By Yang Sung-jin
In “Free Food for Millionaires,” Lee Min-jin’s engrossing debut novel, heroine Casey Han defies almost every stereotype about a Korean girl. She disobeys her hard-working parents; she has plenty of bad habits, one of which is spending too much on luxuries, only to struggle with mounting debt. But she’s not a Korean girl, exactly. She’s a Korean-American girl who has to find herself, find “the goddamn color” of her parachute in the glorious Manhattan society where money and love are intertwined in infinitely intricate ways.
Although Casey is not a typical Korean character, Lee’s celebrated novel is steeped in Korean culture within the distinctive immigrant society of the United States. Numerous Korean words such as kimbap, hanbok, paebaek, ssangnom and sul are woven into the sprawling saga about immigration, identify, sacrifice, love and money.
Author Lee follows the tumultuous journey of Casey, who must try to stop living beyond her means and deal with her complicated family and romantic relationships. Her Princeton education allows her to hang out with wealthy classmates, but she knows they will never understand what it means to be poor — the painful gap between the haves and have-nots reverberates throughout the novel.
But “Free Food,” at 562 pages, does not limit its scope to the quest of Casey; other colorfully delineated Korean characters evoke great sympathy or empathy in complex subplots which develop into a wave of charged emotions related to betrayals, illicit sex and unexpected turns of events.
There’s Ella, Casey’s Korean friend, an innocent Korean girl and loving wife; Sabine, Casey’s successful mentor who is only too willing to preach about the virtue of time to her young protege; Joseph Han, Casey’s father who has suffered a lot and struggles in American society as a hard-working immigrant; and Ted, Ella’s husband, who pursues success, power and money, only to find himself insecure about what he has achieved.
Lee’s “Free Food” has been showered with favorable reviews by literary critics. Major American media including NPR, the New York Times, USA Today and Newsweek have featured her novel, praising its highly evocative and sophisticated style that captures the American melting pot from a unique point of view.
Lee’s family came to the United States in 1976. She studied history at Yale College and law at Georgetown University, and worked as a corporate lawyer in New York for several years. Lee, 38, now a mother and a professional writer, has received the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from the Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer.
Author shares her view on sacrifice, money and love
By Yang Sung-jin
The following is an e-mail interview with Lee Min-jin, author of “Free Food for Millionaires” (Warner Books; $24.99; 562 pp.).
Question: Casey Han is an amazing character in many respects. What’s her charm and what’s her vulnerability?
Answer: I believe Casey Han is a sympathetic character, because she is bright, diligent and full of lofty dreams. She is vulnerable precisely for the same reasons: When you are bright, diligent and full of lofty dreams, you are likely to have your portion of disappointments, because it will be difficult to have what you want on your own terms.
Q: Joseph represents a traditional Korean father, though some might protest that today’s Korean fathers are not that abusive. What does he symbolize?
A: I do not believe that Korean fathers are abusive. Joseph Han is a man who has survived the Korean War. He lost his family when he was a teenager; he is not well-educated, and he has had only working class jobs. As a boy, he grew up wealthy, but due to historical events, he has lost his class status, family, country, first wife, then later through immigration, he loses his ethnic identity, a command of his spoken and written language and social respect. He has lost a great deal, and he is trying to survive in America where he is not seen as a full person. Joseph can never return to Wonsan where he was born, and he is not understood by his children. He is a tragic character resulting from a tragic national history. The division of Korea has created a unique psychic trauma for Koreans whether they live in Korea or elsewhere. The experience of Diaspora, I imagine, must only compound the displaced North Korean’s sense of dislocation, isolation and unease. I wanted to write about a character like Joseph who is a member of a generation that is dying. I have enormous sympathy for Joseph, and hope I that the reader understands his situation.
Korean parents and immigration
Q: Leah is equally traditional in terms of Korean parents, but her character greatly differs from stereotypical Korean married women (or ajumma). Why is she being depicted as naive and vulnerable?
A: I think characters like Leah exist in real life, and though I have met many competent Korean women dynamos, I was more interested in a character who had difficulty with life. Leah has fears of change and of outsiders, and she has tremendous anxiety about the world. Nevertheless, she works very hard, takes good care of her family’s needs, and wants their happiness. She tries to please her husband and to raise her daughters well. She is a fine housewife, a good mother and a reliable employee. She is for all intents and purposes a working mother — not some coddled orchid. Leah has also lost her mother at an early age, and she has few friends in a new country. A gifted singer, she yearns to dedicate her talents to serving God. Her naivete and vulnerability are real, and despite her weaknesses, she does what is required. I like the idea that a virtuous working class, married woman — a seamstress in an urban dry cleaning shop — could be an unrecognized, world-class soprano and that she can suffer a romantic infatuation for the first time in her life with a failed musician who has had every advantage. I think events like this happen every day to characters like Leah, but we don’t see them in western writing. I was interested in knowing more about a person like her.
