What does it mean to be successful? Can you be happy and successful? Min Jin Lee takes a stab at answering these questions, with the backdrop of her home in mind. Lee sets Free Food for Millionaires in Elmhurst, her hometown in Queens, and into the family of Casey Han, the daughter of Korean immigrants who run the local laundromat. The questions of success and happiness thus take on a different spin: how can one find success and happiness while making their parents’ sacrifices worthwhile? The book tackles issues Asian Americans face everyday, and as the reader, we get a firsthand look at how Casey chooses to reconcile her Korean heritage with her American lifestyle.
It is because of these issues that I felt Min Jin Lee wrote this book for Asian Americans. The book weaves through Casey’s relationships with those around her: her parents, her sister Tina, her mentor Sabine (a successful Korean immigrant who built her own fashion business and married a wealthy white American), Ella Shim (a girl from her childhood church who helps Casey acclimate to her post-graduate life), and her boyfriends. Casey’s identity as both Korean and American, and therefore, Korean American, puts a strain on each of those relationships. Through her relationships, we see how Casey struggles to find her place in her post-graduate life as a Korean American woman.
The first page creates the framework for the rest of the novel. “As a capable young woman, Casey Han felt compelled to choose respectability and success. But it was glamour and insight that she craved.” Casey grew up poor and was well familiar with the practicality of needing to make money. However, she also spent much of her time working with her mentor, Sabine at the department store, admiring the beauty of the products around her and envying Sabine’s luxurious lifestyle. When Casey went to Princeton, her admiration for beauty deepened. Casey gained wealthy friends, a refined diction, and expensive habits. She wanted to choose her own trade, but she was compelled to think practically. Nonetheless, after graduating Princeton, Casey found herself with no job. She turned down Columbia Law school, finding the lawyer’s lifestyle to be dull, and was rejected from the only banking position she applied to. The book begins with Casey returning to her parents’ apartment after graduating Princeton. However, after a violent argument, Casey is kicked out of her parents’ apartment. As the book evolves, Casey ventures out on her own with little-to-no money, trying to break into the business world. When she finally does succeed, having received a full-time offer from Kearn Davis, the top investment banking firm, Casey is miserable. The only source of pleasure she has in her life is making hats. Casey is again confronted with the same dilemma she had in the beginning of the book: should she choose respectability and success or a glamorous life of making her hats?
I was drawn to the raw intensity through which Lee writes. While focusing on Casey’s narration, the book alternates between different third-person perspectives. During every major conflict in the novel, Lee incorporates narrations from each character involved. She writes from the perspectives of each character involved in every event. In doing so, Lee shows how each situation, each wrongdoing, is far more complex than how it might appear from only one perspective. The reader becomes one and the same with each character, learning to feel the emotions of the narrator, learning to think just like the narrator. I felt particularly vulnerable when reading the scenes in which Casey was back with her family because I could see my family’s issues and emotions being replicated. This tension between the parents and the children as they attempt to communicate between different generations and cultures is one that I think many immigrant families can relate to.
Lee’s book traces the search for identity. There is the common sentiment of needing to find yourself that can be shared by everyone everywhere, and then there is Casey’s search for what being Korean American means to her. To read how Casey reconciles her Asian heritage with her American upbringing is particularly enlightening and for Asian Americans who have yet to feel comfortable with their Asian American identity (like I was when I first read this book), it brings serious reflection.