Asian American Literature Essay, Research Paper
The need for America to value the Native Speakers of Languages other than English. The recently arrived immigrants face a language barrier which is only the part of the many difficulties they endure in US. Many of them are offended by the cultural aspects of America which they do not understand. Even the second generation immigrants cannot be accepted into the American mainstream. They are considered to be outsiders as their skin color is darker and their facial features do not reflect a lighter skinned Americans. Chang-Rae Lee indicates that the non-white Americans cannot help but see themselves inferior to the white Americans. In the Native Speaker, Henry attempts to remove himself of his immigrant identity through voyeurism. As a result, he becomes a traitor to other immigrants. Lee does not write about a character who is condemned to live a lie. A transformation in Henry occurs as he learns to see himself as an individual and not as an American. As he learns to value his cultural background, he can appreciate other immigrants and empathize with their hardships. The phrase .America for Americans x reveals the mainstream attitude toward the non-white immigrants. Most of the recently arrived immigrants are people of color. They are easily distinguished from other Americans because of their different appearance, language and culture. Lee portrays many of these immigrant groups becoming a scapegoat to the unhappy Americans. The people who call themselves the .Americans x protest against John Kwang s system of helping the immigrants. They blame the immigrants of their joblessness and financial difficulties. The government blames Kwang for corruption in his dealings with the illegal aliens. A closer look at the American hostility toward the .illegal aliens x indicates that non-whites are not accepted as Americans. The list of people who have participated in the ggeh are immigrants of various backgrounds and immigrant status. However, the mainstream media understands every one of the people in the list as participating in the political corruption. The American mainstream fails to accept cultural values of the immigrants. The idea of the ggeh overlooks the legality of the immigrant status. Kwang has been exercising the fatherly concern over the immigrants in helping them financially. It is a cooperative effort which requires trust and common interest of building immigrant communities. One cannot ignore the aspect of political interest in Kwang s campaign to help the immigrants. However, one questions the venues of opportunities that the immigrants have without the help from other immigrants. The acceptance of the Korean culture would have made the ggeh appear as an ethical system which enables immigrants to help each other out. This cultural aspect is ignored by the American mainstream and ggeh is viewed as a part of the corruption in the immigrant communities. Racism acts as an instrument which destroys the efforts of the immigrant communities to gain a financial standing in America. Lee discusses the ways in which the immigrants have tried to be accepted in America. The political empowerment has failed for the immigrants as a result of their powerlessness in the mainstream. Economically, the Koreans have tried to gain stability through the system of ggeh. Ggeh is a system of acquiring a large sum of money through the contribution of smaller amount from many people. Henry s father has used the ggeh in order to buy his first grocery store. Then he becomes the owner of several stores and earns enough money to live in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in America. Henry s family learn that they are extremely uncomfortable in the wealthy eighborhood. They feel that they are intruding on their white neighbors. Recollecting his mother s fear of offending the white neighbors, Henry states, .what s she afraid of, what could be so bad that we had to be that careful of what people thought of us, as if we ought to mince delicately about in pained feet through our immaculate neighborhood x(52). In their effort to be part of the .immaculate neighborhood x they try to stay away from the eyes of their neighbors. Clearly, Henry s parents do not fit in with their neighbors as they need to take great pains to act as though they do not exist. Lee questions the idea of success as a way to gain acceptance in America. Henry s parents have not gained acceptance in their neighborhood as their cultural values are not understood by the mainstream. They succeed economically at the cost of losing the friends who understand them. As the first generation of Korean immigrants bought expensive houses, they have moved away from each other. They have sacrificed the relationships that has made them endure the hardships of early immigrant experience. While they have enjoyed the picnics and soccer games during their early immigrant years, their increasing wealth has made them hide behind the closed doors of their big houses and stores. Many immigrants have not only sacrificed relationships with friends, they have created hostile relationships with other ethnic groups. Henry s father is an example of someone who places too much emphasis on earning money. Many of his customers are spoken of in contempt, especially when they are ethnic minorities. Henry explains his father s encounters with African Americans as an indication of selfishness. He states, .[father] felt nothing for them. Not even pity. To him a black face meant inconvenience, or trouble, or the threat of death. He never met any blacks who measured up to his idea of decency x(186). The African Americans can only serve as a means to gain profit. They are not as respected as the white Americans by Henry s father. The practice of racism is outlined as Henry s father excuses a white woman from taking a bite out of an apple before hiding it on the stacks because she is a good customer, in contrast to his behavior toward blacks who are always up to .funny business. x Henry s father inherits the ideas of materialism and takes advantage of the group of people most disfavored in the American mainstream.