Q: Joseph and Leah evoke the stereotypical images of hard-working Korean immigrants in the United States, but our heroine Casey is not a stereotypically obedient Korean American daughter. What does it mean to live as a child of Korean (or Asian) immigrants in the United States?
A: In America, each ethnic group with its own history of immigration has intergenerational conflicts between the first and second generations, as well as between the second and third. You can see parallels in the generational conflicts in terms of class when there is a rise from poverty to wealth. For example, in the novel “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck, a peasant’s social rise is depicted. The main character, Wang Lung, as his class status changes, he, himself changes his habits and beliefs, then later his sons become markedly different in preferences and character from their father’s generation. Naturally, conflicts ensue. I bring up the matter of class to add to the question of immigration, because I do not believe that these kinds of generational conflicts are isolated to immigrants. What is unique to Asians, in particular to East-Asian communities, are the paradigms of Confucianism and the imperial examination system which deeply influenced/built social hierarchies in countries like China and Korea. What makes Casey’s rebellion so shocking, from a Korean’s vantage point, arises from the fact that she is Korean (informed by Confucianism, the Imperial Examination System and most recently, a kind of Korean Christianity with its specific Judeo-Christian patriarchy), and she is an unmarried, young female which has its own social implications in Korea and in Korean American communities. All in all, conflicts between the first and second generations are inevitable whenever there is a radical shift in terms of the first generation’s identity; what is distinct here is the magnitude of the conflicts and the quality of response for both generations.
Sacrifice and choice
Q: What do you think about “sacrifice” Korean parents make for their children, as depicted in your novel?
A: A sacrifice is by definition a forbearance — an act of giving up (either materially or emotionally) — that one person makes for another or for a belief. There are philosophers who argue that sacrifices are not motivated by benevolence: There is no such thing as charity. At the risk of sounding naive, I don’t always believe that. There are examples of sacrifice made where there is little or no expectation of reward. In parenting, there is by necessity a great number of sacrifices which must be made for the benefit of a child. The question remains, why do parents make the sacrifices?
When a parent labors for his child’s happiness and welfare, it is often a costly personal sacrifice — its magnitude measured depending on factors of time, emotion, freedom, material resources, and other opportunity costs. What I find interesting and troubling is when parents overstate their efforts and relentlessly remind (in contrast to reasonably explaining to) children about their sacrifices. I believe some harm can result from this kind of behavior. A sacrifice should optimally be a gift-given with a calm heart- and not be colored by resentment. When a mother decides to give up, let’s say, her career to stay home to raise her son, she makes personal sacrifices (status, money, freedom, etc.). However, she also might gain peace of mind, freedom from social censure, social approval from certain quarters, hopefully, a happier son, and perhaps a more peaceful family unit. But if she has to reiterate her forbearance of personal freedom to her son loudly, her sacrifice can become a burden for her child, her spouse, and ultimately herself.
I offer this prosaic and perhaps impolitic example, because I know what it is like to be a housewife and mother after having been a corporate lawyer, and these domestic jobs are difficult forms of labor with little social status, minimal family respect and certainly no fair compensation; nevertheless, if feminism and self-awareness is to ever to be achieved, I have to believe that I chose these roles since (especially, in 21st century America, elsewhere might be radically different) I was able to do many other things. No one made me leave the law, or put my fiction writing second to raising my son. I would never want my son to think that my life was somehow less because I chose to be with him as my primary occupation. I had many personal reasons to do this, and do not believe this is what all women should do. In fact, I would be deeply troubled if women were told to leave their offices after they conceived.
There are pressures in first world countries for educated women, but I think true self-definition requires an ongoing examination of personal agency — we need to consider how we make our choices, and how we make others feel about our choices, including the ones which benefit others more than they may benefit ourselves for the moment. I think it is morally objectionable to make children feel poorly for the necessary sacrifices parents make. Let me make the corollary argument: If children are, however, ungrateful for the parents’ sacrifices (causing parents to feel that more reminders are needed), that is an inferior perspective the children are choosing, and consequently, they will have to come to terms with that as adults.
Success, power, money
Q: Ted, Ella’s husband, is an intriguing character. He pursues success, power and money. He is also having an affair. Despite his relentless obsessions for mundane desires, he seems deeply disillusioned. Why?
