Tag Archives: Korean-American

Chang-Rae Lee novels (1) Native Speaker

I was absorbed by Native Speaker (1995). Chang-Rae Lee, who was born in Korea in 1965 and came to the US at the age of three, shows the high psychic costs of “getting ahead” in America on three Korean Americans–the narrator (Henry Park) who is paid to engage in surveillance used against other Asian-Americans, his father who was trained as an engineer in Korea and built up produce stores in America, and the charismatic seemingly rising, progressive star Henry Kwang, a city council member from Queens on whom Henry is spying.

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Henry’s “American” (white) wife, Leiia, is irate that he does not show any emotions about their recently dead seven-year-old son (or about anything or anybody else). He is also guilty about betraying his fellow Korean quasi brother, reporting to the sinister private detective agency, Glimmer & Co., on what Henry does.

There is much affecting and effective observation of immigrant stoicism (not least that of the literally nameless housekeeper Henry’s father hires[1]) and some very beautifully supple prose. A little editing should have pared some passages that contribute nothing and should have established a time perspective (either remembered or ongoing). The other characters (including Henry’s dead son and John’s living ones, as well as his Anglo coworkers and wife) are not as well realized. Still, the stories of these three intersecting lives are vivid and haunting and this first novel is a major achievement.

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Two expressions of what many Asian-Americans (from West Pacific/East Asian quasi-Confucian backgrounds) have felt:

Henry Park: “When I was a teenager, I so wanted to be familiar and friendly with my parents like my white friends were with theirs…. I wanted just once for my mother and father to relax a little bit with me. Not treat me so much like a son, like a figure in a long line of figures. They treated each other like that, too. Like it was their duty and not their love.” (p. 205)

John Kwang: “I find myself getting caught up. When others construct and model you favorably, it’s easy to let them keep at it, even if they start going off in ways that aren’t immediatelyy comfortable or right. This is the challenge for us Asians in America. How do you say no to what seems like a compliment [and probably is intended as one]? From the very start we don’t wish to be rude or inconsiderate. So we stay silent in our guises. We misapply what our parents taught us.” (p. 180)

[1] He stresses to his wife that family patriarchs are also referred to by role rather than by personal name: his father “never called my mother by her name, nor did she ever in my presence speak his. … And to this day, when someone asks what my parents’ names were, I have to pause for a moment, I have to rehear them not from the memory of my own voice, my own calling to them, but through the staticky voices of their old friends phoning from the other end of the world” (p. 63). Moreover, his fantasy/invisible brother didn’t have one (p. 191).

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