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"Over the mountains
There are mountains"

a look at asian pacific american literature
Written by Jessica Lim

An aspiring Korean American politician in Chang-Rae Lee's "Native Speaker," says,


    " If you are listening to me now and you are Korean, and you pridefully own your own store, your yah-che-ga-geh (phonetically spells out vegetable store) that you have built up from nothing, know these facts. Know that the blacks who spend money in your stores and help put food on your table and send you children to college cannot open their own stores. Why? Why can't they? Why don't they even try? Because banks will not lend to them because they are black because these neighborhoods are 'troubled' high risk. Because if they did open stores, no one would insure them. And if they do not have the same strong community you enjoy, the one you brought from Korea… (Lee, 179)".

The speaker tries to draw a connection between the two: "I am speaking of histories that all of us should know. Remember, or now know, how Koreans were cast as the dogs of Asia…remember our feelings of disgrace and penury and shame, remember most of all the struggle to survive with one's own identity still strong and alive. I ask that you remember these things, or know them now. Know that what we have in common, the sadness and pain and injustice, will always be stronger than our differences…" (Lee, 152).

At this point, I would like to examine the notion of layers. Layers are often used to cover or protect something underneath. We wear layers of clothing to protect our bodies from the cold. Human skin is seven -layers- thick, so as to protect our organs and veins from damage. Layers add a component of strength to something that is otherwise sensitive and susceptible to damage. The Asian Americans method of communication reflects this very notion of layers. Certain ways of communication from one Asian American to another and from an Asian American to a non Asian American protects a 'past', attempts to hide a notion of foreignness, and creates an allusion that all is well even when they are not.


Chang-Rae Lee

Author was born on July 29, 1965 in Seoul Korea.

This second-generation Korean American immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old.

He was raised in Westchester, New York, and graduated from Yale University with a degree in English and from the University of Oregon with a MFA in writing.

His first novel, Native Speaker (1995), won the PEN/Hemingway Award, QPB's New Voices Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and the Oregon Book Award.

This novel explores the life of a Korean-American outsider who is involved in espionage.

In 1999, he published his second novel, A Gesture Life, which elaborated on his themes of identity and assimilation through the narrative of an elderly physician who remembers treating Korean "comfort women" during World War II.

His work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and numerous anthologies. He lives in New Jersey, and is the director of the MFA program at Hunter College in New York City.

Reviews of "Native Speaker"
  • Korea Times Review
  • Mystery Guide
  • AA Cultural Criticism

    Reviews of "A Gesture Life"

  • Pacific Rim Voices
  • New York University
  • Atlantic Journal-Constitution
  • Booklist
  • 4 Books
  • Hard-Boiled
  • Washington Post
  • Impac Dublin
  • San Francisco LIfe


  • Beatrice
  • New York Times
  • Anisfield Wolf
  • By understanding these layers with the hope of eventually peeling them away, we will uncover a truth about all mankind- a human desire to be part of something greater; that none of us had a choice of what color we would be or how we would interact with each other. By understanding these layers, things that you have heard before will have new meaning behind them. The 'Chinese' vegetable man will no longer just be a smiling immigrant that sells you apples and oranges- he will have a history and a will behind him.

    And amidst all of the various characteristics of the Asian immigrant in America, this character also shines with an admirable sense of humor and an extraordinary ability to accept things as they are and to hope for a future that involves the willingness of their children to make their mark with the tools, such as mastering the English language, and prove that the hard work was worth staying late to take inventory of the red delicious apples and sweating over the ironing press at their dry cleaning store.

    Last night, a young Caucasian man and I were talking. We somehow got into the conversion of our childhood neighborhoods and he said jokingly, "All the Koreans in my town have dry cleaners." It wasn't what he said that got to me, but rather how he said it. How he knew nothing about what he was saying. To aspire to own a dry cleaner or a vegetable store is by no means considered prestigious in America, nor is it in Asia. So by saying all the Koreans that he knew were dry cleaners meant something entirely different to me. I later found out that his father was a doctor.

    I didn't say anything because the truth was that the majority of Koreans that I know do indeed own dry cleaners and other small shops. My point to all this is poignantly expressed in Chang Rae Lee's "The Native Speaker". The main character is a young Korean American who grew up for the majority of his life in America. He goes into detail about his relationship with his parents when he was growing up. His father is a vegetable worker who works long hours to provide for his family. One day, young Henry noticing how languid his father appears asks how his day was:

      "I remember when my father would come home from his vegetable stores late at night, and my mother would say, you must be hungry. You come home so late. I hope we made enough money today.

      She never asked about the stores themselves, about what vegetables were selling, how the employees were working out, nothing ever about the painstaking, plodding nature of the work. I though it was because she simply didn't care to know the particulars, but when I began to ask him one night about the business (I must have been six or seven), my mother immediately called me back into the bedroom and closed the door.

      ""Why are you asking him about the stores?" she interrogated me in Korean, her tongue plaintive, edgy, as though she were in some pain.

      "I was just asking," I said.

      "Don't ask him. He's very tired. He doesn't want to talk about it."

      "Why not?" I said, this time louder.

      "Shh!" she said, grabbing my wrists. "Don't shame him! Your father is very proud. You don't know this, but he graduated from the best college in Korea, the very top, and he doesn't need to talk about selling fruits and vegetables. It's below him. He does it only for you…"

      I walked back into the living room and found my father asleep on the sofa, his round mouth pursed and tightly shut…A single fly, its armored back an oily, metallic green, was dancing a circle on his chin. What he'd brought home from work (Lee, 55-56)"."

    To continue with the article, click HERE

      Part 1: Learning the definition of being an immigrant
      Part 2: The many "layers" of being an immigrant
      Part 3: Immigrant Asian's interaction with an Asian American
      Part 4: Relationship between an Asian immigrant and another Asian immigrant
      Part 5: Relationship between an Asian American and an American
      Part 6: Info on what America is and what it can be

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