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When we talk about what makes us who we are, what immediately comes mind? Our thoughts? Our values? Morals? Personalities? Our relationships? One’s identity is a difficult thing to define, because identity is unique from person to person as are one’s experiences. Language, as a primary means of communication, is an essential part of our identities. The communities we belong to, our cultural backgrounds, and our ethnic backgrounds are reflected in our language.
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The relationship between language and identity is a central theme to Chang Rae Lee’s novel Native Speaker, which follows protagonist Henry Park in his journey of rediscovering what makes him who he is. Henry’s insecurities with language, shown in his relationships with other characters of the novel, reflects his struggle to reconcile conflicting identities. Korean-American Henry Park describes himself as an “impeccable mate” on paper. However, at the start of the novel, Henry’s wife Lelia leaves him. Before she leaves she gives him a note describing some of his personal traits. Lelia describes Henry as an “emotional alien, ” “surreptitious, ” and a “spy” among other things. Henry initially doesn’t take offense to this, but then he finds another piece of paper under the bed which reads “false speaker of language”. Although Henry would prove to be, in fact, almost exactly what Lelia described him to be throughout the book, it is the hidden description of Henry as a false speaker of language that sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Although Henry could be considered an assimilated American as a fluent speaker of English born, raised, and educated in America, he still lives as an outsider from his two worlds: he sees himself as Korean, but American. Since childhood, Henry has had struggles with speaking English, so much so that the kids at school would mock him for it and call him names such as “Marble Mouth”. Henry also went to remedial speech class where he felt, by association, that he was among the “school retards, the mentals, the losers who stuttered or could explode in rage or wet their pants or who just couldn’t say the words”. These insecurities carry on into Henry’s adult life.
John Kwang is a Korean-American politician that Henry has been assigned to spy on for his firm. Throughout the novel, Henry begins to admire Kwang and becomes a sort of father figure to Henry. In Kwang, Henry saw what was the perfect Korean-American man, he was “handsome, irreproachable, ” and, “he spoke a beautiful, almost formal English”. Henry also describes John Kwang to be arresting to him, and that before meeting him he had “never conceived of someone like him” (139). John Kwang was different from another Korean people and his larger-than-life persona didn’t fit the stereotype of a typical introverted Korean-American that Henry has come to know. In some ways, John Kwang was someone he wished to be, existing as both Korean and American in a seemingly effortless way, able to express himself as Korean and as an American. “He knew I was Korean, or Korean-American, though perhaps not exactly the same way he was”.
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John Kwang’s ability to connect with fellow Koreans and other minorities using his bilingual abilities is also notable in what makes him such a popular politician. Councilman Kwang can give a moving speech to crowds of people without using any notes or cards, and with his influence he is able to resolve issues between the members of the community who would otherwise be separated by cultural and linguistic barriers. However, John Kwang reveals himself to be just as imperfect as, or maybe even more than Henry is. After the bombing of John Kwang’s campaign headquarters, an attack carried out by thugs targeting to only punish Eduardo, a beloved member of the campaign who was suspected of colluding with the opposing campaign, John Kwang’s strong image and his campaign begins to deteriorate. When Henry sees John Kwang for the first time since the headquarters were destroyed, John Kwang looks “old and weary” and in a media appearance, John Kwang succumbs to the reporters’ barrage of questions and “perhaps for the first time in his public life, he mumbles, his voice cracks, and even an accent sneaks through”.
It is obvious that John Kwang very much puts on a show for the public, and this includes Henry. This “sneaking through” of the accent is a common trait of John Kwang as he begins to lose control of his American life. When he drinks with Henry in his home while talking about the Korean traditional song Arirang, his heavy accent and his dialect, or “satori, ” slips through to the point where Henry has a hard time understanding him.
In a fight in a private room of a Korean club with Sherrie Chin-Watt, John Kwang’s PR assistant and mistress, John Kwang becomes belligerently drunk and hurts Sherrie. In their argument Henry describes John Kwang yelling at the top if his voice in a “broken accent”. The reveals to the reader and to Henry that John Kwang is just like Henry the way that they both are very careful in their use of language because they need to seem “American. ” From these examples, we can see these glimpses of John Kwang’s identity through his use of language. The happiest part of both Henry and Lelia’s lives was the birth or their son, Mitt. As a mixed-race child, Mitt’s experience in the novel is unlike any others. Unlike Henry, Mitt never had questions about his own identity because of the naivety that comes with being a child, and in this way, Henry sees a chance to save Mitt from these struggles of identity. Henry does this by not teaching or speaking to Mitt in Korean, thereby sheltering him from an important part of his identity.
“Despite Lelia’s insistence that he go to Korean school on the weekends, I knew our son would never learn the old language, this was never in question, and my hope was that he would grow up with a singular sense of his world, a life univocal, which might have offered him authority and confidence that his half-yellow face could not”. This “singular sense of the world” that Henry describes represents a life that is uncomplicated by the notion of race; the life of a white kid – an “American. ” Henry understands that language in this case, could potentially shape how Mitt grows up and sees the world, thus reiterating the necessity of language in shaping one’s identity. This thinking is problematic and suggests that Henry is blinded by his own struggles and failed to consider the unique experience Mitt would have had on his own as Korean-American, and how Mitt would fit in not only the Korean community but as a mixed-race individual in America. No matter how much Henry would’ve wanted Mitt to live a “white” life, Mitt would always have a Korean father, which would inevitably make him question his own identity had Mitt not tragically died.
Another insight into how Henry’s insecurities with language carry on into his relationship with his late son Mitt is that Henry describes how Mitt “always spoke beautifully, ” and how Henry never felt comfortable reading him stories aloud. The reason being that he “didn’t want to fumble or clutter any words for the boy [Mitt] just as he was coming to the language. I feared that I might handicap him, stunt the speech blooming in his brain, and that Lelia would provide the best example of how to speak”.
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