Cultural Identity in “Native Speaker”
Native Speaker by Chan-Rae Lee is a story narrated from the perspective of Henry Park, a Korean American belonging to the first generation. The protagonist has reached a sense when he reconsidered every significant moment of his existence. He realized the mental consistence of his parents and their life, his worthiness as a spouse, and career achievements. Hence, the book discusses the issue of simultaneous assimilation of the quintessential Korean-American in the American society and his attitude towards his own roots.
Typically, in every first-person narrative, prejudice peculiar to the protagonist affected the recipient’s perception of the characters and the story on the whole. Henry Park is an obviously flawed and troubled narrator, so that a reader is likely to believe he can guess when the protagonist might become less subjective.
Hence, the novel starts when Henry Park’s wife Leila is leaving on vacation, moving away from her husband and from everything that connected them. Before boarding the plane, Leila gives him a letter to read after she is gone. It is a list of Henry’s qualities and behaviors that she has complied with over time. Certain things in the list are flattering, and Henry reads it over and over again.
Henry’s career has no success as well. He is a spy, but not like the characters of popular movies working for the government and investigating large cases. In reality, he works for a company that gathers information on anyone for a price. Specifically, the company gathers the information on migrants, although it employs people of different races. Henry’s occupation deals with Asian race. Earlier the protagonist disappointed his employer by failing to complete the assignment so that the company lost a large amount of revenue.
Passing through various events and journeys in his life, Henry always analyzes and evaluates the ideas and events contrary to his father’s ideals. Despite the fact that his father has died long before the novel starts, the old man plays an important role in Henry’s perception of the reality as he exists and feels very much like the main character. Nevertheless, the son’s and father’s relationships used to be not so good. His acknowledgement of Korean culture was influenced by his parents’ perception. Henry’s father had more traditional views on everything and when at the age of ten the protagonist lost his mother, he
found it difficult to communicate with his father. Despite all, maturity and time made him wiser and Henry reevaluated his father’s mentality.
Overall, Henry is supposed to find an appropriate solution in private life and prevent calamity at work. His new assignment is to collect all possible information about John Kwang, a rising Korean American politician. Suddenly, Henry recognizes that he admires Kwang’s methods and goals. He feels affinity
for his victim and this evokes an inner dilemma in Park in regard to the question of whether he betrays his own people by spying on them. It turns out that the protagonist has secrets not only from his own wife and a politician whom he has to spy on, but also from his employer.
During the entire novel, Henry struggles against his own doubts and tries to find answers to questions about personal identity. People are divided into different categories according to age, race, or gender, which are defined by someone who thinks it would be an appropriate form
of communication in the society. After all, Henry recognizes that all people have multiple identities, and no one can say for sure who this or that person is. Overall, he has to find the balance between the answers to put to rest some old misguided grievances against his father and try to save marriage.
The life of Henry Park is similar to millions of others. Nevertheless, he clumsily defines what should a Korean-American man be like according to his beliefs. The list of behaviors Leila gives to Henry creates a negative identity of him, so that the protagonist reminds himself of Leila’s conception of her husband. Henry’s primary identity is extinguished, including his origin (Koreanness and Americanness) and his wife’s opinion about him. In fact, this example is close to the conception of the impossible existence of a single true version if to consider that all things and beings in the world are copies or distortions. Every version is a myth, and Henry belongs to the one that is a copy itself. Thus, he is neither an American, nor a Korean, but he is rather the one who forces himself to become a part of the group.
Henry’s myth is connected with his father’s accommodation and the concept of the American dream. The space is described as “bound to 600 square feet of ghetto retail space” (Lee 182-183). This moment shows a clear dichotomy between the small place and the house Henry’s father dies in. Particularly, it is a triumph of the American immigrant. The man is strict and patently a family-oriented person of Asian type. He is a Korean in America, not an American Korean that is why he is not able to narrate on the native speaker level as this is a concept of another.
Leila’s description of Henry’s father is made in a categorized form: “He was obviously not modern, in the psychological sense. He was still mostly unencumbered by those needling questions of existence and self-consciousness” (Lee 58). He recognizes himself vicariously through his motherland, accommodation and job as most people do. When Henry asks his father why white people not like him for his race, the father admonishes his son that Henry is a Korean man.
Another character of the book, Jack can be considered a defiant of a purported Americanness. Contrary to Henry, his identification does not include respect for the elderly and family-centered thinking. Jack can clearly define the border between his Greek nature (big Greek heart) and the embodiment of the American spirit. When Henry forgets about his non-American origin, he says: “If I were American, there would be much hell to pay. I would have strangled Dennis many times over. With that I can view him as a curiosity that has saved both of us” (Lee 163).
