When 18-year-old Shelley Zheng moves from Gejiu, China, to San Francisco, he promises his father that he’ll become better acquainted with his American relatives, find a nice Chinese American wife, and make a lot of money. His father has arranged for him to stay at rich uncle Ted’s house; Shelley plans to learn English and become a poet.
Kathryn Ma’s mildly satirical novel, “The Chinese Groove,” follows Shelley’s journey in America, which begins inauspiciously when, after making the big move with no more than what his sparkly pink suitcase can carry, Shelley arrives in San Francisco to discover that not only is his uncle not wealthy, he’s not even his uncle, just a second cousin once removed. And the indefinite stay Shelley was planning on has a time limit.
Shelley himself hasn’t exactly been straightforward in his promises either. He has no desire for a new relationship, having already set his heart on Lisbet, an American student he met in China. And he’s never written a poem in his life, only promised Lisbet that he’d write poems for her someday. He expects things to work out despite his lack of clear direction, and his naïveté is endearing even as it renders him the victim of certain delusions, as when his Cousin Deng tells him that poets are rich and venerated as the “keepers of the famous American freedoms.”
The complexities of the extended Zheng family lay the groundwork for the plot of “The Chinese Groove” to unfold in many directions: Shelley is from a “much-despised branch” of the Zhengs, but none of his stateside relatives seem to acknowledge this, occupied as they are with their own dramas. Ted and his wife, Aviva, are dealing with grief after a family tragedy; Ted and his father are estranged because of the incident; the luxury department store that Shelley thought Ted’s family owned is really a convenience store that closed years ago.
Shelley, in a quest to make himself a new home with a chosen, if dysfunctional, family, tries to bring everyone back together. According to Aviva, Ted and his father kept “a barrier up between them as high as the walls” in her house. But by jumping at the chance to work as a caretaker for Ted’s father, Shelley gets the father-son duo to talk again.
Despite Shelley’s best efforts, however, the people in his life behave in comically terrible ways. Lisbet, for instance, does not care as much about Shelley as he does about her. During their relationship in China, she decides to leave the country, shrugging off Shelley in the process. Ted and Aviva are not the hospitable figures Shelley’s father expects them to be. Aviva originally wants to limit Shelley’s time in their house to one week, then kicks him out after exactly two weeks, despite the fact that they have an extra room.
While “The Chinese Groove” is satisfyingly Dickensian in its plot twists and intriguing characters — the book, with a mysterious benefactor at the root of Shelley’s journey toward upward mobility, is in fact a homage to “Great Expectations” — as an immigrant narrative it doesn’t always get beyond the usual clichés about language barriers and cultural differences. Aviva complains that she can’t understand Shelley’s English due to his accent; Shelley gets taken advantage of by everyone from his own family members to a group of Girl Scouts selling cookies in the parking lot due to his innocence.
At the same time, Shelley’s character feels inconsistent. He’s unaware that planes offer free soda on flights and has never seen a lesbian or interracial couple before, yet he has somehow internalized the nuances of the American understanding of race. For example, he knows that failing to specify one character’s race will cause readers to assume that she is white.
Another puzzle of the book is the eponymous “Chinese groove,” a concept Shelley references constantly, but without clear definition: Does it mean loyalty to family, as when Ted helps Shelley out financially, against Aviva’s wishes? Or allowing people to save face in an embarrassing situation? The phrase’s frequent and conflated usage is distracting in the midst of an otherwise thoughtfully crafted bildungsroman full of twists and turns.
Still, Shelley grows on readers as he navigates complicated social dynamics where nothing is as simple as it seems. Readers will root for him as he finds his own version of the American Dream — even if it looks different than expected.
THE CHINESE GROOVE
By Kathryn Ma
Counterpoint, 304 pp., $27
Serena Puang is a freelance writer based in New Haven. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaPuang.