and those of migrant workers in China. There are generational stories (so typical in “immigrant-experience” literature), cultural clashes, growing up problems, lovers’ spats and family tragedies, none of which could be said to be unusual.

However, Chai takes these well-worn tropes and engages with them in new and interesting ways, interlacing the familiar with the unexpected, hence “quirky”; the reader wonders what to expect from the next story in line. In “The Body”, for example, a construction worker uncovers the dead body of a naked woman. Chai starts by giving us fairly routine details about the worker, his job and his background, but when the body is uncovered, he observes “He knew in an instant, less than a heartbeat, his luck could change.” Why should that be? Chai employs multiple points of view in this story: the crane operator, leads off, followed by a reporter, an “itinerant priest”, (who thinks the body, “an unfortunate death on a prosperous property” was “exactly what he needed”), the migrant worker (who identifies the body as a young woman and “imagined she was homeless, a poor migrant girl, someone like himself”) and finally the developer, worried about bad publicity, who moves his workers to a new dormitory and “hires a contingent of Buddhist monks to chant before the gates.” Each looks at the body in a different way, and for each one there are consequences, including appearances of the young woman’s ghost and the performance of an exorcism.

In “Fish Boy”, a young boy from the country goes to work in the city, clinging to ideals which he learned at home. These lead him to a desire to expose corruption at his workplace, but after an encounter with local bullies, Xiao Yu simply becomes just like them; he begins to shoplift, extort money from other boys and fight, thus discovering the new “reality” that he must now live in, and which he embraces, all the while keeping his well-intentioned grandfather in the dark about what sort of “work” he does. Again, a simple enough situation, but with a serious twist at the end. “Remember you’re as good as those spoiled city kids,” his grandfather tells him; “Better. You know how to work harder.” But he tells him at the end of the story


Xiao Yu knew he was as good as these city boys, better even, because he saw more clearly than they. They were fish in a bowl, only he had leapt into the sea.


He has actually chosen their lifestyle, while they’d never known anything else; that, according to his way of thinking, makes him “better” than the city boys.


In any “migrant” narrative, conflicting values are always front and foremost. This collection features city versus country life and mores, cultural differences between countries, generational disconnections, all of which can be physical, psychological, or both. When a person moves from one country to another, a combination of these conflicts invariably needs to be resolved, and the secret seems to be trying to negotiate something one can live with which does not completely destroy what used to be. The characters also often question the validity of tradition, and struggle with their identities within both the immediate family itself and the sometimes strange cultures in which they find themselves. As the generations move forward, it becomes increasingly difficult for older people to impress upon the younger people the traditions and beliefs which had informed their own lives and which still remain ingrained as part of their identity.

Indeed, as the disconnection between the grandfather’s values and those of Xiao Yu in “Fish Boy” indicate, the problems are not confined to those who immigrate to foreign parts; here the dichotomy is city versus country. However, those born in a foreign country or who were too young to know anything else are often puzzled by some of the things their elders believe in or do. Hence we get stories entitled “Ghost Festivals” or “The Lucky Day;” there are mentions of horoscopes (taken very seriously), and the narrator in “Ghost Festivals” confesses that she


couldn’t keep track of when Chinese New Year fell, much less the festivals for the dead. It wasn’t just the lunar calendar that threw me, but the fact that Chinese traditionally celebrated the dead more than the living.


And names are important, too: Chinese people are more likely to be called George, Lincoln, Maria, Vivian, Charlie, Rose and Sam than Mei or Xiao.


The world Chai depicts in this collection is both familiar and unfamiliar to Western readers, as in reality it would be to her characters, were they flesh-and-blood people. Her stories are well-crafted and the characters engaging.

In the eponymous title story, the focus is firmly on Guili as she negotiates for a storage facility, and then moves on to some of her family, who are painted with brief, deft strokes. Her mother-in-law is firmly anti-Japanese, for example; “I wouldn’t want anything those Japanese dwarves made,” she says about a Lexus car, which is made by Toyota and which, for her, stirs up memories of historical hatred. When asked why she calls the Japanese “dwarves”, she replies, “Because when those dwarves invaded our country…” but doesn’t finish the sentence. And the boy known as “Little Tiger,” the one who asked the question, wants to be grown up and assimilated; “Don’t call me Little Tiger any more,” he tells Guili, “It’s a baby name. I want to be Ted now.” He pointedly speaks those words in English. Guili’s husband Xiaobing “was everything his mother was not: forward-thinking, intelligent, kind.” Then there is Mrs Ma, who “had been in America forever, even if she’d never bothered to properly learn English, or even Mandarin; she still spoke the Cantonese dialect of her maiden village,” and Nai-nai (in “Canada”), who “still wore her Chinese-style dresses in America.

Chai does not need long explanations from an omniscient narrator to make her point.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.