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. A Korean immigrant who’d grown up in a dim, blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, she’d hoped for a bright, glittering life beyond the workhorse struggles of her parents, who managed a Manhattan dry cleaner.
Casey was unusually tall for a Korean, nearly five feet eight, slender, and self-conscious about what she wore. She kept her black hair shoulder length, fastidiously powdered her nose, and wore wine-colored lipstick without variation. To save money, she wore her eyeglasses at home, but outside she wore contact lenses to correct her nearsighted- ness. She did not believe she was pretty but felt she had something — some sort of workable sex appeal. She admired feminine modesty and looked down at women who tried to appear too sexy. For a girl of only 22, Casey Han had numerous theories of beauty and sexuality, but the essence of her philosophy was that allure trumped obvious dis- play. She’d read that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis advised a woman to dress like a column, and Casey never failed to follow that instruction.
Seated in the spacious linoleum-covered kitchen of her parents’ rent-controlled two-bedroom in Elmhurst, Casey looked out of place in her white linen shirt and white cotton slacks — dressed as if she were about to have a gin and tonic brought to her on a silver tray. Next to her at the Formica-topped table, her father, Joseph Han, could’ve easily passed for her grandfather. He filled his tumbler with ice for his first whiskey of the evening. An hour earlier, he’d returned from a Saturday of sorting laundry at the Sutton Place drop shop that he ran for Mr. Kang, a wealthy Korean who owned a dozen dry-cleaning stores. Joseph and his daughter Casey did not speak to each other. Casey’s younger sister, Tina — a Bronx Science Westinghouse finalist, vice president of the Campus Christian Crusade at MIT, and a pre-med — was their father’s favorite. A classical Korean beauty, Tina was the picture of the girls’ mother, Leah, in her youth.
Free Food for Millionaires is one of the five books selected for this year's One Book, One New York program.
Leah bustled about cooking their first family dinner in months, singing hymns while Tina chopped scallions. Although not yet forty, Leah had prematurely gray hair that obscured her smooth pale brow. At 17, she’d married Joseph, who was then 36 and a close friend of her eldest brother. On their wedding night, Casey was conceived, and two years later, Tina was born.
Now it was a Saturday night in June, a week after Casey’s college graduation. Her four years at Princeton had given her a refined diction, an enviable golf handicap, wealthy friends, a popular white boyfriend, an agnostic’s 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.
Virginia Craft, Casey’s roommate of four years, had tried to convince her to give up the habit that taxed her considerably while she sat next to her brooding father. At the moment, Casey would’ve bartered her body for a cigarette. The promise of lighting one on the building roof after dinner was all that kept her seated in the kitchen — her bare foot tapping lightly on the floor. But the college graduate had other problems insoluble by a smoke. Since she had no job, she’d returned to her folks’ two-bedroom on Van Kleeck Street. Seventeen years earlier, in the year of the bicentennial, the family of four had immigrated to America. And Leah’s terror of change had kept them in the same apartment unit. It all seemed a bit pathetic.
The smoking, among other things, was corroding Casey’s sense of being an honest person. She prided herself on being forthright, though she often dodged her parents. Her biggest secret was Jay Currie — her white American boyfriend. On the previous Sunday night after having some very nice sex, Jay had suggested, his elbow crooked over his pillow and head cradled in his hand, “Move in with me. Consider this, Miss Han: sexual congress on tap.” Her parents also had no idea that she wasn’t a virgin and that she’d been on the pill since she was fifteen. Being at home made Casey anxious, and she continually felt like patting down her pockets for matches. Consequently, she found herself missing Princeton — even the starchy meals at Charter, her eating club. But nostalgia would do her no good. Casey needed a plan to escape Elmhurst.
Last spring, against Jay’s advice, Casey had applied to only one investment banking program. She’d learned, after all the sign-up sheets were filled, that Kearn Davis was the bank that every econ major wanted in 1993. Yet she reasoned that her grades were superior to Jay’s, and she could sell anything. At the Kearn Davis interview, Casey greeted the pair of female interviewers wearing a yellow silk suit and cracked a Nancy Reagan joke, thinking it might make a feminist connection. The two women were wearing navy and charcoal wool, and they let Casey hang herself in 15 minutes flat. Showing her out, they waved, not bothering to shake her hand.
There was always law school. She’d managed to get into Columbia. But her friends’ fathers were beleaguered lawyers — their lives unappealing. Casey’s lawyer customers at Sabine’s, the department store where she’d worked weekends during the school year, advised her, “For money — go to B school. To save lives, med.” The unholy trinity of law, business, and medicine seemed the only faith in town. It was arrogant, perhaps rash, for an immigrant girl from the boroughs to want to choose her own trade. Nevertheless, Casey wasn’t ready to relinquish her dream, however vague, for a secure profession. Without telling her father, she wrote Columbia to defer a year.
