"In America," he said, "it's even hard to stay Korean."
As The New York Times wrote about Chang-Rae Lee's debut novel, it "proved him to be not just a graceful writer but a deft and original thinker about the vagaries of assimilation—about what it means to feel like a perpetual outsider in your adopted country." Henry Park, the protagonist and narrator of Native Speaker, is an outsider in America, a Korean immigrant who is trying to fit into American society. Like in Invisible Man, a novel to which it is sometimes compared, Park is always aware of his race, his ethnicity, his double consciousness, his "otherness" in a country that claims to be built by immigrants but is always wary of them. His wife, his co-workers, nor his classmates will never accept him as a "real" American, and this is one of the main ideas of Lee's novel.
Park is employed to infiltrate the political campaign of a fellow Korean-American, John Kwang, who seems to be living the immigrant dream and is initially popular in his run for office. Park sometimes conflates his story with Kwang's: "Maybe a someone we Koreans were becoming, the latest brand of American" (139). They are both immigrants who want to make good, yet are always reminded that they are not "true" Americans and that there are always those who will resent them being in America. Both experience racism, which explodes when a group protests Kwang and hold signs saying "AMERICA FOR AMERICANS." What Lee seems to be saying is that, despite the myth of the immigrant experience, America is not welcoming, is not accepting, and is, fundamentally, a racist country, despite its best intentions. It's an exploding of the myth that is uncomfortable but undeniably powerful.
Original NYT review: https://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/09/books/excess-identities.html
*I'm using the Riverhead paperback edition.