Henry Park's Identity through Selves and Space in Native Speaker

By Scott Berghegger
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Henry Park: family man, father, son, husband, spy, traitor to his race, without race, ghost among the corporeal, in the wrong place, homeowner, homeless. Borne of nothing, self-cesarean, autochthon. Native speaker of the hyphen, begat on a plane bordering no other.

This is how Chang-Rae Lee defines his narrator. It seems that everyone can describe Henry Park: his creator, his father, his boss, his victim of “race treason,” his legend; Henry begins the story with a list of characteristics of his identity written by his then-estranged wife. Each important supporting character in the novel —  his father, Jack, Lelia, John Kwang — is able to identify Henry; The only one who fails to define Henry is himself.

How does a person define what he is? Homeland? Henry was born on an airplane over the Pacific. Upbringing? His childhood home was founded in Korean morals but built on American capital. Residence? Henry asserts that he is American, but he becomes Korean in some parts of the cultural amalgamation that is New York City. Deficient of cultural root metaphors and myths, Henry Park’s story has no place anywhere in the canons of strictly Korean or strictly American narrative except within itself. Everyone, save Henry, is defined by place in Native Speaker. But Henry is an anomalous category, not fitting into what is and what is not, something special, sacred, taboo. He knows only proximity to definition.

Henry’s life is one of copies. However, unlike those with permanent, identifiable backgrounds, Henry clumsily picks and chooses what he believes should comprise a Korean-American man. Lelia’s list creates for him an unwanted identity that Henry nonetheless copies and reminds himself of her conception of him almost everywhere he goes. Originals (and therefore origins) are precious to him, and thus, ironically, he destroys Lelia’s original, smudged list. He extinguishes the origins of his supposed identity — his Koreanness, his Americanness, and his wife’s record which defines him. Henry would take heart in Lévi-Strauss’s ascertainment that “there is no single ‘true’ version of which all the others are copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth” (Lévi-Strauss 215). Unfortunately, the myth Henry belongs to is a copy itself — not Korean, not American, he is forced to create himself from the ground up. In the case of Mitt’s death, Lelia closes herself up into her adopted secret room and builds her twig house, but Henry has nowhere to go. He demolishes his wife’s twig house. Her copy, her myth of grief, is incompatible with his.

Half-compatible with Henry’s narrative myth is the space his father occupies within the American dream. Henry describes him as “bound to 600 square feet of ghetto retail space,” which he copied in four other stores around New York City (Lee 182-3). There is a clear, aware dichotomy between this starter space and the house his father dies in, a triumph of the typical American immigrant. He is strict, closed-minded, patently family-oriented and Asian — he would not be able to conceive of a narrative on the level of Native Speaker because he is a Korean in America, not a Korean-American. Lelia tells Henry that his father is merely a more brutal version of him; he “was obviously not modern, in the psychological sense. He was still mostly unencumbered by those needling questions of existence and self-consciousness” (58). He defines himself vicariously through his homeland, his residence, and his work as many people do, but also through his son, as witnessed through his admonishment of Henry when he goes to the prom. “You Korean man. So so different,” Henry’s father tells him when he asks why his white date cannot like him for the way he looks. In the father’s case, as he is, so must his offspring be — a flagrant foul in the face of American individuality.

Jack is also defiant of a purported Americanness, but not of a way of life that counters the respect of elders and family-centered thought. He says, when Henry forgets that he is not American, “[i]f I were American, there would be much hell to pay. I would have strangled Dennis many times over. That I can view him as a curiosity has saved both of us” (163). Jack is able to clearly define the lines between his “big Greek heart” and what embodies the American spirit to him — gonads, bravado, machismo, his split American heart. That his American heart is split and not his Greek one is important to consider. The phrasing also implies that the essence of America, its heart, is divided into, in this work, one overarching binary opposition: native vs. immigrant. His Greek heart represents solidarity, familiarity, something with which he can identify, but the two American hearts present in all immigrants and their ethnic-appearing children are hard to reconcile. Jack is saying that were he in Henry’s place, heads would roll. However, he is not American and he knows whence he came. Even though he may use American idioms to bring a finite end to conversation (169), Jack knows where his borders are and which side he falls on.

