In Kathryn Ma’s new novel, a young man from Yunnan who has given himself the name of Shelley—as in the poet—has developed a term to describe a “belief in the unspoken bonds between countrymen that transcend time and borders”. It gives its name to the book, The Chinese Groove, which starts out in a small city called Gejiu in Yunnan, but soon transits along with its protagonist to California. Despite its upbeat title, the novel centers around the ways in which people deal with grief.
Shelley Zheng’s mother died from a heart attack years earlier and it was her wish that her son travel beyond the borders of Yunnan and even China itself. So when Shelley is of the age to attend university, his father sends him to San Francisco to study and live with distant relatives. When Shelley arrives in the US, or what he refers to as the Peach Blossom Land, he is not greeted with much of a warm welcome.
His father’s cousin, Henry Cheng, is estranged from his own son, Ted, and Ted’s Jewish wife, Aviva. The Cheng family, Shelley learns, is dealing with their own grief after Henry’s wife and Ted and Aviva’s young son are brutally killed in a shooting. In the five years since their loss, they still haven’t found a way to talk about it, nor do they have much patience for a houseguest. When they tell Shelley that he can only stay with them for two weeks, he hopes the Chinese groove will come into play; in other words that Ted will in the end allow him to stay indefinitely because he understands Shelley has no other options. No such luck. Aviva and Ted stay true to their word and send Shelly out onto the street. He tries to stay optimistic.
Almost all whom I’d met in Peach Blossom Land had treated me with MVP, Minimum Viable Politeness, but there had been instances—a comment here, a shove of the elbow there, and unguarded, hostile look—when the fact of my foreignness threatened somebody else.
It’s Aviva, who was originally the least keen on Shelley living with them, that first welcomes him back when elderly Henry is in need of a caregiver. Shelley and Ted’s best friends, Chinese-American Kate and her Israeli wife Orit also take to Shelley after he seems to be the only adult their young son, Leo, speaks to. When Kate and Orit decide to move to Los Angeles, the friends are not happy.
“We’re joining the collective that my friends have started in L.A. County, near Palmdale. It’s called Beit Hayeladim, the ‘Children’s House.”
“Not the kibbutz,” Aviva cried. “This isn’t Israel. This is California!”
“It’s not a kibbutz,” Orit said. “It’s not like where I grew up with four hundred people growing dates. Most of the adults work regular city jobs. But it is a place to live in a community and raise our kids together.”
It’s difficult for Shelley to lose these new friends—especially Leo—after he’s just settled into his own new community in San Francisco. But it’s more complicated for Ted and Aviva. Although Kate and Orit are their best friends, having Leo around sometimes seems bittersweet because he reminds them of the son they lost to gun violence.
Novels about immigration often deal with cultural difference and assimilation, but the customs Shelley embraces are more Jewish and Israeli than American per se. Ma writes about Jewish food like kugel—a noodle and cheese casserole—and deploys more Yiddish than Mandarin. At one point, Chinese American Ted explains to Shelley the ways in which people identify as Jewish—both religiously and culturally—and Henry visits Beit Hayeladim. And as Shelley, Ted, and Aviva learn to cope with their grief, they come together with their friends, including visits from Kate, Orit, and Leo—“the whole multi culti mishpocheh”—which gives them all a stronger sense of community.
The Chinese Groove deals with serious subjects like homelessness and death, but through Shelley’s happy-go-lucky demeanor and his commitment to his friends, the novel also shows that circumstances can always get better.