One City One Book: The Chinese Groove

One City One Book Banner - The Chinese Groove

Together, we read.

San Francisco Public Library is honored to announce its 18th One City One Book selection, The Chinese Groove by Kathryn Ma.

The Chinese Groove follows the journey of 18-year-old Shelley, who leaves his home in China's Yunnan Province to seek a brighter future in the United States. Encountering familial fractures and unmet expectations upon his arrival, Shelley navigates the complexities of immigrant life in present-day San Francisco.

Initially sent to live with his supposed rich uncle, Shelley discovers that reality diverges sharply from his hopes. Instead, he finds himself in a crowded rooming house, juggling school, work and relationships while always reaching for his aspirations of becoming a poet and rekindling a romance with his American ex-girlfriend. 

As Shelley traverses the challenges of his new surroundings, he leans on the concept of the "Chinese groove," an unspoken connection among fellow immigrants, to navigate his new reality. Through humorous yet poignant encounters and unexpected twists, Shelley confronts the challenges of family and finding a home, grief and the pursuit of success in a foreign land.

Amidst the episodic plot and diverse cast of characters, including his not-so-rich second cousin Ted and Ted's Jewish wife Aviva, Shelley's journey unfolds with both resilience and introspection. 

Kathryn Ma is the author of the novel The Year She Left Us, which was named a New York Times Editors' Choice, and the short story collection All That Work and Still No Boys. She is also a recipient of the David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction and has twice been named a San Francisco Public Library Laureate.  

MAIN EVENT: Author: Kathryn Ma in Conversation with Natalie Baszile – Sat., May 4, 2–3:30 p.m., Koret Auditorium, Main Library

This program is sponsored by Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.


1. There are multiple clues that Shelley could be an unreliable narrator. How did you feel when Shelley addressed the reader directly? Did it change your feelings toward the novel in any way?

2. The ‘Chinese groove’ has a multitude of different meanings and uses. How would you best describe its meaning?

3. How does Shelley and his story change your perception of modern Chinese immigration in America? What about Yu and Deng’s journeys?

4. Do you feel there’s an equivalent of the ‘Chinese groove’ in your own culture? While reading, did you find yourself thinking of your own familial customs and norms? Or how you might’ve felt in Shelley’s shoes?

5. What is the meaning behind Shelley’s ‘black tummy fish’?

6. How do you feel about storytelling as a theme in the novel? From Shelley’s father’s stories for him and his mother; Aviva’s for the kids at the library; Ted’s freelancing and ghostwriting; to Shelley’s own bedtime stories for Leo and his daughter, how are each of these forms of storytelling connected? How are they different?

7. When Shelley is at his lowest, Cook gives him some powerful insight. Do you agree that genius comes from suffering? What are some other perspectives? Do you see this reflected in any other characters?

8. There are a couple of chapters in the novel that stray from the established format: Chapter 11 “Once Shunned, Chinese American Grocer Now Beloved” and Chapter 18 “The Story of the Peach Blossom Forest.” How do you feel about them? Do you think they help enrich the story? If so, how?

9. The idea of East versus West plays a big role in the novel as Shelley navigates his new life in America while processing his past in China. His world view and the way he lived completely changed. What are some of the biggest changes you saw in Shelley during his time in America? What stayed the same?

10. How do you think the treatment of the elderly differs between the East and the West? How did it make you feel when Henry said, “Old people in America, they turn invisible to the rest”?

11. What do you think about the differences between believing in fate and a higher power versus manifesting your own destiny?

12. Shelley’s Three Achievables are Family, Love, and Fortune. Do you think he ultimately succeeded, and do you think his ideas of success changed throughout the novel?

13. After his two-week stay at Ted and Aviva's, Shelley struggles to find a place to live, finally ending up sleeping in the park. How are the themes of housing and home developed in the novel? Are Shelley's difficulties unique to his situation? At one point, Shelley says, "once a body has a home (you know as well as I), the momentous things in life that one profoundly desires feel within fingertip reach." Do you agree? What might you say to Shelley on this subject?

14. How does Ted’s relationship with Henry compare to that of Shelley’s with his father? Do you think they serve as parallels or foils?

15. In the novel there are many characters dealing with grief. How does loss affect the characters and their relationships with one another?

Praise and Recognition for The Chinese Groove

Longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize  •  Longlisted for the Dublin Literary Prize  •  A Washington Post Best Book of the Year  •  A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice  •  A People Best Book of the Year  •  An Amazon Editors' Choice Best Book of the Month  •  An Oprah Daily Most Anticipated Title

"The Chinese Groove by Kathryn Ma is a funny and insightful novel, a satisfying immigration story told by an 18-year-old narrator, Zheng Xue Li, from Yunnan province, China. We can’t help but love the determined and steadfast young man even as we laugh and wince and worry about him. . . Shelley’s relentlessly optimistic voice and his impressions of the United States bump up against what we readers ‘know’ and create a wonderful tension that keeps us turning the pages. Especially when he first arrives in the U.S., his observations are so fresh and funny, they set a humorously poignant tone and suggest that our hero will survive even the most harrowing aspects of his experience. . . Ma plays brilliantly with stereotypes without stereotyping. She deftly handles a multitude of plot threads and conflicts among Shelley’s web of connections in the U.S. and China as he carries on, almost in spite of himself. She is a master of voice. . . The Chinese Groove is certainly a contender for the funniest book about survival that you’ll ever read.”The San Francisco Chronicle

“This modern coming-of-age tale brims with heart, ambition, drama, and a protagonist whose naïveté makes him splendidly endearing. Ma thoughtfully navigates family dynamics and first love. It's guaranteed to have you and the aunties laughing and crying along.”People 

“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. . . By the end, he does indeed come out on top, even if it’s in ways neither he nor the reader could have predicted.”—New York Times Book Review

“At once a harrowing immigrant tale and a humorous romp through cultural misunderstandings, The Chinese
Groove explores the everyday negotiations of romance and family ties, as well as the power of belief that helps
us make our way through the world without breaking.”—Los Angeles Review of Books

“By turns picaresque and poignant, Kathryn Ma’s The Chinese Groove is an utterly original exploration of the
Chinese diaspora, pondering the ancestral ties that span between China and San Francisco. Shelley is a poet
and would-be striver with an indelible voice. A marvel.”—Vanessa Hua, author of Forbidden City

“Bighearted, funny, and tender, The Chinese Groove is the story of a relentlessly optimistic dreamer who crashes
unbidden into the lives of his distant American relatives in San Francisco. Kathryn Ma had me rooting for her
unlikely hero every step of the way.”—Bonnie Tsui, author of Why We Swim and American Chinatown