12 | Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Published in 2007, this book is Min Jin Lee’s first of her Korean diaspora trilogy, the second of which is Pachinko. A 560 page long read, I found the style to be exactly like Pachinko (the first book featured on this blog), essentially long-winding narratives about different characters. Some readers find many of the characters to be irrelevant, boring or unnecessary, but I found each sucked me into the novel further.

The story’s central character is Casey Han, a 20-something Korean-American girl who just graduated from Princeton. Casey grew up in a humble apartment in Queens with parents who own a few dry cleaning businesses in Manhattan and a younger sister who is, by her parents standards, the perfect Korean daughter: pre-med student, easy to parent, disciplined and filial. Casey on the other hand is brash, often fighting with her parents and dating a Caucasian guy she met in college that her parents don’t yet know about. Over the course of the book set in the mid-90s, Casey experiences heartache after heartache as her father kicks her out for disrespecting him, the Caucasian boyfriend cheats on her and while she figures out what to pursue career wise. She’s gained expensive habits from being surrounded by wealthy-trust fund kids in college and managed to buy herself into debt on top of all this. Other story lines include Casey’s friend Ella, a young Korean woman who is docile and even-tempered, who finds out Ted, her pompous investment banker fiancé later turned husband turned baby-daddy turned ex-husband has cheated on her while pregnant with a red-haired busty secretary from work, Delia. Ella finds herself locked in a custody battle over their daughter, Irene, while realizing the man she now loves is her co-worker, David. There’s also Casey’s mom, Leah, who is the top choir singer at church. The new choir director Charles finds forty year old Leah exceptionally attractive and sets out to seduce her. Leah, an extremely conservative Christian woman has a crush on the director, has no idea how sexually charged his advances are, later finding herself in the back of her own car as he is raping her. There is a lot of sex in the book, yes, but I disagree with some reviewers calling this novel chick-lit disguised as literary fiction. Because all the characters come from various cross-sections of society in term of age, socio-economic status, education level, I found the book to really been a commentary on how various people experience and rationalize life: how they respond to interracial relationships, mysogyny, sex, marriage, capitalism, religion, luxury, privilege. The characters have wildly different coping mechanisms and ideas of what life is worth living.

I will say though, I felt like the story was missing end. Nothing was resolved, except on the last two pages, Casey seemed to somewhat make amends with her Korean boyfriend Unu, an unemployed finance guy with a dangerous penchant for gambling. I was surprised that the book ended there, as Unu was not one of the central characters. I wished there there was a little bit more in the ending, not necessarily a happy one, but more closure between Casey and her parents. I’m excited to see what Lee writes next, as she’s slated to publish the third book in the trilogy soon.

1 | Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Over the past two years or so, I’ve seen this book everywhere– from high-end department store bookstores to airport kiosks– Pachinko was not a book that stuck out to me, at least, not enough to make me immediately want to read it. But I did mark this book down in my Goodreads account a half year ago. After thinking the book might be a good one to start on my way to Japan (as the story of Sunja and the many characters in her orbit eventually takes the reader), I finally picked it up.

I don’t know how to start off other than by writing: this story was extremely heart-wrenching and uncomfortable to read. Page after page tells the story of Sunja and her family during the period from the early 1920s, beginning with the Japanese occupation of Korea and ending in the 1960s with Japan’s imminent defeat during WWII by Allied Powers. I found the story to be difficult to read due to the repeated battering each character endured and suffered, dealing with themes of starvation, rape, religious persecution, suicide, patriarchy and racism to name a few. About halfway through the book, what really got to me were glimmers of hope the characters seemed to almost grasp, but then were consequently squashed somehow or another by forces out of their control.

What you think is a story about Sunja, who makes what she believes to be a trans-generational sacrifice by marrying a man who is not the father of her unborn child, but who promises to keep this secret and take her as his wife, turns out to not be so clear cut. A mistake she made when she was in her early teens will haunt not just her, but the rest of her family, until the last page of the nearly 500 page book. The narrative caught me off guard– when I thought Lee might dedicate more to an event that occurred, she left the reader with little explanation. Yet strangely, at certain points, I felt that the examination of certain events or characters was extraneous. In attempting to reflect on why she omitted certain details yet lavishly explained others, perhaps in all it is a feature her character’s lived reality as second-class citizens in a country Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in. They know what they know, and don’t ask questions, simply due to fear.

If this book was entirely fiction, I might not have finished; or it might have taken me much much longer. This book is historical fiction– I reminded myself that each event was someone’s lived reality lifted from the mortal world onto the pages. This thought is what kept me going but what also wore me down.

I visited Korea in the fall of 2017 and much to my dismay, I felt Seoul was just a carbon copy of any other East Asian metropolis– more specifically somewhere between a flashy fashion-forward Tokyo and a congested, new-money Beijing. I am not exaggerating when I say almost every young woman in Seoul looked like a copy of each another– pearl colored skin, long eyelashes, slim noses, a cropped hairdo and their boyfriends, usually a little on the heavy-side with their signature Korean male haircut, in tow. These couples were everywhere, from the streets of Seoul to seafood markets of Seoraksan. On the bus ride to Seoraksan, I was stunned how poor much of the countryside looked to be– tarps and corrugated tin roofs covering shack-like structures, worn-down machinery, and many older people working in the fields. Seemed a lot like China’s countryside, where the average person lives well below the means of their urban counterparts. In my imagination, I always thought Korea and Japan were in the same boat- historically, culturally and religiously divergent from China, and more similar to one another. But I began thinking about how Japan was never colonized by another nation looking to exploit resources and control people. They were the colonizers- Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, Singapore, Malaysia, Austronesia and numerous other places in South East Asia. Korea had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910, a fact not visible to tourists– but nevertheless still a painful and relevant fact that Lee drove home in Pachinko. When I view Korea in light of the fact it was occupied by Japan, the site of the Korean War and other conflicts between Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Americans, my initial judgement feels ill-informed and wrong. In considering the past century and how many people suffered at the hands of just a few egoists’ political ambitions, it makes me wonder how life can be so unjust.

And that’s just it; Sunja lives an unjust life. No matter how many sacrifices she makes to right the wrong, she can’t.