(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Native Speaker was the thesis written by Chang-rae Lee to earn his M.F.A. degree from the University of Oregon in 1993. In 1995, the novel became the first book published by Riverhead Books, a subsidiary of what became Penguin Putnam. Committed to books that open up new views and present new ideas, Riverhead fared very well with Lee’s novel, which became an instant critical and commercial success and launched its author’s career.

The novel begins when its first-person narrator and young protagonist, well-spoken and well-educated Henry Park, accepts a new assignment from the shadowy commercial spy agency he is working for in New York City. Because of his ethnicity and his ability to blend into a multicultural environment, he is chosen to try and collect information on the ambitious, rich Korean American businessman-turned-mayoral-candidate John Kwang. Joining Kwang’s campaign undercover, Park has to make up for a previous botched assignment in which he came to sympathize with his target, a Filipino psychiatrist.

At the same time, Park has just been left by his Caucasian wife Lelia, who blames him for utter emotional coldness in the aftermath of the accidental suffocation of their seven-year-old son, Mitt. She has handed him a long list of all his faults, among them being too alien and detached from life.

As Park slowly makes his way into Kwang’s organization, Lee enriches his narrative with Park’s mental reflections and physical...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Native Speaker Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Native Speaker is a Korean American narrator’s probe into who he is. The probe is begun when the narrator’s Caucasian wife leaves him. Native Speaker takes place in New York City during a time when Korean markets are being boycotted by black customers, and a Korean American councilman, John Kwang, is a possible candidate for mayor. The narrator, Henry Park, works for a private, CIA-style agency. Henry’s current assignment is to investigate John. Park does not know the purpose of the investigation or who is paying for it; he imagines the client to be a xenophobe.

Henry was close to his father, who is dead. Henry’s father was an immigrant who did well with a chain of produce markets and believed above all in family. John, onto whose staff Henry insinuates himself as a volunteer, sees his staff as a family. Henry finally betrays John, who feels close to him because he is Korean. John urges him to yell at him, to be disrespectful, to not treat him as a revered father figure. When they are sharing a drink, Henry almost forgets the reason he is with John.

The narrator’s child, before his death, was being reared American-style, “untethered,” allowed to walk all over Korean customs. Henry wanted his child to have “the authority and confidence that his broad half-yellow face could not.” In a sense, Henry was rearing his child to have the confidence he does not have. Henry is devastated by the child’s death, but he...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Native Speaker Chapter Summaries

Native Speaker Sections 1-2 Summary

Chang-Rae Lee's first novel, Native Speaker, won several awards after publication in 1995, including the American Library Association Notable Book of the Year Award, the American Book Award, and the PEN/Hemingway Award. The narrator, Henry Park, who immigrated to the United States as a child, struggles throughout with self-identity issues.

As the novel begins, Henry's white American wife, Leila, has left him. Before she departed, Leila handed Henry a list describing some of his personal traits, including "emotional alien," "poppa's boy," and "spy." Leila told Henry to think about this list, which, as the story progresses, is exactly what he does.

At first, Henry thinks this was a "cheap parting shot" given after Leila could not be reached. When he reads her description, he is not offended—at first. Then he finds another piece of paper under the bed.

Leila was a speech therapist; language was very important to her. So Henry is startled by what he reads on this paper: she thought Henry a "false speaker of language." Henry is surprised his wife knew, although he often lied to her. He thinks he is fairly good at lying as it is part of his job as a corporate spy; he must lie to discover secrets.

Despite his lying, Henry feels he is an honorable man, amiable and charming, with a gift for making other people feel good about themselves. He does not use false flattery or seduce; he merely knows how to get people to talk about their most secret passions and thus gather information.

The story flashes back to when Henry first met Leila, when he was in El Paso on a job. An artist friend, Nils, had invited Henry to a party. Leila was there, and they spent all their time together. Henry admits the lies began at this first encounter when he invented a story about being in El Paso.

Leila was more forthcoming, telling him about the classes she taught for immigrants wanting to learn English, and said she could tell Henry was not a native speaker. She noticed how he deliberated before pronouncing words. After the party, when they kissed, Leila asked Henry if he enjoyed it. Henry said he had; Leila responded that she could not tell.

