completely clear and calm
She didn’t look at all like us, nothing like my mother, whose broad,
serene face was the smoothest mask.
"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.
hard to pin down or identify
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?
"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.
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.
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.
uninterrupted in time and indefinitely long continuing
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.
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.
contort the face to indicate a certain mental 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.
skulked back to a safe position with his suspecting eyes fixed on me and commanded that I fire again.
effusively or insincerely emotional
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
direct one's course or way
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.
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.
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.
a harmonious state of things and of their properties
There were certain
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.”
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
in opposition to an established system or government
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 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.
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.
fear of the unknown 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.
a representation of Christ's nativity at Bethlehem
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
a right reserved exclusively by a person or group
And yet for me, the
prerogative is that you should still bestow your blood whenever able.
a mammal the female of which has a pouch carrying the young
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.
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.
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.
not diminished or moderated in intensity or severity
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.
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.
careful to consider potential consequences and avoid risk
There’s so much that’s admirable in the Oriental culture and mind. You’ve been raised to be
circumspect and careful.
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.
the region close around a person or thing
I have only known