A: Ted is one of my favorite characters in the book, because he has enormous wishes while possessing the temerity and ability to fulfill his goals. I wanted very much to have a character like Ted in this book, because he is fascinating to watch. He is also a sexual and romantic person, and I wanted to represent in fiction the attractive Korean men I have known in my life. Ted’s affair is an error of judgment and reveals a flaw in character; however, it is also a symptom of his profound dissatisfaction with a life of goals fulfilled. I have always been interested in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible where its author who has seen and done everything, concludes that all is vanity. What would happen if you got everything you wanted in this world? Would you be satisfied? I am not certain if Ted will ever be fully satisfied, but one of the things he realizes upon hitting many difficult targets (objective success in education, marriage, home, career, social position, etc.) is that he is lonely, and he was lonely for a person with whom he could feel more at home. Whether or not Delia, his mistress, will ultimately bring him happiness, is less certain, but I was surprised by how much he continued to long for her. Characters surprise you. Ted surprised me. Ted was influenced in part by the character Soames Forsyte from the trilogy “The Forsyte Saga” written by the Edwardian novelist John Galsworthy.
Q: In a land of opportunity, Casey seems to find it terribly difficult to overcome the gap in the rigid class system, even though she has received a top-rated education. What’s your view on class in America?
A: The structure of socioeconomic class in America is perhaps the most fluid in the world. In America, success in education, wealth, talent and personal attractiveness can open doors widely which may never open in other countries which have far more rigid class structures. However, like every country, in America, there are a myriad of social codes which are in continuous operation. Knowledge of them and mastery of such secret handshakes may prove difficult for outsiders. Though permeability and acceptance may exist at many levels, there can also be rejection of merit and degradation of any achievement on the basis of race, gender, physical attractiveness, sexual orientation, family of origin, physical handicaps, etc. Casey has personal difficulties in life, because she isn’t always interested in the obvious things. Her quest is not like Ted’s who unequivocally wants money, class and power. Casey is far more ambivalent about what a person has to do to get and keep those things. Above all, she wants personal autonomy and self definition which turn out to be very expensive commodities.
Relationships and love
Q: Love, sex, adultery. Your novel deals with these universal themes in a fascinating style. What is your perception about relationships in general? What about the diverse relationships that ensnare main characters?
A: A story does not exist unless a character has a wish and there is a conflict in relation to that wish. Consider: John wants to take a trip, but his car is broken. John’s desire to go is obstructed by his lack of transportation. What will John do? That is a simple beginning of a story. Love, sex, and adultery are all related to the theme of Desire. All of us want to be loved (desire to be accepted, pleased and liked); all of us are biologically designed to be curious about sex (a manifestation and consummation of physical desire); and all of us have felt the hand of adultery (betrayal committed by the desired object for its illicit desired object) finger our lives in some way. All of us feel desire in its many forms, and consequently, we have inevitably experienced conflicts when our desires were not fulfilled. A girl loves a boy, but he does not love her back. A boy is loved by two girls, but he has to choose only one. And so on. As for me, I am unduly optimistic about relationships. I believe in love — though, I am of the view that it is an emotion and a quality of behavior (feeling plus actions), and love is not only fleeting sensations — though those emotions can be intoxicating, too. As I have gotten older, I have thought about love as something with an age metric — young love, middle aged love and mature love, etc. I study love, and I think about it all the time — a bizarre aspect of my personality and somewhat helpful in my job as a writer. Love is the shiny thing that all of us want so much, but so few of us feel its presence or sufficiency. I think the cultural obsession for love and society’s discontent with love are very interesting. All of my characters are challenged by love and all the different types of love — be it familial, sexual, social, friendship, mentor, etc. These challenges propel the story.
Q: What does the title “Free Food for Millionaires” mean?
A: At the surface level, I am arguing that there is free food for millionaires in this world — i.e., the rich get richer. Millionaires get free stuff and get free access and more help than they need. I think this is true all over the world. But the point I want to make more than anything is that we are all millionaires, because each one of us possesses inviolable, unique gift(s) at birth which make us wealthy beyond measure. The free food that these millionaires (us) receive is grace — divine unmerited favor. I wanted to share the view that each one of us has experienced (and continue to experience) grace, and it is grace which is the true nourishment in our lives.
I think for many in this country, money is the illusion of freedom and safety. For new immigrants, money is the first thing that seems critical for the friendless and politically insecure. I think money and love are among the subjects which occupy us the most.
Published on The Korea Herald: September 4, 2007