Native Speaker By Chang Rae Lee: The Relationship Between Language And Identity

What comes into mind as we think about our identity? What do we think? What are our thoughts? Morals? Personalities? Relationships? It is difficult to define one’s identity, as each person’s identity and experiences are unique. Our identities are shaped by our language, which is the primary way we communicate. In our language, we reflect our community, our culture, and ethnic background.

Native Speaker, by Chang Rae Lee, is a novel that explores the relationship of language to identity. The story follows Henry Park’s journey in rediscovering who he really is. Henry’s struggles to reconcile his conflicting identities are reflected in his insecurities about language. Henry Park, the Korean-American describes himself as a “perfect mate” in writing. Henry Park’s Lelia departs him at first of the novel. She leaves him with a note in which she describes her husband’s personality traits. Lelia describes Henry in a number of ways, including “emotional” and “surreptitious”. Henry does not take offense at first, but he then finds another sheet of paper that says “false speakers of language” under his bed. Henry proved to be exactly as Lelia described throughout the book. It is, however, the hidden statement that Henry was a false speaker that set the tone.

Henry is not an American. Although he speaks English fluently and was born, educated and raised in America. He still considers himself Korean but American. Henry struggled with English since childhood. The kids would call him “Marble Mouth” and mock him. Henry also attended remedial speech classes where, by association with other students, he felt that he fit in the category of “school retards, mentals, losers who stammered or could explode or wet themselves or who simply couldn’t say words”. Henry’s insecurities continue into adulthood.

John Kwang, a Korean American politician is the target of Henry’s spying mission for his company. Henry grows to love Kwang throughout the novel and he becomes like a father to Henry. Henry saw the ideal Korean American man in Kwang. He was “handsome”, “impeachable”, and spoke “a beautiful, almost official English”. Henry finds John Kwang arresting, and had never imagined a man like him. John Kwang, with his larger than life personality and unique style of speaking, was not like any other Korean. John Kwang had the ability to exist in both a Korean and American way that seemed effortless. “He was aware that I was Korean-American or Korean. But perhaps not the way he did.

John Kwang is a very popular politician because of his ability to communicate with other Koreans and minorities. Councilman Kwang’s ability to connect with other minorities and fellow Koreans using his bilingual abilities is also notable. John Kwang’s imperfections are as bad as Henry’s, or worse. John Kwang loses his strong image as a result of the attack by thugs on John Kwang’s headquarters. They were targeting Eduardo because they suspected him of being involved with the opposing party. Henry first sees John Kwang since the HQ was destroyed. John Kwang is “old and worn out” and at a press conference, John Kwang is “stiff and sluggish”.

Henry, too, is aware that John Kwang put on an impressive show. John Kwang often “sneaks through” the accent when he is losing his control in America. John Kwang’s heavy accent and “satori”, or his dialect, slips in when he is drinking with Henry while discussing the Korean traditional song Arirang. Henry finds it hard to understand.

John Kwang is drunkenly belligerent in a fight that he has with Sherrie. Sherrie is John Kwang’s mistress. Henry says that John Kwang was yelling loudly in an “American accent” during their argument. Henry and the reader can see that John Kwang uses language very carefully to appear “American”. These examples reveal John Kwang’s identity in his language. Henry and Lelia regarded the birth of Mitt as their most happy memory. Mitt, a child of mixed race, has a unique experience. Henry is able to do this by saving Mitt’s identity from being challenged. Mitt has never been unsure of his identity, due to the innocence of childhood. Henry shields Mitt’s identity by refusing to speak or teach him Korean.

“Despite Lelia insistence that she send him to Korean school, I knew that our boy would never learn it. It was never a question. But my hope was he’d grow up with univocal life, that could give him confidence and authority, something that his half or yellow face was unable to provide. Henry’s “singular world view” is a simple life, uncomplicated with race. It is the life of an “American”. Henry realizes that Mitt’s future and worldview could be shaped by language. He reiterates how important language is in defining identity. Henry’s thinking suggests that he is too focused on himself and his struggles to see the unique experiences Mitt will have as a Korean American. He also fails to think of how Mitt will fit in both the Korean and mixed-race communities in America. Henry might have wanted Mitt’s life to be “white”, yet Mitt was always going to have a Korean-American father. This would have made Henry question his own identity, even if Mitt had not died.

Henry explains that Mitt was “always a beautiful speaker” and that Henry did not feel comfortable reading Mitt stories aloud. Henry was afraid to mess up Mitt’s language because he didn’t wish to confuse him. I was afraid I would handicap him and hinder the growth of his brain’s speech. Lelia, I hoped, would be the most suitable example.


  • ernestfarley

    Ernest is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher who writes about a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. He has a passion for helping others learn and grow, and believes that education should be accessible to everyone. Ernest is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, and he has taught high school students in the United States, Mexico, and Chile.