There was a time when I caught on to playing tennis, a sport that I had always wanted to pick up, I spent all my leisure time (time before work, time after work) hitting tennis. I must have drunk easily three to four cups of coffee including an evening espresso just to keep up with my reading and fit in my other interests including yoga sessions, learning French amidst work and errands. Those days were indeed packed with activities, and I must have had abundance of energy to tick those things off my list. These days I just want to read more and listen to talks, conversations and interviews with a view to understand things and also to be able to write more intelligibly. When you are obliged to isolate yourself during the lockdown period, you find yourself changing your routine and rituals. It does feel liberating when you do not have to cram too many things in a week. I like that I have more time for reading and writing.
Now that things have started to move with the intent to bring back some normalcy , I realise that I have to prioritize what I really want to do. While I am pleased to be able to have face-to-face conversations, and also to finally be able to see friends for a coffee, I have to be calculating with the time I have.
I recently read again Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. I first read the fiction more than ten years ago. The narratives are very detailed. You are drawn to compelling characters like Casey Han who is smart, competent and self-centred and Ella Shim who is sweet, beautiful and obliging and you to want to know how things are going to pan out for them. The story is about a Korean immigrant family and the community they live in New York.
The story is set in the nineties. Casey Han, the primary character is the elder daughter of working-class Korean immigrants who run a dry cleaning shop in Manhattan. She has gone to Princeton and she has an offer to do law at Columbia but she decides to defer it. She finds herself unable to connect with her parents. She has a terrible row with her father, Joseph Han and she is kicked out of her parents’ rent-controlled two-bedroom in Elmhurst. While she is at odds with the modest values of her family , her aspirations are also at a distance from those of her peer group. She has to confront her own identity and what she wants.
In the story, there is also secondary characters like Ella’s close cousin, Unu Shim who is intelligent and kind-hearted but he becomes a compulsive gambler after his divorce. Both Casey and Unu appear to be self-sabotaging and destructive but they are both fortunate to have friends like Ella who loves them. Ella’s widower dad Dr Douglas Shim is a well-respected medical doctor and he is also a wonderful father. He loves his daughter and is not impressed by his son-in-law Ted Kim, an ambitious thirty-one-year-old investment bank broker who works as an executive director at Kearn Davis, the investment bank that every econ major wants in 1993. He graduates from Harvard Business School. Ella loves Ted because he is a boy, anxious and hungry, running from Alaska. ‘Ella would have loved Ted if he’d had nothing but his desire. She was attracted to him because he was so clear and because he was unflappable. But beneath all that , she saw the self-doubts that he could not concede to her or to himself -his terrors drove him. She liked all of that , too.’
Casey is the bridesmaid for Ella on her wedding day. She is not fond of Ted but she knows she is more like Ted than Ella. The difference between Ted and her is that he has already figured out what he wants in this life – money, status , and power — and she is not so sure about the things she wants, preferring pride, control, and influence. What Ted wants and what Casey prefers are related.
At one point, through Ted’s recommendation at Ella’s insistence, Casey takes up the post of a sales assistant at the trading floor of Kearn Davis even though she is overly qualified for the job and the job lacks prestige, money and purpose. The post is basically office manager work with a secretary’s salary. On the day of the interview, she finds out that when these finance brokers close a deal, whatever the department that closes the deal buys lunch for everybody. And as these sales guys are all like running through the trough, like, as if they’re starving, the guy who’s taking her around the office says, oh, free food for millionaires.
Free Food for Millionaires is 560 pages long. It is a worthy read packed with insights about human behaviour and familiar expectations. Min Jin Lee gives a heading to every chapter. The first chapter is entitled ‘Options‘ and its opening paragraph reads :
‘ COMPETENCE CAN BE A CURSE.
As a capable young woman, Casey Han felt compelled to choose respectability and success. But it was glamour and insight that she craved. ‘
Here are some of the excerpts from the novel :
‘Now it was a Saturday night in June, a week after Casey’s college graduation. Her four years at Princeton have given her ‘ a refined diction, an enviable golf handicap, wealthy friends, a popular white boyfriend, an agnostic closeted passion for reading the Bible, and a magna cum laude degree in economics. But she had no job and a number of bad habits.’
