May-Lee Chai's Useful Phrases for Immigrantsby Yvonne C. Garrett
Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories
The eight stories in this collection feature varied characters in different states of diaspora each with their own powerful voice. Set in both China and the United States, not all of Chai's characters are immigrants, but each suffers from different kinds of displacement. With a vision that is both sharp and compassionate, Chai allows us to see just what it is to be “different” in a world that embraces conformity. In the opening and title piece, a young married Chinese woman, Guili, struggles against despair, frustration, and anger. She spends her days currying favor with intolerable old women from Family Associations and her “passive aggressive” mother-in-law as she struggles to understand that life is never what it is in the movies and on television. She memorizes phrases from a guide for immigrants to use in different situations, such as “I would like to speak to the manager,” or “I'll take a rain check!” and takes advice from magazines she reads in line at the grocery store such as “disarming the enemy with a compliment could be a good way of getting what one wanted.” Her home life is intolerable with a constantly complaining mother-in-law, a quiet or absent husband, a disconnected child, and the constant worry that she and her husband have missed their chance to be successful in business. Their university degrees useless, their experience unimportant in the U.S., Giuli and her husband struggle to survive. Chai writes Giuli's loneliness, her barely suppressed anger with her mother-in-law, and her fear in this new country so well that we cheer for her when she finally acts and seemingly gets the last word against her mother-in-law.
In “Fish Boy," the narrative switches to China. A young boy and his grandfather have left rural poverty to become migrant workers in the city in order to pay lawyer's fees for his father who is in prison. The boy, Xiao Yu, learns quickly to become the “fish boy” at a restaurant, working in disgusting and brutal conditions for long hours only to collapse at the end of each night's work in a prison-like dormitory. The fish are kept in tanks so full they can barely move, half-dead and covered in fungus, the metaphor clearly links to the migrant workers packed into airless locked dormitories in an overcrowded and smog-filled city. After a brutal beating by other boys, Xiao Yu metaphorsizes into a street tough himself—learning quickly to cut day school in favor of more lucrative pass-times while continuing to play the good boy to his grandfather. The loss that both suffer—of home, freedom, family, and future—is palpable.
In “Ghost Festivals,” Chai brings us back to the U.S., this time to San Francisco where a middle class Chinese-American family struggles to succeed, fit in, and preserve their cultural traditions. The narrator, Lu-ying—a young woman just coming to terms with her sexuality—tells the story of her Uncle Lincoln, who struggles to hold up the tradition of memorializing the dead while also trying to exist as a gay man in a homophobic culture. Chai is masterful here at interweaving American suburban life and Chinese-American specificities. Lu-ying obsesses over Pamela Sue Martin as Nancy Drew while her mother argues with her father about money and remodeling their suburban New Jersey home. While much of this reads as middle class melodrama told from the point of view of a young girl told in flashback, it has a different flavor, a different tone. This is a family struggling to maintain their own culture and traditions while also trying to fit in to the broader American culture. Uncle Lincoln is a maverick in his honest sexuality but also the traditionalist who keeps alive the “ghost festivals,” the memorials to the dead.
“The Body” is the longest piece in the collection and a significant piece of art reminiscent of Madison Smartt Bell's brilliant novella “The Year of Silence” . Just as in Bell's novella, the various narratives focus on the violent death of a young woman. In Chai's narrative, the naked body of a murdered young woman is discovered on a development site. While she is never given a voice, the various characters that interact with the image of her body give her a central presence that serves as a powerful metaphor. The first section is “The Crane Operator,” a man who feels lucky, comparing himself to the migrant workers— who are skinny and filthy—and clear the site's rubble by hand. They came too late to get jobs like his. His conversation with his co-worker is focused on air filters and smog, on wives and money. He muses on a time before the daily smog, when spring was a time of clearing air. The section ends with the discovery of a body and the crane operator's first thought is that his good luck may have changed. “The Reporter” focuses on Li Ming, assigned to cover the story of the body. Through Li Ming's eyes we see the young woman's body and her erasure because, "the cops didn't consider the case politically sensitive. Or even that important." Because she is beautiful, the young dead woman is ogled by the policemen but because she is naked, it's assumed she is a prostitute. Li Ming strives to be objective but there is no compassion here, instead Li Ming is happy to have found a tattoo on the young woman's body because this could make the story a sensation and thereby make Li Ming's career. In “The Itinerant Priest,” Mo Xugui decides to make money off the discovery of the young woman's body by making the site foreman pay him to perform a full Daoist ceremony to rid the site of the girl's ghost. In “The Migrant Worker” Chai gives us the chilling narrative of a poor boy lost in the city. Teenage Xiao Jun no longer dreams of his village and its beauty and starvation but instead “dreamed the sleep of the dead.” The work he does is brutal and dangerous, and when the body of the girl is discovered at his work site he feels strangely protective of her, feeling a link with this dead country girl murdered in the city that is also killing him. And while he is not one of the men tasked with removing her body, he begins to see her ghost every night. As he stares into the darkness, he sees her—naked and shimmering, her mouth moving as if to speak. Finally he embraces her and finds release from his pain. In the final piece, “The Developer,” Zhang Xueke shuts down the site, hires Buddhist monks to replace the Daoist and fires any workers who make “noise” about the ghost. For Zhang Xueke, the only way to survive is to succeed and barbarity is central to his vision of success.
After the immersive nature of “The Body,” the next story in the collection, “Canada,” is an abrupt shift back to middle-class America and the voice of a young Chinese-American girl. She is embarrassed and appalled by her (Canadian-Chinese) mother's attitude about the school's requirement that she wear a training bra. This is a well-wrought story about a young girl's awakening into insecurities about her own body and the realization that her parents' lives are more complex that she imagined. “The Lucky Day” is also set in a Chinese-American family with a dutiful son, his awful wife, his mother dying of Cancer, and his sister, Rose. Rose is suffering her own pain but helps her mother realize a final wish.
In “The First Carvel in Beijing,” the Chinese-American narrator is visiting her white ex-girlfriend Luce in Beijing. Knowing that Luce wants to take her somewhere “local,” the narrator instead opts for the first Carvel ice cream shop in Beijing. For the narrator this is both a test of her power over her ex and a connection to a memory of her dead brother Jeremy. It is a tragic and ugly story. The narrator blames herself for her brother's death and as some sort of self-punishment, has sex with Luce, and sneaks out of her apartment when Luce's girlfriend comes home unexpectedly. While the story could easily sink into melodrama, Chai's deft hand presents instead a portrait of loss, love, and grief all centered around a memory of the taste of blue whale Carvel icing.
“Shouting Means I Love You” is the final story in the collection and takes place in Chinese-American San Francisco. A daughter is taking her father to visit his honored friend, a “General.” The visit is tense, full of father-daughter suppressed anger, and the open bitterness of the General's wife. The formal politeness of the visit deftly illustrates the need for the older generation to hold onto cultural niceties—no matter how ridiculous they may seem. Despite their arguing, the love between the father and daughter is palpable and as well wrought as any of the relationships in this collection.
Chai is a masterful writer and this collection presents a deeply moving portrait of the varieties of Chinese diasporic experience.
ContributorYvonne C. Garrett
YVONNE C. GARRETT holds an MLIS (Palmer), an MFA (The New School), two MAs (NYU), and is currently working on a PhD in History & Culture at Drew University where her dissertation focuses on women & gender identity in 1980s American punk rock. She is Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press.