In Native Speaker, what are Henry's challenges living an immigrant life?
Native Speaker is, in many ways, a Korean-American reimagination of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. -A. Magazine
Native Speaker is the debut novel by Chang-Rae Lee, published in 1995. It is the story of Henry Park, the book's narrator. The major theme of the book is Henry's struggle to fit into American society. Like Lee, Henry is Korean-American. When the novel starts, Park's wife, a white American woman who works as a speech therapist, has left him: "The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was" (1). Identity is a key part of the book.
While the book is about many things, I would argue that the main conflict is Park, a Korean immigrant living in American, and his attempt to assimilate. He seems to embrace America; he learns the language, he marries an American, he has an American son. Yet he works in industrial espionage and so, in some sense, is a double outsider. As he says "We pledge allegiance to no government" (17).
Perhaps the most apt symbol for his inability to fully integrate into American culture is his accent, which he is unable to shed. So the title is ironic, as is his wife's occupation as a speech therapist. He recalls schoolmates making fun of him for the way he talks. Like most immigrants, he experiences racism both casual (Where are you from?) and virulent. Towards the end of the novel, the Korean-American politician, whose campaign he has infiltrated, is the victim of a racist protest. In statements that are an unsettling echo of rhetoric we've heard in recent years, Park quotes them yelling "We want our fucking future back" (332). They also carry signs reading "AMERICA FOR AMERICANS" (333). It's an unsettling reminder for Park and other immigrants that some Americans will never fully accept them.
*I'm using the Riverhead paperback edition of the novel.