Later in the narrative, Henry offers more details about his job. Employed by multinational corporations, foreign governments, and sometimes private individuals, he provides information about employees by infiltrating their lives and then writing unauthorized biographies.

Native Speaker Section 3 Summary

In this section, Henry provides information about the people he works for. Dennis Hoagland, Henry's boss, he describes as a man who likes to call his employees in the middle of the night with news he believes critical. Harry thinks Hoagland's late-night phone calls are a form of sleep deprivation, a training of sorts, making sure his employees are tough minded even under pressure.

One night, Hoagland calls to talk about Henry's newest assignment, an investigation of a Korean American politician, John Kwang, running for mayor of New York. Henry's job is to infiltrate Kwang's campaign office to gather information.

Hoagland is concerned about Henry. On his last assignment, Henry made a serious mistake and almost lost his cover. Henry had been investigating Emile Luzan, a Filipino American psychiatrist also involved in politics. Luzan was attempting to help return Ferdinand Marcos (a real-life exiled Filipino president) to office. In spying on Luzan, Henry took on the identity of a patient, submitting himself to Luzan's therapy to befriend the psychiatrist. However, Luzan began affecting Henry's psyche. Although as a spy Henry had invented a false personality, in Luzan's office details about his true history emerged.

Henry had recently lost his son, Mitt, to a fatal accident. Typical of Henry, he tries to hide his emotions, but Luzan gets Henry to open up. This was against all of Henry's espionage training: A spy was never to allow his true personal life to seep through the mask of his assumed identity. Once Hoagland discovered that Henry's identity had been breached, Henry was pulled off the case. Later, when Henry called Luzan's office to apologize for abruptly stopping his therapy sessions, Henry found out that Luzan was dead. Hoagland confirmed this, telling Henry that Luzan drowned while vacationing in the Caribbean. No accusations are made, but Henry suspects that the organization he works for might have been responsible for Luzan's death.

After the Luzan case, Henry went on temporary leave. Hoagland knew Henry was also having trouble with his wife after the death of their son and wanted to help relieve some pressure. Henry is a good agent, and Hoagland does not want to lose him. However, it is time for Henry to come back to work. Hoagland thinks the John Kwang job should not be a difficult one, but he also wonders if Henry is up to the task.

Native Speaker Sections 4-5 Summary

Henry discusses his father, who died a year and a half after Henry's son. A successful businessman, his father made money through a grocery store chain. Henry believes his father seemed much happier when he owned one store and lived in a small apartment in Queens. During those earlier, leaner times, his father often danced with his mother, exhibiting a joy he never seemed to experience later. His father also had many friends, all Korean.

This changed when they moved to the suburbs as his father grew prosperous, to a large home in Ardsley, a mostly white community that seemed barely to tolerate his family's presence. Henry's father hid from the public, standing in the background at Henry's games.

Henry did not get along with his father, often ridiculing his prices and wages. When his father wanted to show off his son's English, Henry insisted on speaking Korean.

As a child, Henry noticed his mother only made vague references to his father's business. Later Henry questioned her about this. In Korea, Henry's father had earned an engineering degree from a very good college. His mother did not want to shame him.

Henry did not understand many things about his father. One was Lelia. Henry was surprised his father genuinely seemed to like Lelia, offering her special treats. Henry suspected his father secretly liked and was proud that Henry had married a white woman.

For a man who rarely expressed emotion, Henry's father often hugged Lelia, laughed and teased her. This astonished Henry. His father never displayed emotion, not even when Henry's mother died. Henry used his father as a model, mimicking his lack of emotional response.

After his mother died, Henry's father brought a Korean woman home. Henry believed she was a recent immigrant, very old fashioned and probably from the countryside. She had little to say. When Henry married and brought Lelia to visit, she was still working as housekeeper. When Lelia asked the woman's name, Henry was unable to answer, which Lelia found inexcusable since she had practically raised Henry. However, when Lelia tried to communicate with her, she was completely unsuccessful. She acted insulted when Lelia attempted to help with the wash. Henry suspected she and his father were having a sexual relationship, but he could not prove it. Only once did he notice them smile at one another. She stayed until she died shortly before his father passed away.