‘ For two and a half years, Casey had been trudging along the road, and here she was – at the damn fork again. What Sabine, Hugh, Walter and her parents had tried to tell her were things she understood instinctively: Decisions had to be made, actions committed. But there was no guarantee, was there? Of getting into school, landing a job, of safety. People were also fired all the time, too. At Kearn Davis and at Sabine’s, she‘d witnessed countless people being let go. Let go — it sounded like freedom. But Casey had not forgotten what it was like to stay at a friend’s apartment, being ashamed of grabbing an egg to thicken you thirty-nine-cent ramen noodle soup.’
The title of the book comes from an observation about ambitious investment bank brokers.
Here is the excerpt about what happens on Casey’s day of interview at Kearn Davis trading floor.
‘ Casey heard the footsteps first. The conference room doors had opened. A cavalcade of brokers and traders streamed by to get their complimentary grub. Walter got up, hitching his pants; he’d recently lost twenty pounds but hadn’t had a chance to replace any of his suit trousers. When Walter stood up, Hugh made the seagull sound again, then got up himself.All three sales guys- Kevin, Walter, and Hugh – were extremely tall, six three or four. Walter said, “ Follow me.”’
Casey follows Walter and come to face heaping trays of Indian food laid out on a long table. There is already a large, happy crowd gathered in clusters, piling food onto their white Chinet plates.
She manages to grab herself a cocktail-sized Samosa and a scoop of biriyani but hesitates to fill her plate during an interview. She sees that Walter’s plate is ‘crammed with a taste of everything‘ .
‘“ Gosh. Girls eat so little,” Walter said with wonder in his voice.
“ It happened so fast,” she remarked, her free hand resting at her side.
Walter swept his right arm to the ceiling , gesturing like a ring-leader, and said, “ It’s free food for millionaires.”’
Walter explains that the group that she is interviewing for is the International Equities Department – that is , Asia, Europe, and Japan sales and they complete a deal last week – a big power plant outside of Bombay that is why they have bought Indian food. Walter quips,
“ The funny thing is that if you were a millionaire like some of these managing directors shaking down seven figures a year, you’d have known to push your way ahead and fill up your plate. Rich people can’t get enough of free stuff.’
When Walter says that to Casey, there is no reproach in his tone but a wistful admiration in his voice, ‘as if he were beginning to understand how the world worked’.
‘“ So, this is the game, Casey. You have to take what’s offered.” He spoke like a mentor.’
Casey is still trying to figure out how she feels about money or free things. Her estranged father always says there is no such thing as a free lunch.
‘ It had been nearly impossible for her to accept Ella’s charity, and even though she loved the beautiful clothes that she couldn’t afford, she couldn’t imagine a life where she was working only for money just so she could get more stuff – because she sensed that somehow it wouldn’t sustain her for very long. Working hard for good grades had made sense because she loved learning itself – the acquisition of new ways of seeing things and possessing new facts – but the good grades hadn’t sustained her, and for her, school wasn’t meant to be forever.’
Casey works part-time at a departmental store owned by Sabine Jun Gottesman who has given her a flexible job, generous bonuses that has helped pay for her books and her clothes. Sabine and Casey’s mother, Leah were Korean girls from the same hometown and school and by chance they have run into each other as grown women on the other side of the globe. Sabine is childless and over the years, she has taken Casey on buying her rare and beautiful things. But Casey does not want to be forever indebted to Sabine so there is some tension between Casey and Sabine who are both headstrong women.
