53 pages 1 hour read

Chang-rae Lee

Native Speaker

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1995

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Native Speaker (1995) by Chang-rae Lee is an immensely popular novel that jumpstarted Chang-rae Lee’s illustrious career as a novelist. The novel won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best Novel, and it is still included in contemporary lists of best novels about New York City. Chang-rae Lee teaches creative writing at Stanford University and has since published numerous bestsellers, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Surrendered.

Native Speaker criticizes American culture’s pressure on immigrants and ethnic minorities to assimilate into versions of Americans that are comfortable for white Americans, versions that often damage a person’s belief in their humanity. As a piece of literary fiction, Native Speaker uses first-person point of view to give readers in-depth access to the psyche of a man struggling to find himself in an America threatened by racism, xenophobia, and capitalist degradation. Native Speaker challenges long-held beliefs of what it means to become and be an American.

This guide refers to the 1996 Riverhead Books reprint edition of Native Speaker.

Content warning: This guide contains quoted racial slurs directed against Asian Americans that appear in the source text.

Plot Summary

The story takes place in present-day (1995) New York City. When the story opens, the life of the protagonist, Henry Park, is falling apart. His wife, Lelia, who is white, has left him. Before she departed, she gave Henry a list of his flaws that included unflattering character traits and Asian American racial slurs. Henry also recently failed in an important assignment at work. He is mourning the deaths of his seven-year-old son, Mitt, the housekeeper that helped raise him, and his father.

Henry is a spy. He works for a firm whose clients pay to collect compromising information about people in various professions who are usually political dissidents in their home countries. Henry and the other members of his firm are all immigrants or non-white minorities: they fill a market niche since the employees at other intelligence agencies are predominantly white. Henry’s background as a Korean American and non-native speaker of English has prepared him for life as a spy: He is accustomed to living between worlds and coding his identity for different cultural contexts. After his failed assignment, which was partly due to his unraveling marriage, he is given another opportunity to prove his worth to the firm. His new assignment is to follow John Kwang, a Korean American city councilman whose swift rise in political circles implies a shot at becoming a candidate for mayor. Henry ingratiates himself to Kwang as a volunteer; he and Kwang have a natural connection that leads Henry through a series of rapid promotions. Henry looks up to Kwang. Kwang is everything Henry wants to be and believes he is not: authoritative, powerful, inspiring, true to his Asian roots while still able to gain power in majority-white institutions. Henry likes Kwang but is under pressure from his job to find evidence that Kwang is not the person of integrity he appears to be.

Kwang’s offices are bombed, killing three people, including Eduardo, a favorite confidant of Kwang’s. In the investigations following Eduardo’s murder, it is revealed that Eduardo rented a $1,000 apartment in Manhattan, an exorbitant price at that time for someone who was working as a volunteer. Questions surrounding Eduardo’s financial situation cast suspicion on Kwang’s operations. After Eduardo’s death, Henry is entrusted with Eduardo’s special project. The project is the management of Kwang’s ggeh (a Korean “money club”), an organization of thousands of people who contribute under the table to Kwang in return for financial help when needed.

Lelia and Henry reunite to organize Henry’s late father’s house. They rekindle their romance and give their marriage another chance. A condition for this reunion is that Henry be more forthcoming with Lelia about his life and work: As a spy, he has had to lie about everything but his family background since the beginning of their marriage. Henry helps Lelia with her speech language students during the day then works on Kwang’s special project at night. The bombing has hurt Kwang’s chances at mayoral candidacy and has forced Kwang into hiding. Kwang reveals to Henry that he’s behind the bombing. Having suspected Eduardo of selling stories about him to the press, Kwang hired a local Korean gang to bomb the office and kill Eduardo in revenge.

One night, Kwang has Henry drive him and his PR director, Sherrie, to an after-hours Korean nightclub, where Kwang gets drunk and assaults Sherrie. Then, Kwang embraces an underage and undocumented waitress. Later that night, Kwang gets into a drunk-driving accident, in which the underage waitress is hurt so badly that she falls into a coma. Kwang is arrested for drunk driving, and the investigation against him reveals his network of illegal funds and ties to undocumented Americans. Meanwhile, Henry, disenchanted by Kwang, hands the list of the ggeh members to his bosses. This effectively ends Henry’s involvement with Kwang and enables Henry to quit his job with the firm. Kwang’s career is destroyed, but Henry finds a new hope for his future in the accents and beauty of diversity in New York City.