Native Speaker Section 6 Summary

Henry travels by subway to the Flushing area of New York City, where he begins working for John Kwang. This area is heavily populated with Asians and recent immigrants from South America and Africa. Henry notices John Kwang's name posted everywhere, on shop windows and car bumpers. He also sees students sitting in small wooden booths on major corners, handing out campaign pamphlets, pins, keychains, and other political paraphernalia. The people here, Henry concludes, must love the man. Earlier, Kwang's campaign manager told Henry and other volunteers that they were just beginning to market Kwang in other sections of the city beyond Flushing and Queens, and Henry was to be involved in those areas.

Henry worked diligently...

(The entire section is 394 words.)

Native Speaker Section 7 Summary

This chapter unveils the story of Henry's son's death. Mitt was seven, the age when Henry says a parent starts worrying most because he had to give Mitt more freedom to explore his own world.

From the time Mitt was four, the family spent much of their summers at Henry's father's suburban home. Henry wanted to give Mitt a chance to feel the more natural world as opposed to the concrete city where they lived. Henry saw suburbia as a softer, gentler world. While there, Mitt became very close to his grandfather. Once, Henry's father gave Mitt a silver dollar, and Mitt carried it with him wherever he went. After Mitt died, Henry found it in a pocket of Mitt's clothes.

Mitt's death was the result of a freak...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Native Speaker Sections 8-9 Summary

A week after Henry is assigned to the advance media team, he meets Kwang. As Henry works on Kwang’s schedule with Janice, the politician walks into campaign headquarters. Henry watches Kwang from a distance as the man makes his way across the room, shaking hands and otherwise acknowledging all the volunteers. Henry notices that Kwang seems to have a special affinity for Eduardo, the other member of Henry’s media team. Both Kwang and Eduardo, Henry has learned, practiced boxing at one time. When Kwang comes up to Eduardo, the two of them pretend to jab at one another as if they were in the midst of a bout. After they are finished, Kwang finally looks at Henry, and Henry shares a sense of recognition with the man. Henry’s...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Native Speaker Sections 10-11 Summary

Henry meets Jack, his best friend and coworker, whom he has not seen for a while, at an agency apartment Henry has used in the past, sometimes just to clear his head before going home to his wife. On many nights, he stayed over, never divulging to Lelia where he was or why. Henry enjoyed the obscurity, thinking it added much-needed mystery to his marriage.

Henry admits to Jack that not expressing his emotions was a major part of his relationship problems. When emotional, he "locks up," which is why he sometimes spent the night at the apartment. He was raised not to talk about his feelings, something Lelia not only was good at but needed from him. To himself he admits he loves Lelia, but he cannot say it.


(The entire section is 405 words.)

Native Speaker Sections 12-13 Summary

John Kwang invites Henry to go to dinner with him after having spent the day at the campaign headquarters. The two of them go to a Korean restaurant. While they eat and drink, both Kwang and Henry flirt with the waitresses. The more the men drink, the more closely Henry feels he is coming to know Kwang. From his training as a spy, he knows that this is the perfect opportunity to delve into Kwang’s private life and personal philosophy. The alcohol has pulled Kwang off guard. However, Henry does not take advantage of the situation. He cannot explain his reluctance, even to himself. Henry merely observes Kwang, and from his observations, he learns some intimate details about the man.

Henry notices, for example, when...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Native Speaker Section 14 Summary

Lelia and Henry travel to Henry’s father’s house. Neither of them has done much to get rid of Henry’s father’s belongings since his death. Once they arrive at the house, Lelia begins to cook a lamb stew, one of Henry’s favorite meals. Lelia used to make it often when they were still living together. Henry recalls how they used to make love while the stew cooked. The lovemaking would work up an incredible appetite for them. Afterward, they would fill their bowls and feed one another with big spoons. Then they would crawl under the sheets and fall asleep, their hungers well satiated.

