VARIOUS TEXTS: NATIVE SPEAKER (excerpt) by Chang-Rae Lee (Abi LK)

In this text Korean-American Henry Park reminisces about his father who has just had a stroke and is lying in bed paralyzed.

I thought his life was all about money. He drew much energy and pride from his ability to make it almost at will. He was some kind of human annuity. He had no real cleverness or secrets for good business; he simply refused to fail, leaving absolutely nothing to luck or chance or someone else. Of course, in his personal lore he would have said that he started with $200 in his pocket and a wife and baby and just a few words of English. Knowing what every native loves to hear, he would have offered the classic immigrant story, casting himself as the heroic newcomer, self-sufficient, resourceful.

The truth, though, is that my father got his first infusion of capital from a ggeh, a Korean “money club” in which members contributed to a pool that was given out on a rotating basis. Each week you gave the specified amount; and then one week in the cycle, all the money was yours.

His first ggeh was formed from a couple dozen storekeepers who knew each other through a fledgling Korean-American business association. (…)

I know over the years my father and his friends got together less and less. Certainly, after my mother died, he didn’t seem to want to go to the gatherings anymore. But it wasn’t just him. They all got busier and wealthier and lived farther and farther apart. Like us, their families moved to big houses with big yards to tend on weekends, they owned their own neighborhood pool and tennis clubs and were making drinking friends with Americans. Some of them, too, were already dead, like Mr. Oh, who had a heart attack after being held up at his store in Hell’s Kitchen. And in the end my father no longer belonged to any ggeh, he complained about all the disgraceful troubles that were now cropping up, people not paying on time or leaving too soon after their turn getting the money. In America, he said, it’s even hard to stay Korean.

I wonder if my father, if given the chance, would have wished to go back to the time before he made all that money, when he had just one store and we rented a tiny apartment in Queens. He worked hard and had worries but he had a joy then that he never seemed to regain once the money started coming in. He might turn on the radio and dance cheek to cheek with my mother. He worked on his car himself, a used green Impala with carburetor trouble. They had lots of Korean friends that they met at church and then even in the street, and when they talked in public there was a shared sense of how lucky they were, to be in America but still have countrymen near. (…)

What belief did I ever hold in my father, whose daily life I so often ridiculed and looked upon with such abject shame? The summer before I started high school he made me go with him to one of the new stores on Sunday afternoons to help restock the shelves and the bins. I hated going. My friends – suddenly including some girls – were always playing tennis or going to the pool club then. I never gave the reason why I always declined, and they eventually stopped asking. Later I found out from one of them, my first girlfriend, that they simply thought I was religious. When I was working for him I wore a white apron over my slacks and dress shirt and tie. The store was on Madison Avenue in the Eighties and my father made all the employees dress up for the blue-haired matrons, and the fancy dogs, and the sensible young mothers pushing antique velvet-draped prams, and their most quiet of infants, and the banker fathers brooding about annoyed and aloof and humorless.

My father, thinking that it might be good for business, urged me to show them how well I spoke English, to make a display of it, to casually recite “some Shakespeare words.” (…) Mostly, though, I threw all my frustration into building those perfect, truncated pyramids of fruit. The other two workers seemed to have even more bottled up inside them, their worries of money and family. They marched through the work of the store as if they wanted to deplete themselves of every last bit of energy. Every means and source of struggle. They peeled and sorted and bunched and sprayed and cleaned and stacked and shelved and swept; my father put them to anything for which they didn’t have to speak. They both had college degrees and knew no one in the country and spoke little English. The men, whom I knew as Mr. Yoon and Mr. Kim, were both recent immigrants in their thirties with wives and young children. They worked twelve-hour days six days a week for $200 cash and meals and all the fruit and vegetables we couldn’t or wouldn’t sell; it was the typical arrangement. My father like all successful immigrants before him gently and not so gently exploited his own. “This is way I learn business, this is way they learn business.”

And although I knew he gave them a $100 bonus every now and then I never let on that I felt he was anything but cruel to his workers. I still imagine Mr. Kim’s and Mr. Yoon’s children, lonely for their fathers, gratefully eating whatever was brought home to them, our overripe and almost rotten mangoes, our papayas, kiwis, pineapples, these exotic tastes of their wondrous new country, this joyful fruit now too soft and too sweet for those who knew better, us near natives, us earlier Americans.

(970 words)
Source: Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker, New York, 1995, pp. 49-55.

annuity - fixed amount of money paid each year
personal lore - personal legend
pool - here: an amount of money shared by a group of people
fledgling - developing, rising
to hold sb up - to rob sb
Hell’s Kitchen - poor and dangerous area of New York City
Queens - lower-middle-class borough of New York City
carburetor - part of an automobile engine
abject - pitiful, hopeless
to restock - to refill with goods
slacks - pair of trousers
Madison Avenue in the Eighties - upper-middle-class area of New York City on 80th to 89th streets
matron - an older married woman
aloof - not interested, bored
truncated - shortened
to deplete - oneself to use up, consume
to let on - to show, to make known

Work on a total of three tasks.
Tasks 1 and 2 are compulsory. Choose one task from 3.

1 Give an account of the stages of the father’s life in America as shown in the text. Do not write more than 200 words. (30%)
2 Briefly state the narrator’s attitudes towards his father. Show how the narrative perspective reveals these attitudes. (30%)
3 A Considering the above text and other texts you have read, comment on the advantages of an immigrant having close family and ethnic ties in his/her new country of residence. (40%)

3 B Referring to his father’s beginnings in America the narrator says, “He worked hard and had worries but he had a joy then that he never seemed to regain once the money started coming in” (lines 26/27). Compare the changes in the father’s emotions with the emotional development of a character from film or literature you are familiar with. (40%)

3 C Compare the relationship between the narrator and his father with a similar parentchild relationship you are familiar with from texts or films and possibly your own experiences, and briefly assess whether the relationship described in the excerpt from “Native Speaker” is typical of a parent-child relationship in a first-generation immigrant family. (40%).

You are expected to write at least 700 words in no more than 300 minutes.

Source: Berlin: Senatsverwaltung f. Bildung, Wissenschaft und Forschung

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