Her mother was singing a hymn in her remarkable voice while she ladled scallion sauce over the roasted porgy. Leah’s voice trilled at the close of the verse, “Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light,” and then with a quiet inhale, she began, “Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word...” She’d left the store early that morning to shop and to cook her daughters’ favorite dishes. Tina, her baby, had returned on Thursday night, and now both her girls were home. Her heart felt full, and she prayed for Joseph to be in a good mood. She eyeballed the whiskey level in the jug-size bottle of Dewar’s. It had not shifted much from the night before. In their 22 years of marriage, Leah had discovered that it was better when Joseph had a glass or two with his dinner than none. Her husband wasn’t a drunk — the sort who went to bars, fooled around, or lost his salary envelope. He was a hard worker. But without his whiskey, he couldn’t fall asleep. One of her sisters-in-law had told her how to keep a man content: “Never deny a man his bop, sex, and sleep.”
Leah carried the fish to the table, wearing a blue apron over her plum-colored housedress. At the sight of Casey pouring her second glass of water, Leah clamped her lips, giving her soft, oval face a severe appearance. Mr. Jun, the ancient choir director, had pointed out this anxiety tic to her prior to her solos, shouting, “Show us your joy! You are singing to God!”
Tina, of course, the one who noticed everything, thought Casey was just asking for it. Her own mind had been filled with the pleasant thoughts of her boyfriend, Chul, whom she’d promised to phone that night, but even so, she could feel Casey’s restlessness. Maybe her sister would consider how much trouble their mother had gone through to make dinner.
It was the water drinking — this seemingly innocent thing. For always, Joseph believed that the girls should eat heartily at the table, grateful for the food and for the care given to it, but Casey habitually picked at her dinner, and he blamed Casey’s not eating on her excessive water consumption. Casey denied this accusation, but her father was on the mark. Back in junior high school, Casey had read in a fashion magazine that if you drank three glasses of water before a meal, you’d eat less. It took great effort on Casey’s part to wear a size 6 or smaller; after all, she was a girl with a large frame. Her weight also shifted by five pounds depending on how much she smoked. Her mother was thin from perpetual activity, and her younger sister, who was short like her father, had a normal build, and Tina disapproved of dieting. A brilliant student of both physics and philosophy, Tina had once scolded Casey when she was on Weight Watchers: “The world is awash in hunger. How could you cause your own?”
Casey’s water drinking at the table was not lost on her father.
At five feet three, Joseph was compact, yet his rich, booming voice gave him the sound of a bigger man. He was bald except for a wisp of baby fuzz on the back of his head, and his baldness did not grieve him except in the winters, when he had to wear a gray felt fedora to protect his head and large-lobed ears. He was only 58 but looked older, more like a vigorous man of 70, especially beside his young wife. Leah was his second wife. His first, a girl his age whom he’d loved deeply, died from tuberculosis after a year of marriage and before she bore him any children. Joseph adored his second wife, perhaps more so because of his loss. He appreciated Leah’s good health and her docile Christian nature, and he was still attracted to her pretty face and delicate form, which belied her resilience. He made love to her every Friday evening. She had given him two daughters, though the elder looked nothing like her mother.
Casey drained her water glass and rested it on the table. Then she reached for the pitcher.
“I’m not Rockefeller, you know,” Joseph said.
Casey’s father didn’t look at her when he said this, but he was addressing her. There was no one else in the room who needed to hear how she didn’t have a trust fund. Right away, Leah and Tina moved from the counter to their seats at the table, hoping to dissipate the tension. Leah opened her mouth to speak but hesitated.
Casey refilled her glass with water.
“I can’t support you forever,” he said. “Your father is not a millionaire.”
Casey’s first thought was, And whose fault is that?
Tina knew when not to speak. She unfolded her thin paper nap- kin and spread it across her lap. In her mind, she ticked off the Ten Commandments — this thing she did when nervous; and when she felt particularly anxious, she recited the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer back to back.
“When I was your age, I sold kimbop on the streets. Not one piece” — Joseph raised his voice dramatically — “I couldn’t afford to eat one piece of what I was selling.” He lost himself in the memory of standing in a dusty corner of Pusan’s marketplace, waiting for paying customers while shooing away the street urchins who were hungrier than he was.
