Chang Rae

Chang Rae Lee & Andrea Hiott

A List of Who We Are
Interview, 2005

It is often the intangible but intimately lucid nudges and signals of our family, peers, and lovers’ judgments that navigate us through our daily decisions. And it’s usually these decisions which, when compiled, create the more obvious direction of our lives; the signature direction, the one others define us by or know us as; the one we may cling to even if it makes us miserable or eats away at our potential. Henry Park, the main character in Chang Rae Lee’s bestselling, first novel Native Speaker, gets confrontedwith such a definition head on – on the first page in fact – the first line: The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was. Not such an easy thought – to have the person you love create a list that defines you, and then leave. It’s even less comfortable for the main character, Henry Park, as Park is a man already regulated to the sidelines by his society and his own conception of self. He’s a Korean American living the new and ever-more-subtle experience of the American immigrant. Park is riding that paradox of seeming incredibly normal (i.e. not particularly noticeable) while simultaneously being exceptionally un-included, even if only by “the usual“ and “taken-for-granted” norm. Perhaps only the immigrant could understand such an axiomatic composition of self; yet it is this lonely but involved position that gives Park a truer view of the society that surrounds him.

Chang Rae Lee is also a Korean American. ”Native Speaker” was his first book, but he is also the author of A Gesture Life and the more recent Aloft. He is a professor at Princeton, a PEN/Hemingway award winner and one of those names you might have seen on lists like The New Yorker’s 20 Best Young Writers.
Lee understands the immigrant experience first hand – he was 3 when his family moved to the US from Korea – but he is equally as articulate in describing the typical American lifestyle and the oddities and pains that arise in trying to live up to such a widespread but consistently impossible idea, the American dream.

There are many places to dream from, and Lee finds the ones we recognize easily. All of Lee’s work deals with the outsider and the brands we stick on one another based on such things as race, color, image, and language. He effortlessly gets inside the experience and takes one to the place where truth meets label. His books deal with the immigrant experience and those alienated by culture, but they are also human stories, complex and without cliché. He simply comes at it from the angle he knows best, matching pieces of the puzzle of collective society with that of the individual, showing us relationships that are constantly in motion, not always fair, and at times even ambivalent about the assimilatory necessities and differences within a nation’s mix of race, religion, history, and worth.

Pulse: A word that is often brought up in the debate over immigration is “foreigner”. What does this word mean to you? In your experience, has it acquired any specific connotation?

Chang-Rae Lee: Well I think certainly its negative, or at least it’s used negatively. Though for me, in some ways I can’t actually say that word the way it’ s usually used because I so deeply identify with the human moment of it.That word holds so many stories for me, both personally and externally, so my relationship to it is quite different than it is for most people. But I think even for most people it’s a word that really cordons off and divides. It’s a really dangerous word. I think that in my writing I’ve always wanted to give a voice to the void that that word suggests, to give humanity and a narrative to “the Other” so that they can no longer be thought of as “outside”. I think “foreigner” is a word that precludes imagination or any further thinking because its shorthand for “dangerous”, “unknown”, “insidious” – it invisibly stands for all those things wrapped into one. It’s been used throughout history for no good. But aside from those connotations, my own personal view of the word foreigner –intellectually and almost spiritually – and in a way that isn’t negative- would be that it’s the idea of someone who is very conscious of self and context, someone who is very conscious of his or her place.

It seems to be relative to the idea of alienation – whether it is cultural displacement or dealing with family or love, or maybe even with prestige or power – it’s about being outside of something that you want to be inside of, or at least recognized by in some way.

Yes but I think the next idea, the following idea that is perhaps the most important one, is how does that positioning then influence self, then influence who that person is. I do think we’ve all felt alienated, but I think for some that alienation becomes part of a core character. And that core character of course has social and cultural implications for how people are treated. I think – in terms of the immigrant experience – one changes their identity in a sense, whether they want to or not, and therein lies the problem, this tension between having to change and feeling a certain lack of control over the result. I think foreigners have much less control over how their selves and characters are seen and treated. From everything from going to a bureaucratic office and being treated in a certain way to interactions on the street where they live, being misunderstood or unable to ask for what they need – all those sorts of experiences eventually accrue to a deeper influence.

My mother, for instance, was someone who was wonderfully articulate and proud and very capable, but she was capable in the Korean language. When we moved to America, because of her English skills, or lack of them, and her outsider status in the community, she became a very different person. She was tentative. She was quiet. She was yielding. I mean obviously there was a core person that didn’t change but in her day-to-day life, which is really the main portion of a life, she had to act and react in different ways than she had before the plane trip over.

So what does that mean? It means context is important for how selves are. I think a lot of people who feel as if they are established and belong to a place never really understand what that is;they don’t understand that they are who they are not only because they were born that way but because they have a place in their landscape or society or context that’s been solid and unchanging. Once you change that foundation, the self actually changes as well. Maybe not drastically, but certainly in a meaningful way, in a way that affects that life.

But there is another thing that I want to point out also and that’s that a person does change when they move to a new environment,but that this process goes the other way too. Foreigners change, but they also change us. They change the society around them even if they don’t have, at least on the outside, much of a voice or power. Slowly, inexorably, the ground shifts because of their presence.

