Family & Assimilation in Native Speaker

Family and belonging are both very common themes in literature. Oftentimes, family is represented as an element of a story that brings elements of the together and provides an undeniable link between characters. Whether it be through familial issues that need to be resolved or family harmony, it is rare that a book is written without some emphasis on family in the plot. Also, simply as human beings, we are often defined by our families and our roles within them. In a way, family is the means by which we find our places in society. In Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker, the protagonist, Henry Park, never truly finds a familial role, nor does he wholeheartedly commit to a family or set of friends. This is mainly due to his profession, as he is a spy and is constantly adapting his persona based on what setting he is in. Because he is constantly adapting, he is never able to truly commit himself to one persona or role, and therefore never truly knows who he is or where his loyalty lies. His failure to assimilate into a role on an individual level leads to his failure to assimilate into a familial role, which ultimately leads to his failure to assimilate into a role in society. Our roles in our families are often what define us — they are often where we gather our support from, and since Henry Park’s public and private lives require him to exist within many different “families,” he is never able to gain a true sense of self and is never able to assimilate into society.

The root of all of Henry Park’s problems lie in his profession, which is that of a spy. As he infiltrates the lives of his assignments, he grows attached to them. This allows him to feel the illusion of a familial connection with these people, yet at the end of the day, the entire bond they share lies in deceit, as the only reason he has been getting to know them the entire time is because his job requires him to extract every bit of information from them that he can. This is especially evident in his relations with Emile Luzan. Henry Park got so close to Emile, who served as a shrink for Henry, Henry playing the role of a patient in order to get closer to Luzan. When Henry is taken off of the assignment, he admits to his boss, Dennis Hoagland, that he grew very close to Luzan, to which Hoagland responded, “That shrink only got to you because he believed in you so fully. You were giving a fantastic performance. You were never better than in those sessions. You were a genius, Harry, you had that fat fuck squirming on his own couch. He was ready to ooze. You were in perfect position to stick him. He would have told you everything” (42). Clearly, Park was so convincing, that he even convinced himself a little bit that the relationship was real. He got so caught up in the act, that perhaps he even liked going to see Luzan and talking about his problems. However, once he grows comfortable, he is yanked from the position, taking off of the assignment, and not allowed to fully assimilate into the role. This is reflective of Henry’s family life, and his life as a member of society. Playing so many roles, he is never able to fully commit to one, and never able to truly define himself within society. Emile Luzan and Dennis Hoagland, who offer opposing roles as “father figures” to Henry Park, are symbolic of the duality of Henry Park’s existence. One half of Henry Park is a spy, the one who is out on assignment playing a role, but the other half is the Henry Park that is actually in the moment, actually taking on the role and getting caught up in it. He is constantly switching between halves, and this takes a very drastic toll on him.

Furthermore, when we look at all of the father figures that exist in Henry Park’s life, we are able to understand why he has so much confusion as to who he really is. When a child is born, specifically a male, his father is the main point of guidance throughout his life. Almost every moral law, every basic foundation of character, is taught to a young man by his father. Now, while none of the father figures in Native Speaker are not actually Henry Park’s father, we can look at all of their conflicting messages as contributing factors to Henry Park’s ultimate failure to find a true family and role in society. Looking at Dennis Hoagland, it is clear that his influence as a father is representative of the American way of life, forcing Henry Park to feel as if his job is the most important thing, seeming insensitive to others, embodying the “win at any cost” mentality that is common in the business world of the United States of America. This is evident in the passage where Hoagland is introduced: “It was Dennis Hoagland. The grand never-knocker. he was wearing a red rain slicker and a canvas fishing hat pinned with wet flies and nymphs. As usual, Hoagland had waited to come at us from an unseeable angle. His dog, Spiro, unleashed, heeled behind him and yelped once in pain as he lowered himself to the floor” (38). Everything about Hoagland’s entrance oozes mastery over his surroundings —  the dog, the fishing hat indicating that he can reel anything (and anybody) in, the bright red coat showing that he commands attention, and sneaking up when all of the coworkers least expect him, all of this is indicative of the type of ideologies that he tries to teach Henry Park — the ideologies of America and conquest. This is very different than the father figure of Emile Luzan, who Henry indirectly characterizes when he says, “I could see him, Luzan, sitting there in his brown suit and square black-framed glasses. He was a primary organizer of small New York-based Filipino-American movement for Ferdinand Marcos’ return to the homeland; he collected money for press notices, pro-Marcos picnics, anti-Aquino rallies. Nothing violent” (43). This is a stark contrasts from the way Hoagland was introduced. Luzan is described as wearing brown, a very neutral and bland color in contrast to Hoagland’s red raincoat. Furthermore, while Hoagland’s image is dominated by the ideas of mastery and conquest, Luzan’s is based around helping others, non-violence, and being a member of a community rather than the master of one. Having such contrasting figures influencing his mindset, it is natural that Henry Park was unable to decide between the consistency and social status of his job, and the plainly good-naturedness of Emile Luzan. These two influences being only the two main ones among many others, including Henry’s Greek-American friend Jack and Henry’s actual father, who was a strict Korean engineer. It is as if all these different people are pulling Henry into different familial states of mind, and he is caught in the middle, ultimately never choosing one and never assimilating, being forced into a life of alienation.

Henry Park’s overall confusion with defining family is made most evident in his own family life, specifically in his relationship with his wife. The novel opens with Henry’s wife leaving to go on a trip, before which she gave him a list of who he was. Park states, “I didn’t know what she was handing me. She had been compiling it for the last year or so we were together. 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” (1). The very concept of a list of who somebody is, and the fact that one could be applied to Henry Park, speaks volumes about his character. A spouse is supposed to know his or her partner better than anybody else in the world, their true persona, yet Henry Park’s wife has to compile a whole list of who he is, and most of it is not flattering, saying Park was a “Surreptitious/B+ student of life/first thing hummer of Wagner and Strauss/illegal alien/emotional alien/genre bug/Yellow peril: neo-American/great in bed/overrated/poppa’s boy/sentimentalist/anti-romantic/ _________ analyst (you fill in)/stranger/follower/traitor/spy” (5). While most of these are negative, it is also noticeable that a lot of them are contradictory. This speaks to Park’s internal conflict of being pulled in so many directions by so many different influences. Henry’s wife is just as lost as Henry is when it comes to trying to pin down Henry Park’s true essence.  The only item on the list that truly speaks to Henry’s issues is the title of “poppa’s boy.” Henry is constantly looking for a father figure to please, and this is one of the main reasons he can never assimilate into a family or society, because he has so many father figures with conflicting interests, that pleasing one would displease another. He always is forced to leave somebody displeased, it is inevitable, but it is also strictly against his nature. By trying to fit into so many families, he doesn’t fit into any of them.

Between being forced to keep his work secret from his wife, being forced to take on new persona after new persona when going on investigations, and having to fit into the typical American workplace where money and success are the only two things that matter, Henry Park lost sight of himself. It is impossible for one to successfully assimilate into a new society as an immigrant if that individual cannot even assimilate into a family on the most basic of levels. Family is the foundation of one’s existence. If one cannot recognize his or her role within a familial hierarchy, then there is no base for a life to be built upon. This is the case in the life of Henry Park in Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker. Since he has no base of family, Henry Park doesn’t know what his true morals are or who he truly cares for in life. Flitting back and forth between father figures like Emile Luzan and Dennis Hoagland leaves him only more confused, with a failed marriage, and unassimilated into American society. He enters the country as an alien, and is forever alienated by his indecision and inability to commit to family.

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