Henry watches Leila cook. He notices more muscular definition in her arms as she chops vegetables and stirs a big spoon in the...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Native Speaker Section 15 Summary

Lelia moves back into her and Henry's apartment. There she sets up a studio, working as a freelance speech therapist. Her clients are usually younger than six. As she teaches, Henry reminisces about his youth, when he attended speech classes. He had trouble distinguishing between "L" and "R" or "B" and "V" and "P" and "F." His parents spoke Korean at home; their English was heavily accented. Henry could only work on proper pronunciation at school, where boys often made fun of his pronunciation.

Most of Lelia's students are Asian. Some have problems with their ears or mouths, but most are not native English speakers. Two boys are from Laos, and Henry enjoys hearing them speak their language. He also admires how Lelia...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Native Speaker Sections 16-17 Summary

Henry goes to the burnt-out campaign headquarters, where Janice and other staff have congregated to salvage materials. While there, they learn that Eduardo and the janitor had been working late and were killed. Eduardo's family has gathered outside and are holding a vigil.

Henry immediately goes to Eduardo's desk, which was next to his. He sorts through the drawers and fills a box with things he thinks Eduardo's family might cherish. Outside, he places the box near Eduardo's mother.

Later Henry talks to Sherrie, Kwang's assistant, who tells him to take notes from the authorities. They suspect the office was bombed. Sherrie suggests the fire marshal give few details to the press to avoid riots. There has been...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Native Speaker Section 18 Summary

Henry's new job is to catalog all campaign contributions. He lists amounts, names, and as much personal information as he can gather. The list has almost 2000 donors, and Kwang memorizes details so he knows about supporters when he meets them. Some local Korean churches collect the money, sending it in large manila envelopes. Smaller amounts of ten to fifty dollars are the ones Henry tracks.

Henry works alone, late at night, in Kwang's basement. When morning dawns, Henry prints the new list. He learns that Kwang models his network after the traditional Korean concept of ggeh. Henry is familiar with it as his father used it to help finance his stores. In a ggeh, Korean businessmen put money into a...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Native Speaker Section 19 Summary

Henry does not like what he sees. Kwang looks old and weary. When he finally agrees to a media appearance, he does so in front of the burnt headquarters. Janice believes this is a big mistake; the image implies that the campaign itself has been destroyed. Kwang appears like a broken man. He stutters, his voice cracks, his English is no longer as perfect. Henry thinks Kwang looks too ordinary, like any man on the street. Kwang does not answer all questions. One, about Eduardo's $1000-a-month apartment, seems to startle him. Who financed this? How could Eduardo, a student volunteer, have afforded this? Kwang walks away as if he has not heard the question.

Later, Kwang's volunteers speculate about Eduardo's apartment....

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Native Speaker Sections 20-21 Summary

Henry meets Grace and Pete, coworkers from the agency, to turn over Kwang's donor list. This is Henry's final assignment before his resignation. Henry reflects on this event; he is leaving them all, Jack, Hoagland, and John Kwang.

Henry has not told Lelia that Kwang was behind the bombing. He does not want to put Lelia in any more danger than she already is as his wife. Henry suspects Hoagland is capable of doing anything, including murdering those he believes might be in his way. Henry also has decided not to tell Hoagland about Kwang's involvement in the explosion and Eduardo's death; Hoagland will have to discover that himself. Henry refrains from divulging these details out of a lingering respect for Kwang, whom he...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Native Speaker Sections 22-23 Summary

The people have turned against John Kwang. They march to his house and protest, carrying signs claiming Kwang is a "smuggler" of illegal immigrants who steal jobs.

Henry stands with the crowd, not to protest but to see Kwang. It has been 36 hours since Kwang's accident, and no one has seen him. When Henry finds Janice, she tells him that May, Kwang's wife, is "losing it" from the pressure. Janice is afraid Kwang might have committed suicide. Henry, however, knows that Korean people do not take their own lives, at least not from shame. Suffering is the "noblest art" in Korean culture. His mother taught him that Koreans suffer in silence. She would have declared Kwang a fool. Kwang had it all, a good wife and strong...

(The entire section is 401 words.)