Useful Phrases for Immigrants

Useful Phrases for Immigrants


By May-lee Chai

“It’s as if the author is getting out of her own way, giving herself space to focus on the mechanics of one individual narrative at a time. Yet in each there’s a sense of many other narratives just off the page, the lives and back stories we aren’t seeing. Short stories are by definition brief, but they needn’t be small.”The New York Times

“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.”Washington Post

“May-lee Chai presents us with a splendid gem of a story collection . . . Complementing the vivid characters, the reader has the gift of language—'a wind so treacherous it had its own name,' 'summer days stretched taffy slow'....Chai's work is a grand event.” –Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Known World, All Aunt Hagar's Children, and Lost in the City.

“The eight stories in this collection contain multitudes. May-lee Chai interrogates heavy subjects with a light touch. She grants each character the gift of a gleaming voice, rendering them as shaped by circumstances, while also transcending them. Useful Phrases for Immigrants is more than merely ‘useful’; this is essential reading, and I'm honored to choose this book for the Bakwin Award." —Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta, judge of the 2018 Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman.

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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 Mai-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 is the author of ten books, including the memoir Hapa Girl, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book; the novel Tiger Girl, which won an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature; and her original translation from Chinese to English of the 1934 Autobiography of Ba Jin. Her award-winning short prose has been published widely, including in Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, Seventeen, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, ZYZZYVA, Dallas Morning News, Christian Science Monitor, and San Francisco Chronicle. The recipient of an NEA fellowship in prose, Chai is an assistant professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.