Academic journal article MELUS

From Mee-Gook to Gook: The Cold War and Racialized Undocumented Capital in Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker

Academic journal article MELUS

From Mee-Gook to Gook: The Cold War and Racialized Undocumented Capital in Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker

Article excerpt

In his 1995 novel Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee inserts an account of the pedagogical moment in which his Korean American narrator experiences the lesson of what it means to be a "good" or "bad" Korean. This moment literally takes place in the classroom. Henry Park recalls, "I read my junior encyclopedia.... The entry didn't mention any Koreans except for Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung, the Communist leader. Kim was a bad Korean. In the volume there was a picture of him wearing a Chinese jacket. He was fat-faced and maniacal. Bayonets were in the flame behind him. He looked like an evil robot." Pressed to present an oral report to his class that would be received favorably, Henry decides to be a "good Korean" instead of the "bad Korean," or the "Mao lover's Mao." Because the Korean War resulted in the division of the country into a communist North and a US-controlled South, in the US neoimperial imaginary there can only be bad Koreans and good Koreans. To save himself from certain embarrassment in front of his class, Henry prepares a report that parrots US Cold War logics: "the threat of Communism, the Chinese Army, how MacArthur was a visionary, that Truman should have listened to him. How lucky all ... Koreans were" (225). In a text that is otherwise preoccupied with Henry's attempt to be a "good" American (a perfectly assimilated, unaccented "native speaker" as the title suggests), how are we to interpret this recollected scene of his interpellation as a good Korean? That is, how does being a good American intersect with being a good Korean? Indeed, within Henry's psychic economy, it would seem that the two are mutually exclusive, that racialized and "ethnic" Americans like himself are compelled to become good Americans by eschewing and erasing any signs of their ethnic difference. One becomes a good American precisely by refusing to be any type of Korean at all, whether good, bad, or in between. Yet as this excavation of the Korean War suggests, the relationship between being a good Korean and a good American is not one of mutual exclusivity. Rather, within the logics of the Cold War that haunt this novel, the relationship could be better described as teleological succession, in which being a good (as in anti-communist) Korean is for Korean Americans like Henry Park the necessary precondition for becoming a good (as in anti communist) American.

This essay focuses on how such Cold War logics and histories haunt Native Speaker. In contrast to the proliferation of knowledge, albeit a certain kind of knowledge, about America's Cold War "losses" of China and Vietnam, the Korean War (1950-1953) represents a curious lacuna. It has been dubbed the "Forgotten War," though the war has not technically come to an end since an armistice--not a peace treaty--was signed in 1953. Thus, even as Native Speaker gives narrative form to the Korean War and its Cold War aftereffects, it offers an unsettling hermeneutic that does not thematize naive or wholesale retrieval as the desired or even possible corrective to historical erasure. Rather, Lee's narrative attends to the war as a complex problem of knowledge production that saturates not only American nationalist discourse, but also the way narrator Henry Park comes to form his subjectivity and know himself.

The conundrum Henry faces, in other words, is not simply the challenge of negotiating an ethnic or racialized identity. It is also a reckoning with the Cold War history through and under which he and his family are compelled to be in the US in the first place. Native Speaker makes visible the terms, limits, and fictions of such racialized presence and upward mobility in the US by interrogating America's putative Cold War victory.

According to the Manichean logics of the Cold War, America's apparent victory is the triumph of capitalism and (multiracial) democracy against communism and totalitarianism. Yet as Native Speaker's thematization of the nexus between race and capitalism powerfully demonstrates, America's Cold War victory might indeed be a pyrrhic one, fraught with contradictions, limits, and dangers. …

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