The characters in Useful Phrases for Immigrants, a new story collection from American writer May-lee Chai, are in motion. Maybe they're moving from urban China to rural China in search of better-paying work. Maybe they've moved from China to the United States for similar reasons. Or maybe they've already made it to America and are now moving from house to house or state to state. Whatever their situation, they're all moving between cultures and ways of life, forging along the way new ways of being Chinese, American, or both.
What makes the best of these stories so welcome is Chai’s light touch. Human migration is one of those grand, undeniably important themes that our storytellers tackle again and again, for quite understandable reasons. But migration’s very grandness – and, in our day and age, its centrality to global politics – can, in art, easily let it overpower the human scale at which life unfolds. This is particularly deadly for short stories, where a certain nimbleness is vital. Thankfully, Chai doesn’t give us op-eds decorated with human fixtures. Instead, we get human lives in which migration is one shaping force jostling alongside many others, including puberty, sexuality, disease, and old age.
Three of the collection’s eight stories are set entirely in China, and one of these three – “Fish Boy” – is among the best. The main character is a young boy who has moved from the country to the city of Zhengzhou to work in a restaurant and earn money that will let his imprisoned father hire a lawyer. (What his father has done to end up in prison is not specified.) The work – gutting and scaling fish – is filthy, the dormitory where he lives is “dark, snore-filled,” and “old-man-smell-filled,” and on his first day, tough city kids beat him up.
The story appears at first to be an archetypal nightmare of forced urbanisation and its exploited discontents. But it ends on an unexpected note of celebration. And I don’t mean “a flicker of consoling light in the darkness” celebration. This is something bigger and fuller, with a giddy forward momentum. Instead of spoiling things by saying how Chai gets there, I’ll just say it’s a truly impressive example of narrative control.
In each of the US stories, North American-born children of Chinese immigrants struggle with their sense of disconnect from their parents’ assumptions and expectations: who should take care of who (and how), how much money should be earned, where everyone should live, which traditions should be kept and which should be discarded.
This is by now extremely familiar territory, but Chai mostly avoids stale endings or rote sentimentality. She lets her characters be sweet, kind, insightful, resentful, mean and hypocritical (which is to say: she lets them be human). She lets them promise one thing and do another. There’s nothing reactionary about this: she never creates “bad” Chinese-Americans just to prove that such people can exist. There’s subtlety afoot, and you have to pay attention to make sure you don’t miss it.
For example: "Ghost Festivals," the finest story in the collection, builds to an ending in which a second-generation Chinese-American swears to her uncle that she will carry on traditional Chinese remembrances of her mother, who has just died. It's a sweet moment. Almost too sweet, actually. But then something in the narrative air sends your mind back to the very beginning of the story, and what you find – which was, of course, there all along – casts all that follows in a different light. That end moment is still sweet, but now it's also shot through with other notes besides sweetness, and has more of the ache of reality.
Many of today’s most lauded English-language short story writers (Ottessa Moshfegh comes to mind most readily) distinguish themselves more through their prose style rather than through their plotting. Each sentence and paragraph feels somehow charged from within by the author’s aesthetic sensibility and world view (or the main character’s world view – it can be hard to pull the two apart). Readers anticipating this type of experience might have a hard time finding their way into Chai’s prose, which might best be described as restrained.
But this isn’t a criticism. I like prose that crackles and bristles, but it also matters where that prose takes you. It wouldn’t be possible to identify such a thing as a “distinctly May-lee Chai sentence.” But this doesn’t matter when the sentences add up to such distinctly May-lee Chai stories.