Useful Phrases for Immigrants is a collection of short stories that, unlike what the title implies, offers insight into experiences beyond just those of the typical Asian-American immigrant. The stories present a beautiful survey across cultures, generations, social classes and emotions. Unlike other collections of anecdotes meant to teach life lessons and leave the reader feeling fulfilled, these stories focus on the often-overlooked and unspoken struggles of everyday life.
In the opening story, Guili’s Coat, a first-generation mother worries that her family moved to America too late to be successful. Her struggles are almost perfectly encapsulated by the words “hopeless hope” which, ironically, is missing from the book she purchased upon moving to America titled Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Still, Chai manages to squeeze in heartwarming feelings of resilience that highlight the unwavering love between a mother and her daughter.
In the following story, Fish Boy, we see the struggles of a young boy who moves from the Chinese country side to the city. In this way, Chai illustrates the difficulty in assimilating to a new lifestyle while mixing in the joys of youth and coming of age. Although less apparent, the bond between family and theme of sacrifice for the sake of the next generation still appears in this story.
All the stories in this collection compare and contrast everyday experiences that somehow manage to feel both familiar and unfamiliar. In some ways, it seems Chai caters to the lived-experiences of both Western and non-Western audiences through the different characters and lives she writes into these stories. May-Lee Chai skillfully uses this juxtaposition of experiences to not only display the apparent similarities, but also the gaps between cultures, places, and generations. Even more apparent is the theme of communication, or more so the theme of failed communication between families and generations. The emotions brought about through misunderstandings between Chai’s characters are relatable for both the Asian and non-Asian reader. Yet, through the many lows and the occasional victory within each story, Chai still manages to subtly incorporate the overstated trope of “family over everything.”
With that said, the stories are still far from the typical, feel good short story with a happy ending tied into a life lesson. In fact, each story ends feeling unsatisfied with most issues illuminated still unresolved. The reader is left to assume that the lives will only continue as they were and things will simply continue to be. Like an uncooked meal, the stories have an aftertaste with no obvious message, ending, or lesson. Combine this with the constant change in perspective and setting between each story and the collection becomes an almost frustrating and confusing jumble of problems with no solutions. Still, this is also the greatest strength of the book and speaks to the beauty within each struggle. Chai is able to use these unique stories to paint a picture of life as an “immigrant” that feels both authentic and genuine. While the stories by themselves feel unsatisfying, the collection, as a whole, reads like a carefully curated exhibit meant to display the subtle beauty of life simply moving on despite the struggles and despair that one may encounter.