Using two spoons, Leah filleted the fish from its skeleton and served Joseph first. Casey wondered why her mother never stopped these self-indulgent reveries. Growing up, she’d heard countless monologues about her father’s privations. At the end of 1950, a temporary passage to the South had been secured for the 16-year-old Joseph — the baby of a wealthy merchant family — to prevent his conscription in the Red Army. But a few weeks after young Joseph landed in Pusan, the southernmost tip of the country, the war split the nation in two, and he never again saw his mother, six elder brothers, and two sisters, the family estate near Pyongyang. As a war refugee, 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. Then in 1955, two years after the war ended, his young bride died from TB. With no money or support, he’d abandoned his hopes to be a medical doctor. Having missed college, he ran errands for tips from American soldiers, ignored his persistent nightmares, worked as a food vendor, and taught himself English from a dictionary. Before coming to America with his wife and two little girls, Joseph labored for 20 years as a foreman at a lightbulb factory outside of Seoul. Leah’s oldest brother, Hoon — the first friend Joseph made in the South — had sponsored their immigration to New York and given them their American first names. Then, two years later, Hoon died of pancreatic cancer. Everyone seemed to die on Joseph. He was the last remnant of his clan and had no male heirs.
Casey wasn’t indifferent to her father’s pain. But she’d decided she didn’t want to hear about it anymore. His losses weren’t hers, and she didn’t want to hold them. She was in Queens, and it was 1993. But at the table it was 1953, and the Korean War refused to end.
Joseph was gearing up to tell the story of his mother’s white jade brooch, the last item he’d possessed of hers. Of course he’d had to sell it to buy medicine for his first wife, who ended up dying anyway. Yes, yes, Casey wanted to say, war was brutal and poverty cruel, but enough already. She’d never suffer the way he did. Wasn’t that the point of them coming to America, after all?
Casey rolled her eyes, and Leah wished she wouldn’t do that. She didn’t mind these stories, really. Leah imagined Joseph’s first wife as a kind of invalid girl saint. There were no photographs of her, but Leah felt she must have been pretty — all romantic heroines were. A lady who died so young (only 20) would have been kind and good and beautiful, Leah thought. Joseph’s stories were how he kept his memories alive. He’d lost everyone, and she knew from the fitful way he slept that the Japanese occupation and the war returned to him at night. His mother and his first wife were the ones he had loved the most as a young man. And Leah knew what it was to grieve; her own mother had died when she was eight. It was possible to long for the scent of your mother’s skin, the feel of her coarse chima fabric against your face; to lie down for the evening and shut your eyes tight and wish to see her sitting there at the edge of your pallet at dawn. Her mother had died from consumption, so she and Joseph’s first wife were entwined in Leah’s imagination.
She’d never suffer the way he did. Wasn’t that the point of them coming to America, after all?
Joseph smiled ruefully at Tina. “The night before I left on the ship, my mother sewed twenty gold rings in the lining of my coat with her own hand. She had these thick rheumatic fingers, and the servant girls usually did the sewing, but...” He lifted his right hand in the air as if he could make his mother’s hand appear in place of his own, then clasped the right one with his left. “She wrapped each ring with cotton batting so there’d be no noise when I moved around.” Joseph marveled at his mother’s thoughtfulness, recalling sharply how every time he had to sell a ring, he’d unstitch the white blanket thread that his mother had sewn into the coat fabric with her heavy needle. “She said to me, ‘Jun-oh-ah, sell these whenever you need to. Eat good hot food. When you return, my boy, we shall have such a feast.’” The yellowish whites of Joseph’s eyes welled up. “She unclasped the brooch from her choggori, then she handed it to me. You see, I didn’t understand. I thought I was supposed to return home in a few days. Three or four, at the most.” His voice grew softer.
“She didn’t expect me to sell the pin. The rings, yes, but not...” Casey drew breath, then exhaled. It must have been the thirtieth time she’d heard this tale. She made a face. “I know. Not the pin,” she said.
Aghast, Tina nudged her sister’s knee with her own.
“What did you say?” Joseph narrowed the slant of his small, elegant eyes. His sad expression grew cold.
“Nothing,” Casey said. “Nothing.”
Leah pleaded silently with a look, hoping Casey would restrain herself. But her daughter refused to notice her.
Joseph picked up his tumbler for a drink. He wanted to stay with the memory of his mother, the leaf green silk of her jacket, the cool whiteness of the pin. He’d never forget the day he left the jeweler with the bit of money he got in exchange for the pin, his hasty walk to the herbalist to buy the foul-smelling twigs and leaves that never cured his wife.
Wanting to create some distraction, Leah removed her apron and then folded it conspicuously. “Tina, would you pray for us?” she asked.
