Chang Rae Lee

Native Speaker

And yet you may know me. I am an amiable man. I can be most personable, if not charming, and whatever I possess in this life is more or less the result of a talent I have for making you feel good about yourself when you are with me. In this sense I am not a seducer. I am hardly seen. I won't speak untruths to you, I won't pass easy compliments or odious offerings of flattery. I make do with on-hand materials, what I can ship out of you, your natural ore. Then I fuel the fire of your most secret vanity. 6

I was immediately drawn to her... There is a hurt that pinches your throat or chest when you look. 9

...I would see him as a kind of aging soldier of this life, a squat, stocky-torsoed warrior, bitter, never self-pitying, fearful, stubborn, world-fucking heroic.

In America, he said, it's even hard to stay Korean. 47

He couldn't care for the importance of career. That notion was too costly for a man like him. 52

I wondered, too, whether he was suffering inside, whether he sometimes cried as I did, for reasons unknown. I remember how I sat with him in those restaurants, both of us eating without savor, unjoyous, and my wanting to show him that I could be as steely as he, my chin as rigid and unquivering as any of his displays, that I would tolerate no mysteries either, no shadowy wounds or scars of the heart. 54

During her illness they said her regular outings on Saturday mornings were to go to "meetings" with her old school friends who were living down in the city. They said her constant weariness and tears were from her concern over my mediocre studies. They said, so calmly, that the rotten pumpkin color of her face and neck and the patchiness of her once rich hair were due to a skin condition that would get worse before it became better. They finally said, with hard pride, that she was afflicted with a "Korean fever" that no doctor in America was able to cure. 71

I knew I could have tried to comfort her, that his silence was more complicated than she presently understood. That perhaps the ways of his mother and father had occupied whole regions of his heart. I know this. We perhaps depend too often on the faulty honor of silence, use it too liberally and for gaining advantage. I showed Leila how this was done, sometimes brutally, my face a peerless mask, the bluntest instrument. And Janice's John Kim, exquisitely silent, was like some fault-ridden patch of ground that shakes and threatens a violence but then just falls in upon itself, cascading softly and evenly down its own private fissure until tightly filled up again. 89

...because Leila--or maybe her father--had endowed Mitt with that other, potent sprawl of limbs, those round, vigilant eyes, the upturned ancestral nose (like a scrivener's, in my imagination), his boy's form already so beautifully jumbled and subversive and historic. No one, I thought, had ever looked like that. 97

I never felt comfortable with the phrase, had a deep trouble with it, all the ways it was said. You could say it in a celebratory sense. For corroboration. In gratitude. To get a point across, to instill guilt in your lover, to defend yourself. You said it after great deliberation or when you felt reckless. You said it when you meant it and sometimes when you didn't.
You somehow always said it when you had to. 105

To tell him I loved him, I studied far into the night. I read my entire children's encyclopedia, drilling from aardvark to zymurgy. I never made an error at shortstop. I spit-shined and brushed his shoes every Sunday morning. Later, to tell him something else, I'd place a larger bouquet than his on my mother's grave. I drove only used, beat-up cars. I never asked him for his money. I spoke volumes to him this way, speak to him still, those same volumes he spoke with me. 119

He was forever there to let me know every disadvantage I would have to overcome. 126

And perhaps most I loved this about her, her helpless way, love it still, how she can't hide a single thing, that she looks hurt when she is hurt, seems happy when happy. That I know at every moment the precise place where she stands. What else can move a man like me, who would find nothing as siren or comforting. 147

I never envisioned myself in that kind of white hat, though, astride some fire horse, galloping into the main street of town. I mostly come by the midnight coach. If I may say this, I have always only ventured where I was invited or otherwise welcomed. When I was a boy, I wouldn't join any school club or organization before a member first approached me. I wouldn't eat or sleep at a friend's house if it weren't prearranged. I never assumed anyone would be generous to me or in any way helpful. I never considered it my right to expect approval or sanction no matter what good I had done. My father always reminded me that neither he nor the world owed me a penny or a prayer, though he left me many millions of one and braying echoes of the other. So call me what you will. An assimilist, a lackey. A duteous foreign-faced boy. I have already been whatever you can say or imagine, every version of the newcomer who is always fearing and bitter and said. 149

When others construct and model you favorably, it's easy to let them keep at it, even if they start going off in ways that aren't immediately comfortable or right. This is the challenge for us Asians in America. How do you say no to what seems like a compliment. 180

When I was a teenager, I so wanted to be familiar and friendly with my parents like my white friends were with theirs. You know, they'd use curses with each other, make fun of each other at dinner, maybe even get drunk together on holidays. 205