"Native Speaker," Vocabulary from pages 60-130 30 words

Chang Rae Lee's "Native Speaker" provides a Korean- American perspective on issues of assimilation to the American way of life and longing to hold on to your own culture.

Learn this word list that focuses on parent-child relationships. Here are links to our lists for the novel: pages 1-59, pages 60-130, pages 131-202, pages 203-276, pages 277-349
  1. serene
    completely clear and fine
    "Serene" also means "not agitated; without losing self-possession"--this could describe a woman who once said to her son that "suffering is the noblest art, the quieter the better" but the example sentence is comparing Henry's mother's serene face to the scarred, pockmarked face of Ahjuhma.
    She didn’t look at all like us, nothing like my mother, whose broad, serene face was the smoothest mask.
  2. intangible
    hard to pin down or identify
    "Intangible" also means "incapable of being perceived by the senses, especially touch" and "lacking substance or reality"--none of these definitions fit the example sentence, because in that situation, Henry is more focused on the sounds of the words rather than their meanings. But all the definitions could describe Henry's emotional relationships with his parents.
    I kept at him anyway, using the biggest words I knew, whether they made sense or not, school words like “socioeconomic” and “ intangible,” anything I could lift from my dizzy burning thoughts and hurl against him, until my mother, who’d been perfectly quiet the whole time, whacked me hard across the back of the head and shouted in Korean, Who do you think you are?
  3. recede
    pull back or move away or backward
    Only when a friend of mine was over, after school or sports, would she mysteriously recede from the kitchen.
  4. rigorous
    demanding strict attention to rules and procedures
    She didn’t understand that there weren’t moments in our language—the rigorous, regimental one of family and servants—when the woman’s name could have naturally come out.
  5. incessant
    uninterrupted in time and indefinitely long continuing
    The incessant nature of the quarrels between an adolescent Henry and his father is emphasized by the synonyms "rancor" ("a feeling of deep and bitter anger and ill-will") and "contention" ("a dispute where there is strong disagreement"), and by the punning on the word "homely" which both emphasizes the home and suggests ugliness.
    Our talk back then was in fact one long and grave contention, an incessant quarrel, though to hear it now would be to recognize the usual forms of homely rancor and still homelier devotion, involving all the dire subjects of adolescence—my imperfect studies, my unworthy friends, the driving of his car, smoking and drinking, the whatever and whatever.
  6. grimace
    contort the face to indicate a certain mental or emotional state
    And as I turned with tears in my eyes and the spittle hanging from my mouth I saw my father grimace before he threw back his share all at once.
  7. skulk
    move stealthily
    He skulked back to a safe position with his suspecting eyes fixed on me and commanded that I fire again.
  8. maudlin
    effusively or insincerely emotional
    Compare the definitions and example sentences of "maudlin" and "sentimental"--despite being synonyms, they are not used in the same way. In the list, Lelia is pointing out a flaw that Henry may or may not be aware of, but here, Henry's father is pretending to be mad while actually playing with his young son.
    He shouted for me to stop and he went again and bent over the screens; again I shot him, this time hitting him square on the rump and back, and he yelled louder, his cheeks and jaw wrenched maudlin with rage.
  9. afflicted
    grievously affected especially by disease
    They finally said, with hard pride, that she was afflicted with a “Korean fever” that no doctor in America was able to cure.
  10. estrangement
    the feeling of being alienated from other people
    That night, lying in the short bunk bed above snoring Albert, I wondered if anything would have turned out differently had a careless nurse switched the two of us in a hospital nursery, whether his family would be significantly changed, whether mine would have been, whether any of us Koreans, raised as we were, would sense the barest tinge of a loss or estrangement.
  11. combustible
    capable of igniting and burning
    But all of a sudden, more than you know, he’s outside somewhere, sometimes even alone, crossing the streets, scaling rocks, wrestling with dogs, swimming in pits, getting into everything mechanical and combustible and toxic.
  12. wend
    direct one's course or way
    The outdated past tense of "wend" is "went" (which has become the past tense of the synonym "go"). The ceaseless (synonymous with "incessant") wending of Mitt contrasts with the restricted movements of Henry as a child.
    And there would wend Mitt, the child of ceaseless movement, leafy stick in hand, poking beneath the shady skirts of the trees for the smallest signs of life.
