Exploring the Myth of the Model Minority in Lee’s Native Speaker

by John Reim

In a letter to the American defense Society in 1919, President Theodore Roosevelt exemplified many people’s attitude toward immigrants in the mid 20th century, highlighting the fear of and intense pressure to assimilate imposed on immigrants: “We have room for but one flag, the American flag. Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country” (Dobbs). This fear continues to dominate our society even today as does the championing of a “model minority,” who Americanizes him or herself by embracing the language and culture. The struggle of the immigrant’s search for the American dream pervades Chang-rae Lee’s novel Native Speaker, but Lee refuses to further mythologize this dream. He often twists the traditional ideas of a perfect rags-to-riches immigrant story in order to reveal the reality of most immigrants’ experience. Through Chang-rae Lee’s symbolic use of the dog pile in particular, he shows the struggle of the model minority and implies the impossibility of ever truly assimilating into American culture.

The first undermining of the classic immigrant story is paralleled by the first occurrence of the dog pile as symbol when Henry is reliving the death of his only son Mitt. Mitt was bullied as a kid and called pejorative names like “a chink, a jap, a gook” (Lee 103). Mitt’s identity is important because he is an American, he is even half-white, but he still can’t escape the racism targeted at those who are perceived as immigrants. Mitt managed to endure this hostility and eventually began to fit in with the kids who used to bully him; some even became good friends. Then, at his own birthday party, he was suffocated by them in a dog pile. Henry describes one of these friends who approached him, wailing and explaining it was just an accident: “It was just a stupid dog pile” (105). Even if the act was unintentional, the consequences are destructive and deadly. This explanation is also significant because none of the friends apologize for doing it, instead, they take refuge in the defense that “they didn’t mean to stay on him for as long as they did.” Mitt was a third generation immigrant, but he didn’t seem to escape the stereotypes or enmity that accompanied his skin color. His death seems to be a symbol of the smothering of his traditional background by the suffocating imposition of American culture and begs the question, is it possible as an immigrant to keep your tradition and fit in?

Henry wonders if Mitt’s death fit into a larger narrative of this country’s past, concluding, “A child doesn’t forgive or forget—he works it out” (104). Perhaps Mitt’s death was not an accident, but payback or retribution for unresolved conflicts between Asian Americans and white Americans. Henry’s white American wife Leila, reflecting on Mitt’s death, speculates: “Maybe it’s that Mitt wasn’t all white or all yellow…Maybe the world wasn’t ready for him” (129). This offers an alternative narrative to the one that President Roosevelt mentioned in his letter: maybe it is not that immigrants are incapable of assimilating but that Americans prevent them. Maybe the world wasn’t and still isn’t ready for someone to truly cross over a racial border in American. Through Mitt’s death in a dog pile, Lee is hinting at the impossibility of immigrants ever escaping their lower positions in American’s hierarchical society. If a half-white American with immigrant grandparents cannot survive in America, what does a model minority even look like?

The symbol of the dog pile also returns during the downfall of councilman John Kwang. From the very outset of his carrer, it seemed like Kwang had people watching, waiting to pounce on him, and smother him in a dog pile as soon as he slipped up. And he did slip up. After the drunk driving incident, Kwang transformed from city hero to loathed villain. Outside his house, protestors and supporters alike gathered and waited for his return. But the tension can be traced beyond Kwang’s mistake to his racial identity. Our narrator Henry describes the racially charged situation: “Shouts of ‘white trash’ and ‘Spanish niggers’ and ‘greasy gooks’ fly back and forth over their heads” (332). The name-calling shows how much hatred and fear people harbor towards immigrants, and how this volatile combination can spark ethnic rage and violence. When Kwang exits his car, the friction between the immigrants and natives erupts into a riot. Both supporters and protesters rush to mob Kwang and each other and soon exchange blows. Henry describes this newly formed dog pile, saying, “People are grabbing his shoulders, his hair. His bandage is torn from his head. Everyone is shouting. A hundred mouths shouting for him” (343). The absolute chaos and violence of the scene seems to be a metaphor for how, sometimes, trying to cross the border into American culture can rip an immigrant’s identity, his very body, apart. At his peak, Kwang represented the perfect model minority: extremely hard-working, good family values, successful career. However, it seemed that this country was not ready for a mayor that spoke for the poor and minorities and would ensure he was destined to fail. The physical beating that Kwang gets from the group called “Americans for America” highlights how his Korean heritage restricts him from belonging to this “pure” America despite his citizenship (331). Chang-rae Lee again uses the dog pile in order to call into question the possibility of immigrants ever being able to fit in—let alone be successful—in this country.

Although the symbolic use of the dog pile varies in the case of Mitt and Kwang, they have several underlying parallels. Despite their different situations, careers, and ages, both Kwang and Mitt were beginning to be accepted by their fellow citizens. They endured in the face of hardships, and were nothing but friendly to everyone they interacted with. Both of them seemed qualified as “model minorities” because they tried to act like everyone else, like Americans, despite their skin color. Yet, both Mitt and John Kwang had their acceptance stripped away suddenly and violently from them. The fact that they were so quickly turned against by these fellow citizens effectively undermines any comfort taken, by Americans or immigrants, that the latter is ever truly accepted in America. The reader never gets the complete story about Mitt’s death, although Henry hints it was payback for a larger racial conflict. In Kwang’s downfall, much greater insight is given because Henry plays a larger role. Henry, a fellow minority, spied on Kwang, gained his trust, then turned him over to the INS to benefit himself. Henry recognizes this guilty, revealing, “My ugly immigrant’s truth…is that I have exploited my own, and those who can be exploited” (319). Thus, the downfall of Kwang was also a mutiny from within, not solely an attack from white Americans. The grave implication of this being that some immigrants, in imitating “American” behavior, learn that sometimes you get what you want through violence, by pushing others, even people like you, down. That, in fact, this is one way to achieve the status of a model minority.Through the inconvenient truth that one result of enforcing assimilation so intensely is that minorities get pitted against each other, Lee questions the legitimacy of the model minority.

The questions Chang-rae Lee raises in his novel Native Speaker have never seemed so important. Is assimilation an unachievable and imaginary goal? How can one truly be a “model minority”? Must the status of “model minority” always come at the expense of others? Are some immigrants “better” than others? Is acceptance of immigrants and those of different skin colors something America wants and is prepared for, or is this acceptance doomed to be only conditional and fleeting? In the upcoming years, we will again be forced to decide who our country is for and if we truly only have room for one flag.

Works Cited

Lee, Chang-rae. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead, 1995. Print.

Dobbs, Lou. “Broken Borders: Teddy Roosevelt’s Words to Live by.” CNN, 27 Mar. 2006, http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/03/27/quote.roosevelt/. Accessed 13 Nov. 2016.