Native Speaker Characters
The main characters in Native Speaker are Henry Park, Lelia Park, Henry’s father, and John Kwang.
- Henry Park, a first-generation Korean American, is prone to stoicism, a struggle he inherited from his late father.
- Lelia Park, Henry’s wife, is a White woman who doesn’t fully understand the way Henry processes his grief after the death of their son.
- Henry’s father was detached and avoided showing emotion, a legacy Henry has fought against in the time since his father’s death.
- John Kwang is a Korean mayoral candidate. Henry is hired to spy on Kwang, who is disliked by New York City’s White establishment.
Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510
An intelligent and eloquent young man, Henry spends much of the novel trying to bring together the Korean and American aspects of his identity. While outwardly he rejects his father’s approach to being an immigrant, which is centered on the so-called “immigrant story”—the code of behavior to which immigrants to the United States were expected to adhere—he unconsciously adopts certain aspects of the older man’s detachment, as evidenced by his inability to greave openly for his dead son or to interact with the serving woman hired by his father. In his work, as in his life, Henry has trouble not getting too emotionally involved with those with whom he interacts. In the case of Kwang, he admires him very much and views him almost as a paternal figure. Henry does eventually come to terms with his problems and resumes a close relationship with his wife, playing a role in her efforts to teach language to children.
Lelia is Henry’s wife and was first attracted to him because to his self-conscious posture. She recognized in him a man who listened to himself, and he saw in her a woman who really spoke. Passionate about helping people, especially those immigrants who have difficulties assimilating linguistically, Lelia meets Henry close to the Mexican border, where she is teaching English to Spanish-speaking immigrants. She is deeply saddened by the death of their son and is compelled to leave Henry by his apparently not sharing in her grief. She gives him a list of his various flaws and shortcomings prior to leaving him. Ultimately, she gets a job that she wants, teaching English to young immigrants, though there are too many students in her class for her to teach much to individuals.
The perfect immigrant by mainstream American standards, Henry’s father achieved prosperity due to his industry and independence, his willingness to work hard in accordance with the American dream. But his detachment and unwillingness to show emotion disgusts Henry, who does not view him with much respect. After his father’s death, however, Henry comes to reflect on the lessons that the older man taught him.
Kwang is a Korean immigrant whose success in becoming the mayor of New York depends on uniting the various cultural groups within the city. While very charismatic and a source of fascination for Henry, Kwang’s vices give the White establishment in the city an opportunity to bring about his downfall.
Hoagland is the manager of the espionage company in which Henry becomes involved. In the flood of immigrants to his state in the 1970s, Hoagland saw an opportunity to profit and thus to transform a human phenomenon into a financial one. In this sense, he is a perfect American capitalist.
One of Henry’s targets prior to Kwang, Luzan is a Filipino psychoanalyst who dies as an indirect result of Henry’s investigations into and reports on his activities. Henry learns from this experience to maintain distance from those on whom he is spying.