In Native Speaker, Kwang seems to share an earnestness to uplift all minority groups because it will benefit Koreans and all others. What do you make of his involvement with the Korean storeowner and a Black customer? Should Kwang have stepped in? How do the storeowner and Black customer feel? Why does the storeowner begrudgingly listen to Kwang? Does this show where Kwang's allegiance lies? Is he for the people, or for himself?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker, politician John Kwang steps into a conflict between a Korean store owner and a Black customer, but it is questionable whether or not he should have. The conflict surrounds a watch that the customer has purchased some months before. The watch has stopped working, and the customer wants his money back, or at least an exchange. The store owner maintains that he gives exchanges only and that he really wouldn't have to do that, because the watch is months old. He indicates in Korean that Black people are "always expecting special treatment."

Kwang questions the customer, who says he shops at the store frequently. The store owner argues that it is only once a month. The customer says that the store owner was so rude when he asked for an exchange that he changed his request to a refund. He insists that he won't leave until he gets one.

Kwang then takes the store owner inside to talk to him, and when the two return, the store owner offers an exchange of a better quality watch as well as some earrings for the man's wife. The customer accepts these and leaves. The narrator notices that the store owner is hardly happy with the arrangement. He bangs around the merchandise he is stocking. Yet the narrator reflects that he likely listened to Kwang out of a sense of respect and of the hierarchy that many Koreans follow as custom.

Now let's think about Kwang's motivations here. He really has no business interfering at all. This is a private business matter. Yet Kwang is a councilman and a candidate for mayor, and he makes the business of the community his own business, both to assert his influence and control and to gain potential voters. He must have some votes from the Black community if he is to win the election, and he probably figures that the Koreans will vote for him in any case. Therefore, he favors the customer. This tells us that Kwang is probably largely operating on his own agenda rather than in the best interests of the people.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team