  13. ponderous
    slow and laborious because of weight
    Whenever you looked, Mitt was scaling the wide bow of that paternal back, or swinging from his shoulders, or standing on the tops of his feet so that they walked in tandem, with ponderous, doubled soles.
  14. concordance
    a harmonious state of things in general and of their properties (as of colors and sounds); congruity of parts with one another and with the whole
    The concordances that Henry notices are between his father and his son Mitt. Henry and his father also have similarities, but Henry would not consider them harmonious; rather, he would prefer not to agree with Lelia's observation that his father is “just a more brutal version of you.”
    There were certain concordances.
  15. endow
    give qualities or abilities to
    In profile, you saw the same blunt line descend the back of their necks, those high, flat ears, but then little else because Lelia—or maybe her father—had endowed Mitt with that other, potent sprawl of limbs
  16. subversive
    in opposition to a civil authority or government
    A scrivener is "someone employed to make written copies of documents and manuscripts"--this occupation sounds like the opposite of subversive, but this is actually the point of Henry's descriptions of his half-white, half-Korean son, who is a combination of contrasting physical and emotional characteristics, and who subverts boundaries, categories, and authority.
    those round, vigilant eyes, the upturned ancestral nose (like a scrivener’s, in my imagination), his boy’s form already so beautifully jumbled and subversive and historic.
  17. succession
    a following of one thing after another in time
    One afternoon Mitt tugged at my pant leg and called me innocently, in succession, a chink, a jap, a gook.
  18. timidity
    fear of the unknown or unfamiliar or fear of making decisions
    I remembered how my father had spoken to Clay’s mother in a halting, polite English and how he had excused her son for taking advantage of my timidity and misunderstandings.
  19. creche
    a representation of Christ's nativity in the stable at Bethlehem
    The use of the word "creche" both reveals and subverts Henry's Christian upbringing because it describes a human child's unintentional death rather than the prophesied birth of a divine Savior. Jack, despite not being a Christian, continues the Christ analogy by suggesting that Mitt was a vessel who had to leave the world because he was weighted down by the failures of his loved ones who continue to live.
    Like a cinematic mantra, a mystical trailer of memory, I replayed the scene of all those boys standing in the grass about the spontaneous creche of his death.
  20. delicate
    easily broken or damaged or destroyed
    I shudder to think that I might have injured him, hurt his delicate breastbone or his ribs, or worse, that his last thought was to ask why his father was harming him.
  21. intermittent
    stopping and starting at irregular intervals
    Later I saw him mimicking me; he would recline on the sofa with his little legs propped on pillows, speaking intermittently into the recorder as though he were taking drags on a cigarette.
  22. perceptiveness
    the quality of insight and sympathetic understanding
    Of course I feared his perceptiveness, what he might have seen of me, or even possibly thought in his young mind.
  23. prerogative
    a right reserved exclusively by a particular person or group (especially a hereditary or official right)
    And yet for me, the prerogative is that you should still bestow your blood whenever able.
  24. marsupial
    mammals of which the females have a pouch (the marsupium) containing the teats where the young are fed and carried
    His rosy face just now untucked itself, the whole moment marsupial, strangely wondrous that way, and I thought if I had tasted a family hunger all my life that this should be my daily bread.
  25. sift
    check and sort carefully
    Sometimes he even got little patches of baldness on the back of his head, and she checked for them now, sifting through his dark brown strands with slow method.
  26. exuberance
    joyful enthusiasm
    And what it was about Lelia that I desired and feared came partly through his bloodline running through her, the openness and exuberance and all that hard focus she could sometimes call up.
  27. unmitigated
    not diminished or moderated in intensity or severity; sometimes used as an intensifier
    His neatly clipped silver hair and tailored suits and unmitigating stare of eyes and trim old body said it all over in simple, clear language: Chief Executive Officer.
  28. coddle
    treat with excessive indulgence
    He generally liked me, tended to treat me, I thought, as he might some rising young VP in his Boston-based holding company, alternatingly coddling and browbeating me.
  29. circumspect
    heedful of potential consequences
    Lelia's father thinks he's complimenting Henry, but he's actually being insulting, not only with his use of the word "Oriental" but also with the phrase "circumspect and careful." Henry believes that "when you’re too careful you can’t say anything" and he doesn't admire how his parents always seemed afraid and careful around people who might try to shame or mistreat them.
    There’s so much that’s admirable in the Oriental culture and mind. You’ve been raised to be circumspect and careful.
  30. proximity
    the region close around a person or thing
    I have only known proximity.