Lelia also knows on which side of the binary opposition she falls. The middle-class Massachusetts socialite is the truest representative of America in the novel, and is the “standard-bearer” of language in her country even though Henry is as capable with English as she. As the standard-bearer it is her job to define where others lie, linguistically, between American and “other,” and she professes her presumptuously supreme knowledge of Standard American English to children and adults alike who come to the United States without the agency to legitimize themselves as Americans through language. She very easily and clearly identifies herself as White and female, as told to her by her native culture in her native language. This is why she may have trouble communicating on a deeper level with “others” such as Henry’s father and Ahjuhma — she contrasts herself as White in opposition to her father-in-law, but when she tries to empathize with Ahjuhma as a woman, she is rejected on all fronts. She only knows her American cultural borders and cannot comprehend what it means to be a Korean woman.

As someone purely American, Lelia’s comfortable spatial habits ring true with Jack’s explanation of the cleft American heart. Lelia and Henry share a “dysfunctional space” in their apartment, clinging to the corners, “along the periphery,” in “naturally separate habitats” (24). This behavior mirrors Lelia’s very stereotypically-American parents’, and indeed, Henry states that “Lelia liked houses that you could go all the way up and hide yourself in” (216). This explains her affinity for the secret room above the garage in Henry’s father’s house, but the significance of the room is that, in contrast to the expansive houses and apartments she is used to dwelling in, this little room in the big house is a private, close space, not quite decidedly American but not Asian either. This room is her escape into an Asian-Americanness that she cherishes in Henry, but Henry’s lack of cultural definition is no comfort to her. He has no walls, no boundaries to keep her warm and safe, and Henry’s compensation for a lack of an inner private space cannot satisfy her.

John Kwang’s space, in comparison, is entirely public, but only on an impersonal level. He is a Korean immigrant and seems to have shed many of the cultural foundations of his homeland in order to achieve political assimilation in the United States. But in a more personal, private sphere, Henry muses that “John Kwang would be a man to keep his boys close, keep May even closer, that he would collect the four of them in one shut-away room and have them sleep and eat and bathe all together until the tempests subsided” (296). Korea still resides in this man who suppresses his accent in public at all times to appear supremely American — as American as his political opponent, Mayor De Roos, as American as Lelia, and certainly more American by leaps and bounds than Henry, even though Henry has never lived outside the United States. This may, in fact, be true. His Korean speech only emerges in drunken slurs, and he realizes his political and personal destruction in a Korean gentleman’s club (a quite “un-American” setting). Kwang and Henry’s feelings and expressions of the Korean-American question are never synchronous; it is always Henry’s legend that speaks when Kwang asks him for the Korean-American perspective. They are on opposing sides of a spectrum, one demonstrably Korean and American, the other belonging to neither country. One of the last images of Kwang and Henry sharing the same space before Kwang’s destruction is much like Henry’s descriptions of his split habitat with Lelia: “…it’s just the two of us, two Korean men at opposite ends of a stately Victorian house” (302). The space of that big American house may as well be an ocean.

In each character surrounding his life narrative, Henry sees a bit of the definition of his own self — what it is, and what it is not. What is still left unsaid, and what can never be determined, is whether Henry is Korean, American, Korean American without a hyphen, Korean-American with a hyphen, no definition seems salient. Ironically, the air of American independence has adapted itself to include members of all cultures. (In other words, “categorization is not something we do here.”) But Henry’s quest for the true Henry remains unsolved; to again quote Lévi-Strauss, “it is still the problem of understanding how one can be born from two: How is it that we do not have only one procreator, but a mother plus a father?” (Lévi-Strauss 213). Henry cannot see himself as simultaneously authentic and autochthonic. Perhaps this is why he ought to be pitied — perhaps this is why he ought to be ashamed. Or perhaps pity and shame can be reconciled and made into something more complex and greater than the sum of their parts, a figure of anomalous beauty.

Lee, Chang-Rae. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead, 1995.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. New York: Doubleday, 1967. 

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