"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.
"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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.