"Native Speaker," Vocabulary from pages 1-59

August 6, 2013
Chang Rae Lee's "Native Speaker" provides a Korean- American perspective on issues of assimilation to the American way of life and longing to hold on to your own culture.

Learn this word list that focuses on the identity of Henry Park. Here are links to our lists for the novel: pages 1-59, pages 60-130, pages 131-202, pages 203-276, pages 277-349
This example sentence is the epigraph ("a quotation at the beginning of some piece of writing"): it lays out the major theme about the difficulties of figuring out one's individual identity because it is entangled with the past and the identities of others. This sounds like a theme for a memoir, and although the novel is written in the first-person, readers need to extricate the identity of the author from that of his fictionalized main character.
I turn but do not extricate myself,
Confused, a past-reading, another,
but with darkness yet.
--Walt Whitman
Eventually I would understand that she didn’t mean the list as exhaustive, something complete, in any way the sum of my character or nature.
My first impression was that it was a love poem. An amnesty. Dulcet verse.
"Surreptitious" also means "marked by quiet and caution and secrecy"--this is a fitting description of Henry Park, which could be a result of how his Korean immigrant parents raised him in America. But by the time he met Lelia, he was already working for a company that required him to have hidden aims and methods. Both his background and his job contribute to his surreptitiousness.
You are surreptitious
B + student of life
first thing hummer of Wagner and Strauss
illegal alien
emotional alien
genre bug
A sentimentalist is one who "indulges in excessive sentimentality"--the excess would make the emotions seem insincere. "Sentimental" also means "marked by tender, romantic, or nostalgic emotion" and this could apply as a direct contrast to the next description on the list, similar to how "great in bed" is followed by "overrated."
Yellow peril: neo-American
great in bed
poppa’s boy
_____analyst (you fill in)
I took it instead as one long message, broken into parts, terse communiques from her moments of despair.
I let her think that I and my colleagues went to a company and covertly observed a warehouse or laboratory or retail floor, then exposed all the cheats and criminals.
"Venerable" also means "impressive by reason of age"--in the Confucian ordering, age is venerable because it comes with experience and wisdom. But a father is also venerated because of the roles he has in creating, providing for, and protecting the family. Henry recognizes this, but he has trouble venerating his own father, and this is reflected in the phrases "slave-son" and "long-dead god" which sandwich "venerable father" and give it a mocking tone.
I know all about that fine and terrible ordering, how it variously casts you as the golden child, the slave-son or daughter, the venerable father, the long-dead god.
I am an amiable man.
I won’t speak untruths to you, I won’t pass easy compliments or odious offerings of flattery.
“My good friend Henry,” he said stridently, the strangeness of that notion hanging there for us.
I know how men will say this, to describe that womanly affect they find ineffable. I am as guilty as them all.
Maybe she thought certain clues would arise from the primordial pool to make sense of our eventual difficulties. Were there traits or habits of personality that we had too readily dismissed, too easily obliged?
"Mundane" means "found in the ordinary course of events"--a historian who's focused on the mundane would be prodigal, because historians are supposed to make sense of important events/people, in order to shed light on patterns of humanity. But Henry is not a true historian, since his job is to focus on one individual's daily life, and his reports serve to undermine rather than unite.
I the most prodigal and mundane of historians.
I could never simply ignore it, put it off, and I would rise and in half-sleep drift about the darkness of the large apartment, inexplicably checking the corners and the closets for things out of the ordinary, an unmatched shoe, a coat fallen from a hanger, a tie I didn’t recognize, those tiny marks of what can go on while you sleep.
I was a successful mortgage broker, married, seemingly poised at the sweet prime of my life.
It was an extraordinarily extensive “story” of who we were, an autobiography as such, often evolving to develop even the minutiae of life experience, countless facts and figures, though it also required a truthful ontological bearing, a certain presence of character.
Notice the three Rs for Henry: retreat, reiterate, and revise. These are significant because he is a non-native speaker whose first language of Korean does not have separate sounds for L and R. Although Henry is describing what he normally does when one of his undercover operations is falling apart, it is also a fitting description of how he has behaved and developed throughout his life.
Normally I would have ceased matters temporarily, retreated to Westchester to reiterate and revise.
But inexplicably I began stringing the legend back upon myself. I was no longer extrapolating; I was looping it through the core, freely talking about my life, suddenly breaching the confidences of my father and my mother and my wife.
But then you felt everything Hoagland said was apocryphal, always questionable.
"Glimmer" also means "a slight suggestion or vague understanding"--both definitions fit, since the name of Henry's company is meant to deceive. If pushed, Henry would give a description of his job that only gives a glimmer of truth. In truth, the light they provide envelops individual people, and they do not consult their clients on how to proceed with the information, in order to pretend they're not responsible for what happens.
We occupied the top floor, under the name of Glimmer & Company.
If you pushed us on it, if you were insistent, if you caught us alone in an elevator or on the back of an airplane or in a motel-bar lounge, we were consultants of ambient lighting to military installations.
So it followed—I must be the Wolf-Boy. Lelia, the Tattooed Lady. Behold, their impossible love. We shared a wall between our sideshow tents, venally baring ourselves to the curious and craven.
"Jaundiced" also means "affected by yellowing of the skin"--this word choice emphasizes the characters' Korean heritage, despite Henry's distaste of how the language was used in his father's inveterate ("habitual") way of trying to belittle him.
He said (my jaundiced translation of his Korean) that he didn’t want me becoming an anxious boy, as if he knew all of my panic buttons, that craphound, inveterate sucker-puncher, that damned machine.
I talked straight through the night, and he silently took my confessions, maledictions, as though he were some font of blessing at which I might leave a final belated tithe.
In truth, Lelia’s own eventual list was probably just karmic justice for what I made him endure those final nights, which was my berating him for the way he had conducted his life with my mother, and then his housekeeper, and his businesses and beliefs, to speak once and for all the less than holy versions of who he was.
And the single-minded determination that had propelled him through twenty-five years of green-grocering in a famous ghetto of America would serve him a few last days, and through any of my meager execrations.
"Abject" also means "most unfortunate or miserable" and "showing utter resignation or hopelessness" and "showing humiliation or submissiveness"--all the definitions fit, depending on whether the perspective is from the younger Henry (who had no control over his father's life or the shame he felt) or the older Henry reflecting on his younger self (who is ashamed at having felt ashamed of his father).
What belief did I ever hold in my father, whose daily life I so often ridiculed and looked upon with such abject shame?
When I first told him that we were engaged I thought he would vehemently protest, again go over the scores of reasons why I should marry one of our own (as he had rambled on in my adolescence), but he only nodded and said he respected her and wished me luck.
He was still mostly unencumbered by those needling questions of existence and self-consciousness.

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