It’s difficult to find Asian American stories that generously explore our community and its multiple viewpoints. Often, narratives are centered on lone Asian American protagonists who are trying to make their way in the wider world. Perhaps their parents or a childhood friend will also be the other yellow characters in the story, but they will still be minor characters and the Asian American world will be of low importance. The lives of Asian Americans who do not share the same gender, age, and class as the protagonist (who’s usually the author avatar) thus remain shrouded.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these types of stories. Writers generally write about what they know and it’d be odd, even presumptuous, to demand that they create stories about other people’s experiences. But there is an issue when these types of lone-Asian narratives become over-representative of our community, a problem that’s likely exacerbated by the fact that many Asian American writers not only feel a sense of separation from the “typical” members of their racial group, but also because the entire institutional process in becoming a writer is so traditionally white-dominated.
The result is that entire swaths of our community get ignored in these hyper-individualistic stories that are purportedly representative voices. The implicit message is that a predominantly Asian American story is not worth telling, that you as a member of that tribe are only interesting if you aspire to leave other Asians behind and escape the haunting spectre of Asianness. Even an all-Asian narrative like Crazy Rich Asians has the lone Asian American protagonist in Rachel Chu. All the other yellow characters are foreigners, more exotic and cool than the drab cultural orphan that is the Asian American.
The fundamental question here is this: is Asian America of any interest to anybody? It’s a very young community with most of us having immigrated after the 1965 immigration reforms. Despite the fact that Asians were in America for over a century, most of us cannot claim any connection with those pioneers whose histories have become lost or ignored. Asian America, as we know it, is younger than many of our own parents. It still doesn’t quite know where it belongs. It doesn’t even know whether it ought to even have its own unique viewpoint or to instead always be everyone’s sidekick. Even its most prideful self-expressions can come off like simulations of other cultures (e.g. fratty Asians, hip-hop Asians, hipster Asians).
So can such a fledgling culture be the setting of a compelling narrative?
Free Food For Millionaires is a contemporary Victorian-style novel — complete with a sprawling scope and omniscient narrator — that delivers a panoramic view of a particular Asian American society of its time: Korean Americans in 1990s New York City. The main narrative thread follows Casey Han, a fresh-outta-Princeton Korean American woman who strives to break out of her poor and unbearably ethnic Queens upbringing. To her, that means a job at the top Wall Street firm, a white boyfriend who belongs to an Eating Club (i.e. a fancy Princeton frat), and the power to buy whatever she wants, whenever she wants.
Published in 2007, Free Food For Millionaires is not a new book, but it remains fresh and special in how it takes a familiar plot — a 2nd-generation Asian American woman figuring out her place in America — and expands upon it by treating it as part of a larger Asian American constellation. A more typical novel would’ve remained fixed on Casey, paying no attention to other Asian American characters, except maybe her parents out of necessity. A story must be selective in how many viewpoints it presents and conventional wisdom says that having an Asian protagonist already tests the audience’s interest; having more key Asian characters would be too many spices for the soup.
However, Free Food For Millionaires refuses to play by those rules. While Casey is the protagonist, the story gets into the heads of others in her Korean American community, whether they’re young or old, male or female, rich or poor. Many different characters receive multiple chapters devoted to them, even older people like Casey’s parents, Joseph and Leah. Through them, we get a glimpse into the church-centered social circles they run in. It is fascinating to see the similar, often romantic, tensions among the older people as we do with the younger people, especially since older immigrant Asian Americans are so invisible in our society.
But the brightest stars of this constellation are undoubtedly Casey and Ted Kim, a young man similar to Casey in age, education, and upbringing. Because they share a combative, almost vindictive, personality, their interactions naturally lend themselves to become some of the most incisive and honest scenes between young Asian American women and men ever written.
The most memorable scene in the novel takes place in a job interview between these two. Casey finds herself needing Ted’s help at an extremely low point in her life: she not only desperately needs a job after getting stuck in post-grad unemployment, but she’s also been kicked out of her home by her parents and has broken up with her (white) boyfriend after she caught him cheating on her. Ted, as a senior member of a big financial firm, has power over Casey at this moment and thus, the opportunity to express his lifetime of resentment at women like her:
The girl had no cash left and no backup plans. The most hilarious thing about this girl was that she was too proud to use whatever connections she might have made. Her arrogance stunned him; he almost admired it. She was one of those Korean girls who thought she was as good as white and thought that the world was fair, and it tickled him to see her reduced to this position — to have to ask a member of the immigrant tribe for a patch of floor to sleep on and to ask another member to pull a favor on her behalf. Where are all your little white friends now? he wanted to say to her. She was acting like a rich white girl, and Ted knew that life did not let you lie to yourself for very long. In that way, you had to admit, life was quite fair.
In an ideal world, one would hope that Ted would be more forgiving and magnanimous. Yet at the same time, anyone who doesn’t feel at least some twinge of empathy for him has likely never experienced the special kind of fury invoked by racism and condescension from people of their own race.
But the strength of Free Food For Millionaires is in how multiple perspectives are richly told. Sometimes, it goes too far — most jarringly and comically in a scene where the POV switches manically between a man in a threesome and his girlfriend who walks in on him — but here, we also get Casey’s side.