Lee reflects that Henry s father has lost his friends and lives a lonely life because of his materialistic goals. Furthermore, he is not liked by other ethnic minorities as a result of disrespecting them. He not only looks down on them, he finds them in contempt. He feels threatened by the low social and economic status of some of the ethnic minorities. Lee states that many Korean store owners are responsible for the conflict between the African Americans and the Korean Americans. They are responsible for stereotyping certain ethnic minorities as threatening. The store owners need to realize that they have earned money through the contributions of the ethnic minorities. In his attempt to become an American, Henry s father has imitated America s contempt for the socially and economically disadvantaged. Under such upbringing, Henry grows up to be a man who despises his Korean influence. He wishes to be a .native x of America. The American citizenship and proficiency in English language do not make him an American. The metaphor of voyeurism describes his state of denial, the struggle to forget his past. Henry participates in the community as an actor. He fills the role of .acquaintances, casual friends. Sometimes lovers, social drinkers, embracers of children x as a spy. Therefore, he lies about his identity and betrays the people who come to trust him. He is a .stranger/follower/traitor/spy x according to his wife(5). The reason for the reluctance to open up to people is much more complicated than relating it only as a self defense mechanism. Henry s life as a spy reflects that of his parents , ones who have neglected to share their feelings with each other. The dutiful relationship is emphasized in the family life and Henry feels that he never felt loved by his parents. His mother was a .good mother x who seems to have .treated [motherhood] like a job x(221). Henry feels that his parents loved him not as an individual, but only as a son. He states, .I wanted just once for my mother and father to relax a little bit with me. Not treat me so much like a son, like a figure in a long line of figures. They treated each other like that, too. Like it was their duty and not their love. x The text relates to the influence of Confucianism in the manner Henry s family interacts with each other. Growing up in America, Henry is familiar with the families of his white friends who reveal their feelings to each other. Henry feels that love should be showed in embraces, kisses and comfortable conversations. He does not learn that his parents have showed love toward him by covering up their pain. They wanted to protect him by not sharing the hardships they have endured. The feelings are kept inside because the parents were brought up to respect each other by keeping the distance. Young Henry does not realize that his parents believed in loving each other by faithfully fulfilling their roles. One can understand that the way Henry’s past influencing his relationship with Lelia. The reason for not opening up to her is not because he does not love her. He feels that it is his duty to protect Lelia from the harmful effects of knowing the kind of work he does. Moreover, he does not want to share the pain of betraying someone. He does not lack the capacity to love or relate to other human beings because he does not openly share his feelings. These qualities which have been influenced by his parents are neither understood nor appreciated by the mainstream. Voyeurism becomes a representation of Henry’s existence in America. Many of his inner qualities are invisible, they are hidden behind the roles he plays. Lelia argues that Henry does not reveal his thoughts and emotions. She is not sure whether she is living with the real Henry. She states, “I didn’t know how you really felt about anything, our marriage. Me. You. I realized one day that I didn’t know the first thing about what was going on inside your head. Sometimes I think you’re not even here, with the rest of us, you know, engaged, present”(126). Lelia does not understand Henry as he has not understood his parents. Henry’s parents were controlled by their culture. Moreover, afraid of offending the Americans, they have concealed their identities from their neighbors.