Jack’s Greek heart symbolizes something that he can identify himself with, like familiarity or solidarity. With that, his heart is split between two contradictions: Greek and American or native and immigrant. An American heart grows among migrants. Their children have strong ethnic feelings so the reconciliation is hard and long-term. Nevertheless, Jack clearly recognizes where his native home is situated and understands that he is not an American. Even using American behavior patterns and linguistic idioms, the feeling of the border and othe direction Jack follows are evident.
Leila is a character that also has recognition of the side she falls to. This middle-class Massachusetts socialite is the most authentic representative of the American society in the novel. This woman demonstrates perfect knowledge of Standard American English to everyone who comes to the USA without the agency to express themselves through the language as real Americans. She understands whether someone is lying, pretending to be a Native American. Thus, Leila is a protector of English language in America, eventhough Henry is equally capable in English.
Leila and Henry share common dysfunctional space. Her behavior within the walls of the house is explained by Henry in the following way: “Leila liked houses that you could go all the way up and hide yourself in” (216). She needs a secret room above the garage in Henry’s father’s house. Leila feels strong affinity for closed space, where she can hide as an Asian-Americanness – a quality, which Leila cherishes in her husband. Henry’s loss of cultural identification pushes her away. Leila has no boundaries at home and Henry’s compensation for the lack of private space does not save the situation.
John Kwang is a public man, a Korean immigrant who has shed the majority of his cultural and national foundations for the sake of achieving political assimilation and further success in the USA. Henry’s affinity for this man evolves after spying observations. The protagonist supposes that Korea is still present in Kwang’s heart, but the politician suppresses this feeling in public to pretend he is an authentic American in the best way he can. Kwang wants to be the same native speaker as Henry’s wife Leila or the political opponent, Mayor De Roos; and he definitely wants to be more of American by leaps and bounds than Henry, despite Henry has never lived anywhere outside of the United States.
Kwang recognizes his personal and political destruction in the Korean gentleman’s club, a group of quite an anti-American setting. Park’s and Kwang’s feelings about the Korean-American issues have no synchronous dichotomy. One man is demonstrably Korean and American, and the other one does not belong to these cultures and countries. The scene that takes place before Kwang’s destruction when Henry and Kwang share the same space is similar to the descriptions of Henry’s split habitat with his wife: “… it’s just the two of us, two Korean men at opposite ends of a stately Victorian house” (Lee 302). Hence, the large American house can be understood as a symbol of the ocean.
Being Another in American Society
Native Speaker is focused on two of the most important challenges faced by modern society: personal identification and personal integration into a new society. The characters of the book represent various types of people, where Korean roots are assimilated with the local traditions. On the one hand, such integration provides better opportunities. On the other hand, it might look ironic because most of the migrants are accepted as “other” and their attempts to look like authentic Americans are miserable. As a result, most of such people feel themselves the second sort or the ones who have to treat the Americans as role models. It would not be disastrous if their traditional identification and recognition of origin was not diminished.
One of the brightest examples that depict such an attitude is Henry’s boss Dennis Hoagland, who has a habit to call him in the middle of the night to discuss the work. He wakes Henry up at 4:15 a.m. to speak about the new assignment (the case about John Kwang). In fact, the boss decides what his employee has to do at night.
Each character in Henry’s social environment represents a part of the definition of his own self. The things are left unsaid, and the following fact will never be made clear: whether Park is an American, Korean, and Korean-American with/without a hyphen. The American freedom and independence is used to involve representatives of all cultures into the narrative. Categorization is a quality that is opposite to the entire American conception of humanity. Nevertheless, there is an unresolved question about the true protagonist. In fact, it is a big problem for the immigrants or the next generation to define how it is possible to have “mother and father, but not just one procreator” (Lee 154). Henry Park cannot simultaneously consider himself autochthonous and authentic. Probably, this is the reason of why he should be pitied and ashamed. Hence, Henry Park is a mysterious person. The symbiosis of Korean origin, integration into American culture in an almost seamless way, marriage with an American and work for a spy company is a result of a freelance operation. Henry is a part of it, but his job has contributed to a growing sense that Henry is losing his identification.
Native Speaker by Chan-Rae Lee is a novelistic narration about the American man of Korean origin who tries to identify his personality in American society. His father and wife are the two primary characters in his social environment that are able to rule his behavior. One of them incorporates conservative Korean traditions trying to support its authentic mentality. The second one is a typical American who is not satisfied with Henry’s ethnic loss. Thus, the book depicts the way the language and mentality of the foreign country affects the personal identification in particular and behavior in general.