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Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  361 ratings  ·  61 reviews
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 May-lee Chai's amazing stories. Withi ...more
Paperback, 166 pages
Published October 23rd 2018 by Blair (first published October 18th 2018)
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Average rating 3.80  · 
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 ·  361 ratings  ·  61 reviews

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Charlie Anders
This is such a powerful book of stories about displacement and families and changing values. I tore through most of this book on an airplane ride after picking it up at a book conference, and it really stuck with me. Probably the best story is the award-winning "Fish Boy," about a boy who comes from the countryside to the big city in China and goes to work at a restaurant where they serve some not-too-appetizing-sounding fish to clients. The whole thing reminds a little bit of some of Lao She's ...more
Neville Longbottom
Jan 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
4.5 - This was a lovely collection of short stories focused around Chinese and Chinese-American characters. Themes of family, displacement, and feelings of not belonging permeate most of the stories.

This was very balanced in terms of quality. Many times when I read short stories there will be one or two that stand out as being the worst or lesser than the rest, but that didn’t happen here. “Ghost Festivals,” “Canada,” & “First Carvel in Beijing” were my personal favorites but I don’t have a
Jenny Shank
Nov 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Dallas Morning News, November 23, 2018

Chai, the accomplished author of 10 books and a regular Dallas Morning News contributor, plunges the reader into complex relationships in this Bakin Award-winning collection.

In the title story, Guili, a Chinese immigrant turned California entrepreneur, must downsize when her family's business falters. "Guili had not expected it to be so difficult to run a business in an American recession," Chai writes. "Why didn't people in movies co
Nov 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Having read Chai's previous novels, TIGER GIRL and DRAGON CHICA, and her memoir HAPA, I was very excited about this collection. Chai's characters work their way through complicated family dynamics and cultural differences. Although there are only eight stories, each one packs a punch. With all of the current talk about immigrants, it may be timely, but you should have been reading Chai's work all along!
Alexandra Ye
Many of these stories seem to end just at the point where you think another, bigger story would begin.
The stories quietly and plainly introduce the reader to a character, make clear the implications of the character's circumstances, and then end, leaving the reader to imagine the wider possibilities of the story--which feels incomplete and unsatisfying, but also says something interesting about the characters and situations we often don't see in short stories, or fiction, or books overall.
Dec 31, 2018 rated it liked it
The stories weren’t bad. I’m sure they had some deeper meanings than an English teacher worth her weight in classics could spend hours tearing apart. But feeble minded me found them underwhelming. Sometimes downright boring.
Abbey (The Open Bookshelf)
Oct 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is an easy book to dip in and out of, each story is as powerful as the last but they don't leave you feeling obligated to continue. In today's age of multidirectional migration, it's an absolutely necessary read.
May 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Lovely, engaging short stories, some take place in China, some in the US. Some involve mixed Chinese and American families. A gentle sense of humor in many of the stories, others are a bit melancholy in a sweet way. I just picked this up randomly at my library’s new fiction shelf, a lucky find!
Asian-American writer May-Lee Chai is a gifted storyteller. The 8 stories in this collection are beautifully crafted with their tender tellings of the human condition crossing generations, lifestyles and countries. The characters were believable, strong, convicted and lasting. Their voices truly carried each scenario of the page. Loved Chai’s writing; she feels passionately and her inspiration for life shows in her words. Brilliant.
Shayna Ross
Dec 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: world-fiction
A collection of short stories that mostly take place in China (and America) about family, displacement, and immigration over the course of time, Chai writes a beautiful series of emotional tales about a wide range of individuals. In the title story, we have a Chinese entrepreneur in California dealing with the stress of her in-laws while managing difficult finances and situations that are not revealed in American cinema. As for "Fish Boy," we watch as a country boy quickly learns how to become a ...more
Sachi Argabright
Oct 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
This slim short story collection features 8 immigration stories centered around Chinese families. Each story explores the hopes and dreams, hard work and dedication, and complex family dynamics of these immigrants in a short amount of pages.

I’m usually not big on short story collections, but I enjoyed reading this one! While some of the endings felt a little sudden or incomplete, there were subtle hints throughout the book that suggested many of the stories were actually linked toget
Cherise wellreadhuman
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I received a free copy of this book from Blair Publisher.

