Native Speaker Summary

Chang-rae Lee

Native Speaker

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Native Speaker Summary

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Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker is a poignant story that follows a first generation Korean American, Henry Park, on a whirlwind search for identity and meaning. When the narrative begins, Henry has reached a crossroads. His wife is going away on a “vacation,” which is a kind way to say that she is actually seeking time away from him and their marriage. In fact, right before his wife, Leila, boards a plane to leave him, she gives Henry a list of all his faults, which he subsequently reads over and over.

Along with having to rethink his marriage and what it means to be committed to a cause, Henry also must rethink several other important issues, including his career. Henry works for a company that gathers information on other people for money, like a private investigator. Henry’s company specializes in gathering information on immigrants, and Henry himself focuses on “digging up dirt” on people of Asian descent. Though Henry has always been a stellar employee, he has recently performed poorly on an assignment, thus causing the company to lose money. Henry has found himself at a moral crossroads at work, and his questioning of what it is he is doing to others has caused much of his recent troubles with the company.

Another issue that Henry must rethink is his view concerning his parents’ way of life. Throughout the novel, Henry constantly compares and contrasts his life choices with those of his father, altering his perception of the world considerably. The narrative reveals that Henry’s mother actually died when he was ten years old. His father dies before the novel even begins. Despite the absence of both parents in the novel, their way of life lives on. Henry actually does not know much about Korean culture apart from what his parents taught him. Though Henry often fought with his father concerning more traditional views, as he grows older and looks at the world through the lens of maturity, he eventually begins to look at his father’s viewpoint differently.

The turning point in the narrative comes when Henry must approach a new assignment at work with the new viewpoint on life he has been cultivating. Henry is tasked with gathering information on a Korean American politician, John Kwang. As it turns out, Henry learns that he actually respects Kwang and admires the man’s goals as well. This imbalance between life and work causes Henry to question his profession and the possible fact that he is making a living by betraying his own culture. Henry does not want to keep secrets in every aspect of his life, and so must come to terms with the best way to balance all facets of his evolving life.

Henry’s struggles are made all the more poignant in that they are symbolic of real-life struggles that many individuals encounter. Above all, it seems, Henry must address the concept of personal identity as it relates to work, home and marriage. Though he is familiar with taking on a different persona due to his line of work, Henry eventually realizes that everyone has a multitude of identities within them. For Henry, this is unsettling, as he no longer knows what identity is the “real” Henry. The novel seeks to show his journey from idle acceptance to a transformative break in his character, where he comes to term with identity and his role as part of a larger culture and heritage.