Native speaker

by Chang-rae Lee

Paperback, 1995




New York : Riverhead Books, 1996, c1995.


Korean-American Henry Park is a "surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, yellow peril: neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor, spy ..." or so says his wife, in the list she writes upon leaving him. Henry is forever uncertain of his place, a perpetual outsider looking at American culture from a distance. As a man of two worlds, he is beginning to fear that he has betrayed both -- and belongs to neither.

Media reviews

In ‘Moedertaal’, Chang-Rae Lee’s meesterlijke debuut uit 1996, beschrijft de auteur de aarzelende pas van de eerste-generatiemigrant die door de straten van New York schuifelt. Bespiegelingen over taal als verraderlijk mijnenveld en de versnipperde identiteit van de nieuwkomer leidden bij
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Lee niet tot dorheid, wel tot bevreemding. Bovenal was ‘Moedertaal’ een hartverscheurend liefdesverhaal en een spannende detective die Lee grote prijzen als de American Book Award opleverde. Lee, die samen met zijn ouders op driejarige leeftijd vanuit Seoul naar New York verhuisde, laat zijn personages graag toekijken vanaf de zijlijn. Het zijn buitenstaanders die zich niet kunnen of willen werpen in de modder en het gewoel. Soms, zoals in ‘Een leven van gebaren’, verdringen ze hun gedachten aan een tijd waarin ze niet anders konden dan deelnemen, in dit geval aan een leven in oorlogstijd.
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Maar als hij de opdracht krijgt om te infiltreren in de organisatie van de opkomende Koreaans-Amerikaanse politicus John Kwang, raakt hij verstrikt in een identiteitscrisis met verstrekkende gevolgen.

In dit debuut zijn alle thema's, die in zijn tweede roman zo harmonieus samenkomen al volop
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aanwezig: het zoeken naar een identiteit tussen twee culturen, de kracht van het verleden en de centrale rol van de taal als voertuig van een cultuur. De bespiegelingen die Lee daaraan wijdt, zijn op zich interessant genoeg, maar komen niet helemaal uit de verf omdat ze ingekaderd zijn in een spionageverhaal dat maar niet van de grond wil komen. Dat weerhield enkele toonaangevende literaire bladen er overigens niet van hem naar aanleiding van dit debuut uit te roepen tot een van de veelbelovendste jonge Amerikaanse schrijvers
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User reviews

LibraryThing member jiles2
An introspective book dealing in a seemingly authentic autobiographical style of Korean who has assimilated himself into American culture to the point of being culture-less, and finds a position as corporate spy which suits his complete assimilation. Chang-Rae Lee captures moments and thoughts.
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Although not his best work, it still makes for a good read.
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LibraryThing member sushitori
Story was great from an anthropological perspective, with lots on insight into Korean culture and assimilating into American life. The discussion of native English versus ESL speakers was revealing, with its insight into language and meaning. The author's rambling made some passages
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incomprehensible (better editing would have helped). Ultimately, the ending left too many questions unanswered.
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LibraryThing member Clara53
Henry Park has an unusual job. This in itself might have been plenty to build a story about. But Chang-rae Lee's protagonist, a native-born Korean American, bares his soul and examines not only his unorthodox occupation but his private life itself, scrutinizing it to the utmost degree. The story
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haunts the reader by its sadness (childhood memories of being raised as a son of immigrants, a tragic event in adulthood, tag of war of feelings about the chosen occupation), recovering cautiously only by the very end, as if picking up the pieces..., gives ample food for thought on a number of issues, all the while revealing the author's unquestionable talent.
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LibraryThing member bekahjohnston
A work of fiction that has intertwined the challenges of being .5 immigrant.
LibraryThing member omame
in the midst of inconsistency and vauge/jumpy plot lines, the perfect sentence or paragraph appears. interesting and compelling perspectives of immigrants from the child of immigrants.
LibraryThing member elleceetee
Another of the "books-I-was-supposed-to-read-in-college", but this time for my Asian American literature course. This book follows the last case of Henry Park, a "B-student of life" (as described by his estranged wife) and also a spy. He works for a company that collects information on particular
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people. This firm uses different people with different immigrant backgrounds to get close to their marks. Henry got too involved with his last mark, so now he's set to shadow John Kwang, a Korean-American politician making a bid for the mayor of New York. Meanwhile, his wife (a speech therapist) and he try to make their marriage work after it fell apart with the death of their seven year old son, Mitt.