What can I say... I loved this collection of short stories. Told from the perspective of a range of Chinese immigrants and migrants, Chai covers extremely heavy and sad subjects and emotions that show the pressure and sacrifice and “hopeless hope or suspended despair or temporary consolation amidst unknowingness” that often come hand in hand with the immigrant experience. Despite the heaviness, though, there are many moments of joy. Every
Dec 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: as-am-lit
This book is a rare gem: fiction about Chinese people and Chinese-Americans that feels grounded in contemporary culture and society. Although a few of the stories didn't feel quite complete, raising questions that were never satisfyingly addressed, the title story, "Ghost Festivals", and "Canada" were standouts. A quick, enjoyable read.
Jan 06, 2019 rated it liked it
Useful Phrases for Immigrants is a solid set of short stories. The ones I enjoyed most were "Fish Boy" and "Ghost Festivals," and "First Carvel in Beijing" was also quite strong. "Fish Boy" is tautly written and provides precisely the right amount of detail in each scene, and the eponymous fish boy Xiao Lu has the most distinct narrative voice in the collection—I understand why it won the Jack Dyker prize.

A big weakness of the collection is that Chai uses very similar protagonists and family dynamics acr
Carla Sofia Sofia
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I want to sing this book's praises from every mountaintop and place a copy in every English teacher's mailbox. Chai writes with such grace and tenderness. Her stories cut to the quick of suffering, ambivalence, searching for self, and messy family ties. I had the joy of teaching the titular short story to a class of English language learners and it felt so good to see their identities receive some thoughtful representation on the page. My favorites of the collection actually arrive right at the ...more
Darlene Laguna
Jan 07, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5. Well written, intriguing pieces, but for whatever reason they felt somewhat emotionless to me.
Chang Garcia
Jan 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Great collection of stories.
Helen Marquis
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An excellent collection of short stories set in the Chinese diaspora. Chai's characters are richly drawn and in many cases beautifully flawed. A hugely recommended read.
Dec 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Enjoyable would read for lee-Chai again
Nov 12, 2018 rated it liked it
This was a fine collection of short stories about Chinese immigrants - some taking place in the US and some in China. A couple of the stories were strong, especially Fish Boy, the story of a 13 year old boy to moves to the big city with his grandfather and what he learns. Others were interesting but didn't really stand out.

The reoccurring theme for me was the tension between parents and children, especially girls and their mothers. There were multiple examples where the daughter felt
Sep 25, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: first-reads
I received Useful Phrases for Immigrants for free through Goodreads' Giveaways program. This collection of short stories by May-lee Chai was well written, but ultimately unsatisfying to me. Most of the stories were a bit bland and not especially interesting. They wasn't any "spark" to the stories at all and they felt almost too finely tuned.

I saw that the book got a lot of praise, and I can see that the writing is good. But there is something lacking in the stories in my opinion.
Nov 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very good stories about what it means to be part of the Asian diaspora.
Aug 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Told with humor, empathy, and with special attention to the dynamics of Chinese-American families. Really enjoyed. Especially loved how the stories existed in the same universe—characters were unrelated but all shared habits, preferences. Made the collection flow really well.
Aug 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Great collection of stories that are incredibly relatable detailing complex family relationships, coming of age, and finding self. I love the writing style and voice of this collection.
Lanie Tankard
Nov 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Here's my review in The Woven Tale Press:

Nov 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 4-star
I really liked the initial stories, but the last two were just really strange.
Oct 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I Really enjoyed this book.
Jun 04, 2019 rated it did not like it
This book is really hard to get into. I don't think Chai is a very good or effective writer.

More importantly, I went to a recent book reading of hers, and she was repeatedly rude to me - though I'm far more knowledgeable and passionate about Asian American issues than she is.

That just left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. I do get plenty of discrimination and stereotypes from other Asian Americans, too - especially if they pride themselves in being artsy, creative, white, affluent, or bett
Ellyn Lem
Jan 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It is been a while that I read a collection of short stories that I appreciated this much. These are gems. Very different topics, linked mostly by a background theme of characters' Chinese ancestry. They also explore different generations' relationship to one another and how they bridge the distance of understanding. I would have a hard time selecting one or two that shine more than the rest, but I would say "Fish Boy" about a young boy from the country trying to "make it" in the city working fo ...more
Feb 13, 2019 rated it liked it
These stories takes place in China with Chinese characters, in China with Chinese-American characters, in the US with Chinese characters, in the US with Chinese-American characters, and every other which way you can combine China and the US and all their people. For this reason, it makes an incredibly varied and unusual collection. The common theme is, in fact, not really one; instead, there is a feeling that some experiences are universal, while others are indeed rooted in our individual experi ...more
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“My parents' silences about many things alarmed me. They made me aware of invisible lines that I couldn't see that they drew between themselves and the rest of the world. I never knew when that line might be drawn to exclude me.” 2 likes
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