Lee points out another obstacle which hinders the revelation of Henry’s identity in America. The Koreans and the Americans do not speak the same language. There are some cultural aspects which cannot be transferred in a different language. Even when Henry tries to explain to Lelia that his silence is an honorable quality in Korean culture, it can only be perceived by her as a negative expression of his feeling. Lee illustrates the cultural aspect which bonds the Koreans together. Henry recollects how he felt welcomed as a son at his Korean friend Albert’s house. He feels a bond that connects him with Albert’s family as “a familiarity arose that should have been impossible but wasn’t and made [him] feel a little sick inside. It wasn’t that Albert and [he] were similar; [they] weren’t, their parents weren’t. It was something else”(97). The cultural aspects make Henry feel at home in Albert’s house. It is “something else” than being similar, it fails to be described in the language of American culture. In the same way, Henry’s feeling toward John Kwang cannot be said in English. Henry wishes that he and John can speak in Korean as he states, “in these moments that I wish for John Kwang to start speaking the other tongue we know; somehow our English can’t touch what I want to say. I want to call the simple Korean back to him the way I once could when I was Peter’s age, our comely language of distance and bows, by which real secrets may be slowly courted, slowly unveiled”(275). Korean language is the kind of communication that does not always involve words. It incorporates the feeling one acquires during the silence which involves the act of giving each other respect. Therefore, voyeurism does not reflect Henry’s reluctance to appreciate the Korean culture. Lee suggests that it is a complicated state in which a person is neither completely fitting in nor ousted out of a social system. The person experiences various cultures without stating an allegiance to any cultures. As a result, Henry feels no responsibility toward any cultures. He can exploit others without exploiting himself. Lee proves otherwise as Henry’s life parallels that of many other ethnic minorities. The people of various cultures are interrelated so that their actions affect each other. The effect of a betrayal haunts the one who betrays and furthermore harms the community. In betraying John Kwang, Henry has not analyzed the kind of effect he will have on the rest of the community. In order to bring down Kwang’s political career, Henry provides the ggeh list to Dennis who makes it into a charge against all immigrants. The mainstream shouts “America for Americans” reflecting the immigrants as parasites. The metaphor of the mob in front of Kwang’s house that beats up Kwang and Henry indicates both characters being harmed by the act of betrayal. As Henry looks up at Kwang’s face, he sees himself in the pained expression of the older man. The lesson Lee proposes in the Native Speaker is that each immigrant makes an impact in the American community. No one can be invisible even when they are not acknowledged by the mainstream. One cannot be removed from a cultural experience by neglecting it. In America, Lee writes that one does not possess one native language. Each person captures the influence of many languages and cultures. Henry states that the immigrants “will learn every lesson of accent and idiom, and [they] will dismantle every last pretense and practice” one holds as one’s native culture(320). Lee acknowledges the importance of learning the “lesson of accent” and not of speaking the English as a “native.” The accents represent the various colors of the immigrant experiences that cannot be dismissed. The accents reflect on the identities of the immigrants which can be appreciated. Historically, immigrants have been accused of practicing voyeurism and became scapegoats of the difficult times. The mainstream has used their language and culture against them. The immigrants were promoted to cultivate self contempt because of the aspects of themselves which were foreign to the American mainstream. Lee indicates that such reaction can only lead to the betrayal of oneself as well as of other immigrants. One of the ways to avoid betraying oneself is to maintain the integrity of one’s immigrant experience. He encourages the readers to prevent themselves from becoming an American. They need to become individuals that value their various cultural beliefs and practices. The image of appreciating many accents of English is portrayed through the speech session given by Lelia and Henry. Instead of correcting the accents to Lelia’s pronunciation, each of the students are valued for their different ways of speaking English. Furthermore, each of their names are pronounced in their own languages. This is the vision that Lee holds for America, a place which values each immigrants for their various languages and cultural experiences.