cover image Tomorrow in Shanghai

Tomorrow in Shanghai

May-lee Chai. Blair, $17.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-949467-86-4

Chai (Useful Phrases for Immigrants) showcases in her insightful collection protagonists attempting to figure out their roles in their families and careers. In the gritty and poignant title story, a young Shanghai doctor uneasily travels to the Chinese countryside to extract organs after a prisoner’s execution—“not an ideal job,” he admits, but he’s deep in debt. The doctor gives the condemned man a sedative to avoid a second shot from the firing squad, but refrains from watching the execution, and instead reflects on his lost youth and turns up his nose at the uncouth rural guards. In “Life on Mars,” set in the late 1990s, teenager Guo Yu describes his new life in Denver in alien terms after relocating from China (“It was both exactly like and nothing like the America of the movies he’d seen,” Yu narrates, struck by the “jade-colored” cornfields). Yu toils at a restaurant job over the summer, though a tutoring gig for the cook’s son offers a glimmer of hope. “Hong’s Mother” follows a white woman married to a Chinese man who neglects to defend the couple’s children from racism in their small Midwestern town. At 19, their daughter, Hong, is dismayed her mother is going to visit her in France while she’s studying abroad, but goes to extreme lengths to ensure her mother has a good trip, feeling yet again she doesn’t measure up. Throughout, Chai commits brilliantly to the characters’ competing drives for self-determination and approval, and conveys them with perfect subtlety. This slim but wide-ranging work is a great achievement. (Aug.)