Free Food for Millionaires (2007) by Min Jin Lee is about a young 2nd gen Korean girl trying to make something of her life in America. Coming from two working class Korean immigrants, she gets an ivy-league education, is broke and surrounded by millionaires. She overspends money that she doesn’t have, loves shopping and literature all while keeping pride and not asking for help (in these ways I relate to her SO much). She grapples between her traditions and her Americanised ideals, rebelling against her parents and sets off trying to find herself and maybe find love too.
“Her heart was full of frivolous and lofty wishes”
I adored Pachinko, and for that reason alone I decided to pick up her debut. It does show, however, that it’s her first work. The writing is a little blunt in places. She’s still the master of complex characters though, there’s no black and white, no 2D heroes and villains, it’s messy and real. I really enjoyed this read.
“A man could have so much anger, but a woman, no, a woman could not live with that much rage – that was how the world worked”
The way she treats topics like gender roles, the stereotypes of asians, the experience of the Korean community in America are so subtle yet effective. She pulls you in by making you care about the characters, by making them real to you. The message just piggybacks on that. It’s so much better than when authors force their agenda down your throat, like in Americanah which was just one long, poorly veiled lecture.
“She’s just a young girl who believes too much”
I feel like I need to discuss a few spoilers, so don’t read this part if you like surprises.
There was a moment where Casey, the protagonist, found a porn stash in the bedroom of a man she was casually seeing. She found one film with an asian female lead with two old white men and watched it, then dramatically leaving the guy’s room and going through a sort of crisis. I felt like this was overblown and too on-the-nose. As a woman living in America, I find it hard to believe that she doesn’t know what porn is like. That it is, yes, demoralising and degrading but was she living under a rock? I don’t see how it could start such an identity crisis. And for sure it couldn’t have been the first time that she finds out that male white men sometimes develop “Asian fetishes”, I mean, I live in a country where porn is illegal and I still know that foot fetishes and God knows what exist. So was the point that porn is repulsive? Or would it not have been an issue if her date had recreated a porn scene with a white woman? Oh, I found a stack of playboy magazines under his bed, cue existential crisis and unbearable nausea?
“Life was just guesswork even if you were an eyewitness”
Also, there was a moment when Casey tried to champion her mother who was date-raped by her pastor (major spoiler). She goes to the pastor and yells at him, outing their secret to one of her mother’s friends who was consensually having an affair with the same pastor. Her mother would die if she knew her friend knew what went down with the pastor. She ruined her mother’s reputation, Casey thought she was being suave and powerful but it felt like an immature way to deal with it. Min Jin Lee wrote the character of the mother, how could she then write this scene with a victorious glow and not consider that this is really not the way the mother would ever feel empowered. Why was this moment cast as the win? All the dialogue here was also utterly flat and unrealistic.
Furthermore, in this confrontation, the pastor – who was supposedly under the illusion that the feeling was mutual – suddenly rethinks his ways. Okay, if he was really under that impression that they loved eachother then he would defend it as love. He wouldn’t have been all introspective and wondered ‘why, yes.. she did, in fact, resist me. I am shocked at myself’. He would’ve been like ‘nah bish, she loves me and we’re going to elope’. If he was NOT deluded, then he was conscious of her refusal thus would feel guilty and work even harder to deny. I don’t find it plausible that Casey would go “oh, you raped my mum” and suddenly he would have an epiphany. And then all is well. What??!
Charles (the pastor) was very believable until that scene. I believed his weirdness. I believe he thought he was “freeing her” which is drawing attention to a very common and problematic theme where men take on this pseudo-savior role to mask/justify their actions. Similar to the way people think they’re “freeing” Muslim women by making them take off their hijabs. The destructive behaviour in this line of thought is the refusal to heat the other party’s actual desires. It’s making someone’s feelings irrelevant, it’s taking away their voice and it’s a narcissistic act too.
“Life did not let you lie to yourself for very long”
Other than those two scenes, I had no more major issues with the book. I really enjoyed it. It was a smooth read.
“Convention ruined all the women she knew. All her life, she had done things differently from the way she’d been told”
I’m still a Min Jin Lee fan.
“All things worth knowing, possessing, creating and admiring had begun with vast, impractical wishes”