Immigration Is Hard. This Novel Turns the Struggle Into a Comedy of Errors.


You need optimism to become an immigrant in America. Frankly, you need a lot of other things too: money, luck, employment, maybe a family connection. The protagonist in Kathryn Ma’s latest novel, “The Chinese Groove,” however, has only a few of these essentials when he leaves China and lands at his distant cousin Ted’s doorstep in San Francisco at just 18. Zheng Xue Li, or Shelley as he becomes known in the United States, has no plan, no cash and no place to stay after his two weeks at his cousin’s are up. But you’ve got to give him this: He believes in his own American dream, that anyone can get lucky if they just work hard enough.

Shelley arrives stateside with three goals in mind. “First, I’d like to get better acquainted with our American relatives. Second, I’ll find a pretty Chinese American wife. And, third, of course, I’m going to make a lot of money.”Back in Yunnan Province, Shelley has left his father, who worked hard to finance his son’s emigration and is still grieving the death of Shelley’s mother. At home, the aunties had so much to say about cousin Ted. Ted, a Chinese American, is married to a Jewish woman and works as an unremarkable ghostwriter — a far cry from what the stories the aunties told Shelley about Ted running a glamorous and highly profitable department store. Shelley arrives in the States believing the aunties’ tall tales about his cousin’s wealth and status, and he’s only briefly disappointed when he uncovers the truth. The groove, he believes, is still there no matter what.

The “Chinese groove” referred to so often in the novel is, of course, the generosity and connection that always exist among fellow countrymen. I know it well, and I’m sure most ethnic minorities do too; we all have our own “grooves” to follow. When I was a kid, we’d routinely host dinners for incoming Kashmiris who looked our name up in the phone book and asked to come by for a meal and a little advice. My parents always acquiesced — after all, they too live in their own groove. You take care of your own.

Throughout “The Chinese Groove,” Shelley finds the groove in unexpected places. Initially, Ted gives him very little; he’s stiff and uncomfortable with this new relative he barely knows. Some of Shelley’s friends back home disappoint him too, taking advantage of his unworldliness, his bottomless belief in the groove. But Shelley is an optimist, and that optimism pays off. He finds housing. He finds food. He finds work. Others who believe in the Chinese groove feel compelled to help him. Ted, hardened by his own tragedy, slowly brings Shelley into his fold, along with his father, his wife and their friends. Together, they create a new kind of Chinese groove, one less tied by citizenry and more by community involvement.

Immigrant novels are so frequently tales of devastating woe, but Ma’s iteration of the young migrant story is imbued with inherent optimism. Shelley’s buoyancy is frustratingly naïve, and often completely foolish if you have any understanding of how brutal living in America actually is, but you root for Shelley in part because Shelley is rooting for Shelley. Ma finds wry humor in Shelley getting to know the mores of his new country (Ted biking to work seemed to be particularly surprising to him), but his belief in his own success is unwavering. He believes he can have whatever he wants, and in spending time with him back home in China or as he sleeps outside in San Francisco, you believe he can have it all too. By the end, he does indeed come out on top, even if it’s in ways neither he nor the reader could have predicted.

Immigrants and their offspring know this story well; it’s bred in you from birth that you help your own. How else could anyone be so lucky as to make it, anywhere in the world, without such a bond?

Scaachi Koul’s second book, “I Hope Lightning Falls on You,” will be published next year.

THE CHINESE GROOVE | By Kathryn Ma | 296 pp. | Counterpoint | $27

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