Casey’s father always tells the family about how he suffered as a war refugee since he was a young teenager. He originally came from a wealthy merchant family. At the end of 1950, a temporary passage to the South had been secured for the sixteen-year-old Joseph to prevent his conscription in the Red Army. But unfortunately a few weeks after young Joseph landed in Pusan, the war split the nation into two , and he never saw his mother, siblings and the family estate near Pyongyang again. Joseph, the once pampered teenager ate garbage, slept on cold beaches, and stayed in filthy camps as easy prey for the older refugees who’d lost their sense and morals’ He ran errands for tips from American soldiers and taught himself English from a dictionary . He had to abandon college and his dreams of becoming a medical doctor. After twenty years of labour at a lightbulb factory, it was Leah’s elder brother who sponsored their immigration to New York.
It’s not that she is indifferent to her father’s pains and sufferings, she just does not want to hear about his self-indulgent reveries anymore. Her mother , Leah is beautiful and she has a mesmerizing voice but she is a modest woman who cooks and tends to family’s needs. She has to navigate around her husband’s anger. To her, a man can live with much rage but not a woman. She finds her solace in singing at the church that they attend diligently. She is a devoted Christian. Casey’s younger sister, Tina who is going to attend medical school has her mother’s looks and temperaments. The two sisters are close and understand one another.
Unlike Tina who is sensible, gentle and pragmatic, Casey is flawed, stubborn and possesses exquisite taste for beautiful hats and clothes that she cannot afford and wants to afford. She is full of angst and anger. Her choices are hurting her hardworking parents, Leah and Joseph and also Sabine who wants her to succeed. Casey loves beautiful hats and when she is kicked out of her home, instead of studying law at Colombia, she learns to sew and make hats. She is also an avid reader and one day, she becomes acquainted with an elderly antiquarian bookstore owner who notices her reading Middlemarch at the bus stop. He also notices her hat and tells her all about his late wife’s hat collection.
I can totally relate to Casey Han. When I first returned home, I carried on my life possessing some vague but vain idea of individualism. I am not Korean American, but I have some similar experience with Casey Han though not identical. The character is a familiar one. Like Casey, I had felt that I could do what I wanted because it was my life. I was feeling all knowing one minute and the next minute I was feeling lost and still trying to figuring out things. To those who are judgmental, they viewed me as self-centred, indulgent and flighty. I know because I heard these remarks and they used to hurt but not anymore. You would like to believe life is what you make of it. So I drifted and thought that I would figure out somehow. But in my twenties, I was not as strong-willed, competent and self-possessed as Casey is. When I turned thirty, I became afraid and gave in to conventions. I settled for all that jazz that came with adulthood. I thought that was how I had to get grounded, I was sold the idea that respect had to be earned and not given. If only I could tell my younger self that I did not have to prove my worth, and I should be brave as in life there is no safety blanket. There is no security net , you just have to navigate according to your own values and be open to changes. You need to know who you are. It is too exhausting if you try to live by another person’s moral sense and values.
Often we think we have freewill when we do not. We are all such flawed characters. Everyone will have to find the way to navigate familial expectations as well as societal expectations. I guess both expectations are inter-related.
CECIL COURT , LONDON
The street that links Charing Cross and St Martin Lane is a charming pedestrian street lined with second-hand bookshop and antiquarian stores. The street’s nickname is “the new Booksellers’ Row.” This quaint street, a hidden gem in the Covent Garden neighbourhood with its Victorian frontage and colourful store fronts has inspired film makers and many believe that Diagon Valley in Harry Potter is also inspired by the place. You can find first-edition books, rare children’s literature, old maps, curiosities, unique jewelry and art. Outside some of the stores you will find bins of prints and books for you to sift through. The place is magical.
The street is a booklovers’ paradise. In 2013 July, I bought from Goldsboro Bookshop a first edition of Trying to save Piggy Sneed by John Irving. It contains a dozen short works and to each of the 12 pieces, which cover thirty years of writing, Irving has contributed his author’s notes. Since I read The World according to Garp, John Irving is one of my favourite writers.
As you enter the street , you will be mesmerized by the scene that transports you back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. You can get lost in space by just browsing the shop windows. I read that in 1764, an eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited London and he lodged at 9 Cecil Court.