This book is largely about discourse - the discourse between a man and wife; the discourse between parent and child; the common language and experiences shared by immigrants in a new country; and the lengths that immigrants go to in order to fit in. It's a very rich book with a lot of layers - again, would have been nice to discuss it with a class (suppose that was sort of the point). I really enjoyed reading it.

Good quote:

"I never felt comfortable with the phrase [I love you], had a deep trouble with it, all the ways it was said. You could say it in a celebratory sense. For corroboration. In gratitude. To get a point across, to instill guilt in your lover, to defend yourself. You said it after great deliberation, or when you felt reckless. You said it when you meant it and sometimes when you didn't. You somehow always said it when you had to." [p112-113]
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
Henry Park, the son of a Korean grocer who lives in New York, is deserted suddenly by his Caucasian American wife. Reflecting back on his life and the events that led him to this situation, he considers the way deceit over his vocation has clouded his marriage. He reviews how his life had been when
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his dad was alive, when his son was alive, and the lack of understanding by his wife of his Korean culture.

A pervading sense of something having gone wrong opens this book. The search for its cause and more details is the powerful driving force behind this intriguing first novel. Its finest characteristic, however, is the way in which the author expresses what it feels like to be an ethnic Korean growing up in America---the alienation, the anguish, the longing to be a necessary part of the wider culture. It addresses the dichotomy of two divergent cultures that must be embraced by the child of an American immigrant who strives to improve his station in life, the tension that exists between Asians and non-Asians who find themselves living and working side by side, and the intergenerational clash that often occurs between the immigrant generation and its children. NATIVE SPEAKER is an absorbing story and a welcome addition to any growing collection of Asian-American literature.
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LibraryThing member Serenova_Phoenix
I didn't particularly like this novel.

I was required to read it for my Asian American Literature class. We had some every interesting class discussions, talking about the use of language and the fact that Hnery uses language almost as a barrier.

If you are interested in a (fake) autobiographical
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novel about a civilian spy, then you might like it. But it's not my kind of book.
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LibraryThing member magicians_nephew
The book is about a Korean-American man who works as a sort in undercover agent to infiltrate and report on business and political figures. It's his job to blend in, to talk softly, to worm out the secrets and the hidden crimes. He joins the campaign staff of a young Korean American politician, and
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learns about being part of America, and about being the outsider.

The book is long and detailed about our hero's growing up in America with a father with an engineering degrees back in Korea who ran a Bodega and sold vegetables here and who clawed his way into middle class prosperity. We hear a lot of the father's memories. First generation bears some scars.

There is a lot here about Fathers and Sons, and families and relationships and the writing is very good indeed; terse but at times deeply poetic. Beautifully drawn unforgettable characters.

Looking in from outside looking out from inside. Playing the role being what is expected of you. It ends as a lot of books end -- with shattered illusions and sadness and loss.

Beautiful book, at times meditative and slow and not a heck of a lot of plot. Go read it anyway.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
This first novel explores the experience of 'outsider' from both traditional and very specific points of view. The protagonist, John, is the son of Korean immigrants. While his father, who came from Korea with an engineering degree, was unable to practice in the U.S., he nevertheless provided well
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for his family in material ways, but was grimly and emotionally unresponsive to his son. John has had all the material advantages, and chooses (or is chosen for) a career as a sort of industrial spy, playing a role in each placement as he plays the role of American in the greater society. After an oddly disastrous assignment, he is reassigned to infiltrate the staff of a Korean American politician in Queens, N.Y., and has to confront his shifting identity, and that of others.

Complicating this, John and his non-Korean wife have lost a son to a freak accident, and their marriage is in trouble.

I found this novel totally fascinating, for its perspective on being the outsider, on being able to suss out the insider game, and on the cost of playing your life instead of living it authentically. Highly recommended.
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