His comments stung her, but she priced this mocking as payment for the favor. He was the sort of Korean guy who was angry about Korean girls dating white guys. She wanted to argue, however: But it wasn’t as if you or your buddies were ever asking me out. Should I have just stayed home? To a Ted, she was too tall, too plain, and too much of a talker. Her family had no money.
On discussions about Asian-white relationships in America (let’s not sugarcoat it by calling it “interracial” when we know the relationships of issue almost always involve white partners), Asian Americans usually either (1) suppress such talks as unimportant or dangerous, or (2) only consider their interests. But here, we have an Asian American woman not only writing about this hush-hush topic at a deep level, but also giving consideration to both sides. Yes, Ted can be seen as being a bitter jerk. But he has also accurately observed that Casey’s been able to leverage her status as an Asian woman to find social inclusion in white spaces from an early age: boyfriends in high school, acceptance into the Eating Club scene in Princeton, and warm reception from men in her profession (the same kind who likely viewed men like Ted as unwanted competition).
On the other hand, Casey’s felt ignored by Korean guys and was always hurt more by rejection by them than by men of other races. One could wish she’d been less willing to shed her working-class Korean-church Elmhurst roots in favor of the elite corporate Manhattan world, but when you throw in the obvious chasm in power between the two worlds (not to mention the Immigrant Time Warp that froze her family life in dictatorial 1970s Korea), it’s also not hard to understand where she’s coming from as well. How many of us, including Asian guys, wouldn’t have taken a similar path out if it were constantly available?
From Ted’s view, Casey’s had it easy because as an Asian woman, she could fit in nicely into an existing hierarchy governed by straight white male desires. But her conditional inclusion has steep costs too. She breaks up with her white boyfriend, Jay Currie, after she walks in on him having a threesome with two younger white women. In that moment, she can’t help but immediately notice that the women are white and more attractive than she is, thus spiking her racial insecurities. For him, she’d suppressed her natural rebelliousness:
…Casey did housewifey things for Jay — went to the dry cleaner for his shirts, tidied the apartment, scrubbed the bathtub, stocked the refrigerator with orange juice, milk, cereal, and coffee.
Yet in the end, that wasn’t enough. Furthermore, he later marries a richer and more beautiful Asian woman, leaving Casey to wonder if she was just part of a system where social-climbing men like Jay sought to leverage his white maleness with whichever group of women embarrassingly overvalued it:
No doubt Virginia had added the women’s snipey comments to make Casey feel better, but Casey didn’t mind Keiko’s attractiveness. So be it. What threw her was the fact he was with another Asian woman — as if they were cogs to be replaced on a machine. That was the problem with fetishes, wasn’t it? There could be real love, but one couldn’t feel certain what was the basis for attraction. It gave her some relief that she was with Unu now, a Korean, as opposed to a WASP who’d fallen off his class rung. Somewhere she’d read that when Yoko Ono was asked, “Why do white men like Asian women?” she’d apparently replied, “Maybe Asian women like white men.” Well, Casey liked Unu, but had also liked Jay. Ted had long ago remarked that Jay was the type of white guy who ended up with Asian women, as if Asian women were consolation prizes for these white guys who couldn’t score high with one of their own kind. Ted was such a prick, she thought.
White acceptance comes at a cost. Casey’s mentor, an older Korean woman named Sabine, is married to a rich and older white man named Isaac Gottesman. This gives her access to power and wealth, but theirs is largely a transactional relationship where she takes care of him while he sleeps around with other women. And Ted, for all his anger at Asian women like Casey, cheats on and divorces his “perfect” Korean American wife to marry red-haired and blue-eyed Delia Shannon, his firm’s secretary. Meanwhile, Casey ends up with a fellow Korean American fuck-up Unu Shim, a gambling addict.
From Vanity Fair to Middlemarch to War and Peace, many of the most revered novels are expansive and incisive surveys into a segment of their contemporary societies, whether it’s the English bourgeoisie or Russian nobility. With Free Food For Millionaires, it was great to see modern Asian America too receive this respectful treatment.
I had the opportunity to meet Min Jin Lee at a fundraiser event earlier this year. During the Q&A session, I asked her if she thought the social conditions that were prevalent during the novel’s time period were still present today. I should’ve specified that I was talking about Asian American status anxiety and the desire for, and resentment of, white acceptance because I think she interpreted the question as talking more about media representation.
To answer my own question, reading Free Food For Millionaires showed me that things had not changed much, that the issues of assimilation and genderized racism that dominate most of the back-of-the-house Asian American discussions today were just as potent and unresolved decades ago. While there is a sense of disappointment that little progress has been made, there is also a sense of affirmation in that we actually have a much better understanding of these complex, embarrassing, and difficult issues than we let on. It was encouraging to see an Asian American woman get into the heads of Asian men like Ted Kim and Unu Shim and hit so many right notes without casting unfair judgment. Surely, Asian American men can return the favor as well and then, we can finally have that honest and open dialogue that our community has needed for so long.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @JesuInToast