Immigrant Linguistics: A Conversation with May-lee Chai

Q&A with May-lee Chai on her short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants
April 8, 2020

Author May-lee Chai’s latest book, a collection of short stories entitled Useful Phrases for Immigrants, won the American Book Award in 2019 and the Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman in 2018. Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage and judge of the Bakwin Award commented, “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.” Blair, a nonprofit press based in Durham, North Carolina, is dedicated to printing and distributing work from underrepresented voices and published the collection, which garnered rave reviews from the Washington Post, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Elle, The Millions, Electric Literature and Bustle, among others.

Timothy Tau recently discussed Useful Phrases for Immigrants with May-lee Chai, who articulated her motivation for writing certain stories; her research process for several pieces; and her influences with regard to the short story form.

Timothy Tau: Congrats on winning the American Book Award in 2019 and the 2018 Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman! How long did it take to compile all the stories to make up the collection? Were you planning on collecting certain stories you wrote into a collection or did a collection manifest itself somehow after you had published several of these stories in journals?

May-lee Chai: I was not, in fact, planning on putting together a collection! I was just happily working on short stories from time to time because I happen to like the form. Then the 2016 primary really alarmed me! I was horrified by a certain New York real estate developer's use of blatant hate speech and anti-immigrant language on the campaign trail, and I was shocked when the mainstream media would just repeat and replay his ugly hateful talk over and over and over again.

I never imagined that Trump would win but I thought that Pandora's box had been opened. Once the media had normalized the anti-immigrant hate speech, I figured these ideas would be normalized and internalized. And the rest of us would have to live with the blowback. (We are seeing this right now with all the anti-Asian violence because of Trump constantly associating the coronavirus with China.)

I remember in the 1980s when this happened with the rise of the Japanese car industry and the media would print irresponsible articles or columns or op-eds. I remember one columnist in the Midwest saying Japan was waging an "economic Pearl Harbor" on the United States because of their success selling Japanese cars in the United States. I remember the violence my own family faced in the Midwest during this period: we were constantly called slurs, white men shot at our house, five of our dogs were killed, my brother was physically attacked on school property, I was sexually harassed, on and on it went. I remember how Vincent Chin was ultimately murdered by two Detroit autoworkers who blamed Japan for job losses and took their rage out on him.

So I knew I had to act. Beyond being a good citizen and trying to get the vote out and voting myself, I thought about how I could use the one skill I have for good, and so I put together this collection. I just looked at every story I'd been working on and tried to revise and get them ready to put together. I wanted to use my stories to critique this notion that immigrants in general, Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans in particular, are somehow inherently threatening. I wanted to stand up for my community and show that migration and immigration are completely normal human activities, very common, and not deserving of this fearmongering and dehumanizing hate speech!

TT: The title story (nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize) involves a Chinese immigrant named Guili who struggles with learning a language in a foreign land, relying instead on phrases she picks up from books such as "rain check." There is also a profound line near the end of the story where she struggles to find an English word or phrase that describes the complex emotional malaise of being an immigrant in a new country. Did anything inspire this story? What made you decide to use this interesting reflection on language and how certain inexplicable emotions or feelings become lost in translation as the core theme of the story, and dare I say, entire collection (e.g., also choosing it as the title story instead of others)?

MC: I love these kinds of language books. Now there are more podcasts and videos and online forums for this type of language learning, but I remember buying books like this in Chinese language bookstores on Clement Street in San Francisco back in the day! My father has one from the 1950s when he first came to the United States. And I was required to use this kind of book when I was an English teacher in China in the 1990s. 

These phrase books are so optimistic! I love how they promise that you can learn all the slang you'll need from them or all the useful phrases to succeed in America. And of course, they're terribly inadequate. But I wanted to pay homage to that spirit of optimism that drives most immigrants, even in the face of many unexpected calamities, as Guili's story depicts.

TT: I found "Fish Boy" to be a particularly poignant piece (winner of the Jack Dyer Prize in Fiction from the Crab Orchard Review) but was perhaps most impressed by its detailed rendering of setting and locale; it is as if we are really walking down the bustling streets and back alleys of Zhengzhou, or in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in China, just very stark, visceral and sensory (particularly olfactory and visual) details. Did you do any research in actually visiting Zhengzhou or similar cities in China to write this piece? I would also pose the same questions for "The Body" and "First Carvel in Beijing" which are also set in cities within China. I thought the specific events in "The Body" were memorable due to the extreme circumstances of a woman's body being found underneath a construction site. Was this based on a true news story or invented? For "First Carvel in Beijing" I definitely picked up on the increasing Western influence in China, as in the country becoming even more of a capitalist society than the United States in many regards nowadays — are those points consistent with your observations of the society/culture there?

MC: I have been traveling back and forth to China since 1985. I first visited China when I was 18 with my father. It was his first trip back since his family fled the Communist victory in 1949. I feel I have observed so many changes, so I did intentionally want to show some of these changes in the various stories. Too often the news media and pundits choose to depict China as a monolith. But of course China is incredibly diverse and always in a state of change. I wanted to reflect some of those changes in these stories.