Perhaps with time the contradiction even dissolves.

I’ve seen that in practice over the 35 years that I’ve lived in America. From when we were seen as a family who was just really a foreign entity because there was no other family like us who lived in this small town that we lived in, to a time now where the same family coming over would be much more accepted and, in some ways, less acknowledged because people wouldn’t find it such a stark detail. Not to say that anyone can fully assimilate easily, but it is certainly much different now. Maybe my mother would have had a different life had she come over now as opposed to 35 years ago.

But even today a lot of people still feel really outside the normal community. A Chinese friend of mine lives in New York City and there’s an entire community there of young people who only speak Chinese. He says that he has a sense of being two people: one when he is with his Chinese peers and another when he’s with his English-speaking friends. It’s as though somehow he’s always outside.

Of course. And that’s because there’s a mainstream context and a marginal context that are both important to that person. And there’s no way that you can really bridge the two.

You don’t think so?

Well the two will be bridged at some point perhaps because of how the larger culture will change, because of the shift, but what does that mean? I think it goes back to what we were talking about before: the culture doesn’t change quickly enough, so the self changes. And in significant ways: there’s a new consciousness built from that bifurcation.

It’s an odd sort of circle though: context changes the self and then the self changes the culture.

Right. And even more interesting is that ultimately the majority of these changes are untraceable from moment to moment.

Well I guess you can never really set it aside and look at it.

No you can’t, but we know it’ s there just because of basic human feeling.

One thing that worries me, or that I think about, is how many people are silently negotiating these two different realities. For instance, some kids go to school and are just everyday kids but then they go home to their parents who speak another language,who have difficulty with their new country’s language, or who might live in reference to a totally different culture. How well do you think the peers of such people appreciate or recognize this tension or difference that the children of immigrants have to balance?

Actually, I don’t think they can if they haven’t experienced it themselves. What you just described was exactly my life. I moved to America when I was three years old, and I only spoke Korean until I started school. Even then, when I came home from school, particularly with my mother, she would speak to me only in Korean. Even once I was seven or eight years old, she would talk to me only in Korean and I would understand everything but by then I’d reply to her in English.

And was that difficult for you?

I didn’t think so then. I was just a little kid. And kids are good with languages. They can move between them pretty fluidly and easily. But then later on…well, I guess that’s the reason I wrote some of those books I’ve written.

Of course. Your cells remembered.

Yes, I think so. Those experiences don’t happen without some kind of imprint, some kind of consequence. And the consequence doesn’t necessarily have to be negative, but again it’s a consequence of self-consciousness. And honestly I’m not so sure that that particular awareness could have come in any other way. It’s derivative of a very particular context and experience. To look at it from the other side, I’m sure I can’t understand the feeling that people who were born and then grew up in one city – people who have lived in one place their entire lives – might have. That’s something inaccessible to me on a certain level.

Though you were young and assimilated easily, it must have been difficult for your parents: suddenly the son was speaking English and being “American” while the parents were still trying to figure out this new language and culture and yet still be „the parents”. They’re still trying to realize and figure out what “American” is while their son is naturally acquiring those qualities
with much less effort and time.

Right. That’s true. It was harder for them. The concepts of society were more fixed. I think in all of our cultures, European and American, we’re still dealing with immigrants and their problems. But the immigrant problems are really mostly the native’s problems. It’s caught up with this troubling question of ‘how are they changing our society?’ I can understand the idea, but I could never have a nationalist point of view on this because my very sense of culture is that culture is dynamic, and so to be German or to be Turkish or to be anything, isn’t fixed. We might think it’s fixed at any given point and time, but its not. Cultures are always influencing and changing one another. And I guess I’m just not afraid of that dynamism.

My initial feeling about immigration is that it’s all good. Why should we fight this? But then I think it’s too easy to take that view, and so I want to understand why we do feel this need to have such well-defined borders and boundaries among us. Why do we block each other off this way and distinguish each other by groups?

Right. Why is that? Is it because we want to preserve a certain sort of national character and visage? What does that even mean? I don’t know the specific impetus.

Tracing it back gets complicated. Especially in America where its already an assimilation of so many other cultures.

Well I think in America we just have a little more experience with this. I think with the EU perceptions are really starting to change there as well. People are starting to really look at these problems in new ways. I find it fascinating, but other people find it frightening of course.

I find it interesting – and frightening. Only in the sense that it’s very difficult to understand or to find out why we think we have to preserve these particular forms of national identity, an identity that is already an assimilation of other identities.

Well I think that’s why these discussions have to happen, so that people can realize what this need is actually about and then ask themselves if it’s really valid. A lot of it is beyond anyone’s control – even governments because places and cultures change regardless of all these rules governing who can and cannot come in.

But at the same time, one has to ask, could we even exist without these rules and borders?

Yes, if everyone had open borders, what would that actually be like? It’s a difficult question.

There are so many variables to consider, but when all is said and done, maybe it would be possible. 

Yes, maybe it would be something positive for us all. But there are just too many factors to be able to see it clearly at the moment. We just have to keep communicating and see where that can take us…

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