A white American observes three graduate students from China cope with the US--especially TV--while they're also being filmed for a documentary: Whisnant's first novel, portions of which appeared in Esquire, is a breezy, likable tragicomedy that lightly bats about issues in contemporary culture. After a stint as a starving artist in New York, Dexter Mitchell finds himself stuck in Cleveland. Still, the city does have advantages--a lively multicultural neighborhood, the amusement afforded by the brilliant, inventive, but often hapless Chinese students who are being filmed, and the promise--for those who can get it--of love with the beautiful but difficult Suzanne. It's Dexter who, with many a wry turn of phrase, tells the students' story, intercut with excerpts from the documentary film script. During the days of hostages in Iran, Reagan's election, and John Lennon's assassination, the students learn the language of brand names and football; they parody American ideas of Chinese culture after seeing old Charlie Chan movies. Wa remains faithful to his communist vision and avoids corrupting influences; pragmatic Tzu is not overwhelmed by either comfort or dogma; while the youngest student, Chen, finds tragedy as he plunges into the materialism and pleasures of American life. His naive identification with Malcolm X (both are nonwhite, both memorize words from the dictionary) cannot protect him from black muggers; his affair with Suzanne leads to his own violent American death. Gentle fun-poking at cultural fashions and cross-cultural confusion, plus some surfacey but enthusiastic intellectual reference-dropping: a quick, charming read that skirts the pain and rarely transcends its clever premise.