Tina would have done anything to make Casey control herself. She brushed aside her thick black hair and bowed her head. “Heavenly Father, we thank You for this food. We thank You for our many blessings. Lead us, dear Lord, to Your good service. Show us Your will; let our hearts and minds converge with it. We pray in the name of our dear Redeemer, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.” Privately, Tina wanted God to tell her what she should do with Chul — how she could keep him interested in her without having premarital sex with him, or if he was the one to whom she should give herself. Tina wanted a sign; she’d been praying for guidance for the past several months, but she could discern nothing except her own pressing desire for this boy.
Leah smiled at Tina, then Casey. In her heart, she, too, was praying, Dear God, let there be thanksgiving, because at last, we are together.
Before anyone could eat, Joseph spoke. “So what are you going to do?”
Casey stared at the steam rising from her rice bowl. “I thought I’d try to figure it out this summer. No one’s hiring now, but on Monday, I’m going to the library to write some cover letters for jobs starting in the fall. Sabine also said I could get more hours during the week if someone leaves. Maybe I could work in another department if she—”
“You know the options,” he said.
“A real job,” her father said. “Or law school. Selling hats is not a real job. Making eight dollars an hour after getting an education worth eighty thousand dollars is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of. Why did you go to Princeton to sell hairpins?”
Casey nodded again, pulling her lower lip into her mouth. The blood left her face, making it paler.
Leah peered at Joseph’s expression. Was it safe to speak? He hated it when she took the girls’ side.
“Graduation was just last week,” she ventured. “Maybe she could rest a little at home. Just read or watch terebi.” Her voice was faltering. She smiled at her daughter. “Casey had all those exams.” She tried to shore up her voice and sound as if it were the most natural thing in the world for someone in her family to graduate from college and then to figure things out. Casey was staring at her rice bowl but didn’t pick up her spoon. “Why don’t you let her eat?” Leah said carefully. “She’s probably tired.”
“Tired? From that country club?” Joseph scoffed at the absurdity. Leah shut up. It was useless. She knew from his face that he wouldn’t hear her, nor would he let her win any points in front of the girls. Maybe Tina might say something to help the conversation along. But she looked as if she were somewhere else entirely, chewing her rice with her lips sealed. Even as a child, Tina had been a good eater.
Casey studied the white walls. Every Saturday night, it was her mother’s ritual to wipe down the glossy painted walls with Fantastik.
“Why are you so tired?” Joseph asked Casey, furious that she was ignoring him. “I’m talking to you,” he said.
She glared at him. Enough, she thought. “Schoolwork is work. I’ve always worked hard... just as hard as you work at the store. Maybe harder. Do you know what it’s like for me to have to go to a school like that? To be surrounded by kids who went to Exeter and Hotchkiss, their parents belonging to country clubs, and having a dad who could always make a call to save their ass? Do you know what it’s like to ace my courses and to make and keep friends when they think you’re nothing because you’re from nowhere? I’ve had kids step away from me like I’m unwashed after I tell them you manage a dry cleaner. Do you have any idea what it’s like to have people who are supposed to be your equals look through you like you’re made of glass and what they see inside looks filthy to them? Do you have any clue?” Casey was screaming now. She raised her right hand as if to strike him, then she pulled back, having surprised herself. She clasped her hand over her heart, unable to keep from shaking.
“What? What do you want from me?” she asked at last.
“What I want from you?” Joseph looked confused. He repeated himself. “What I want from you?” He turned to Leah. “Do you hear what she’s saying to me?” Then he muttered, “I should just kill her and me right now, and be done with it.” He cast about the table as if he were searching for a weapon. Then he screamed, “What the hell do I want from you?” Using both hands, he shoved the dinner table away from him. The water glasses clinked against the dinner plates. Soup spilled over the bowls. Joseph could not believe his daughter’s nerve.
“What do I want from you?”
“Dammit, that isn’t what I meant.” Casey tried to keep her voice from quavering, and she willed herself from dissolving into tears. Don’t be afraid, she told herself; don’t be afraid.
Leah shouted in Korean, “Casey, shut up. Shut up.” How could the girl be so stupid? What was the point of being good at school if she couldn’t understand timing or the idea of finessing a difficult person? Her older daughter was like an angry animal, and Leah wondered how it was that she hadn’t been able to prevent her from becoming so much like Joseph in this way. 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. How would Casey survive? ●
Min Jin Lee is a recipient of fellowships in Fiction from the Guggenheim Foundation (2018) and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard (2018-2019). Her novel Pachinko (2017) was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, winner of the Medici Book Club Prize, and a New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017. Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires (2007) was a Top 10 Books of the Year for The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air, USA Today, and a national bestseller. In 2018, Lee was named an Adweek Creative 100 for being one of the “10 Writers and Editors Who are Changing the National Conversation” and in 2019, a Frederick Douglass 200 “in recognition of work that embodies Frederick Douglass’s enduring legacy of social change.”