As for "The Body," in fact this story was inspired by a news article that I read in one of the official Chinese newspapers from about 10 or so years ago. I'd clipped it because it was so brief but intriguing — about a human trafficking ring that was uncovered after a dead woman's body was found. The traffickers were kidnapping migrant workers then shipping them to distant locations to work. I took the story in a different direction, however, because I was struck by a sense of justice denied. I wanted the ghost of the dead woman to haunt this shopping mall because I felt she represented the workers who end up giving their bodies for the profits made by others more powerful than themselves. And my inspiration for the love story was Tang Xianzu's "Peony Pavilion," the classic Chinese 16th century play about a man who falls in love with a ghost.

TT: That’s fascinating. I found the stories "Ghost Festivals", "Lucky Day" and "Shouting Means I Love You" particularly hard-hitting in how they grapple with family issues. Uncle Lincoln is such an unforgettable character, as is the Mother in "Lucky Day," and the Father (as well as the high deference he gives The General, including the "check ritual" that I am sure is recognizable by Chinese and Chinese American readers), yet they all seem so familiar and universal, perhaps more so to Asian American audiences. In "Shouting", the Father/family is noted as being from Taiwan as well — does that parallel your own family/cultural background, or do you also/primarily have family or cultural roots from the Mainland? Which leads me to another question: as a writer, how much do you draw upon your own life experiences or people you know personally in creating material and how much is imagined? Do you think there is a fine line between those two sources and where do you draw that line as an artist?

MC: I'm so happy to hear that you like the Chinese American and Taiwanese American Diasporic stories! 

My father's family is originally from Mainland China. They were from Nanjing and had to flee inland when the Japanese Army invaded the city in 1937. Then they left China for Taiwan in 1949 after the Civil War.

So I did draw on some of my personal family experiences in putting together these stories. However, these stories are very much fiction. I also write memoir so readers can read the actual family stories if they want (as in The Girl From Purple Mountain, which I co-wrote with my father about how his mother saved the family in China during World War II but then fell into a kind of despair after immigrating to the United States, and my memoir, Hapa Girl, about how our family was attacked when I was growing up in South Dakota in the 1980s because racists there didn't like seeing a Chinese man married to a white woman).

TT: “Canada” was also a particularly poignant story in that it was an immersive coming-of-age story involving the teenage narrator going through the obstacles of adolescence: picking out a training bra, dealing with an immature younger brother and trying to find inspiration in pop-cultural talismans at the time such as Nancy Drew and Star Wars. (I truly enjoyed how this piece was replete with these great pop-cultural details.) However, what stood out to me most was the title, which I believe is a reference to the narrator's line stating that her mother did not grow up in America but in Canada, and thus she does not understand her particular situation in life. Do you feel that your upbringing in America (and maybe also the collective upbringing of the Chinese/Chinese American diaspora in the United States) has uniquely shaped who you are, and was that also one of the main themes you were trying to express with this piece?

MC: You have a sharp eye, Tim! That line is indeed the basis for the title, "Canada." I wanted to highlight a mother-daughter conflict. These conflicts can often be blamed (in popular culture especially) on a sense of cultural conflict if the mother and daughter grew up in different countries, which is common enough in immigrant families.

However, I chose Canada as the country where the mother immigrated from because I think people in American popular culture rarely think of Canada as being culturally different, right? I mean, if the mother was from China and the daughter had been born and reared in the United States, then there'd be this kind of automatic response to blame any conflicts on that fact, as if China is inherently more exotic and different than, say, another country. But I wanted to complicate that notion!

I think there will always be conflicts between generations and I don't think it matters that much where the mother and daughter are born.

TT: Were there any authors, literary styles or other short story collections that influenced the stories for Useful Phrases? Do you actually prefer writing short stories or novels? What do you like/dislike about each form and which form do you feel fits your sensibilities as a writer and artist better?

MC: There are too many authors I could name! I would be listing them forever. I love reading and learn from every author whose work I've read. But if you really want me to name a few, I'd say Gish Jen, Yiyun Li, Ha Jin and David Wong Louie are truly masters of the form. And there's a 1930s-era writer whose stories I read in grad school and whom I really love: Shi Zhecun. I admire the short stories of Yuan Chiung-chiung from Taiwan. And this semester I've been reading a lot of stories by Carmen Maria Machado, Charles Yu, Ken Liu, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Edward P. Jones. Deeply inspiring!

I love both short stories and novels as forms. They accomplish different things aesthetically and thematically. I use short stories to experiment more, with form, with voices, with ideas. Novels take longer to write, at least for me, so I can't try as many things when writing a novel. I find I have to commit to one main idea with a novel; whereas in a short story collection, there are just more opportunities to play!

TT: What is the next book or project you are working on, to the extent that you want to or are allowed to disclose?

MC: I'm working on a collection of essays and a novel. And that's all I can say at this point!


Timothy Tau

Timothy Tau

Timothy Tau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker and was recently named by PolicyMic magazine as "6 Young Asian-American Filmmakers Who Are Shattering America's Asian Film Bias." His short story "The Understudy" won Grand Prize in the 2011 Hyphen Asian American Writer's Workshop Short Story Contest and is published in the 2011 Issue of Hyphen Magazine as well as online. His short story, "Land of Origin" also won 2nd Prize in the 2010 Playboy College Fiction Contest (See October 2010 Issue of Playboy Magazine). Both stories are being developed into feature film projects.