April 29, 2008

Free Sex for Rice Chasers: A Review of Min Jin Lee's "Free Food for Millionaires"

minjinlee_bw.jpgI always speak honestly, so I took a little artistic liberty with the title of my post in order to make it more relevant to the discussion that follows.

Fallout Central interviews Min Jin Lee, author of "Free Food for Millionaires." You can find the interview here. The 44's has commented on this book in the past on our message board, and I shared a word or two in one of my other blog posts, but I don't think I've yet shared all my views on the book itself.

Let me start with the positives.

The Fallout Central guys did an absolutely fantastic job on the interview. It was by far the best interview that I've heard/read with Ms. Lee or any other Asian American author, and they asked some questions that were straightforward and quite unlike the normal Asian American pc whitewashing that most Asian American groups practice. John, Albert, and William asked relatively hard questions that others have been too scared or ignorant to ask, and it was refreshing to see an Asian American author interview that was more than just a commercial or promotion.

Second, I've said this before, and I'll say it again: I thought that Free Asian Sex for White Guys...I mean, Free Food for Millionaires...was very well written in terms of language and storytelling. Sentences, vocab, timing, rhythm: it was all there. It's hard to write a good book in terms of storytelling, let alone a book that spans 600 pages. In fact, Lee kept me hooked until the end, even after the Kingstonian "reveal" came out (although in Min Jin's defense, I should've known this beforehand after reading the recommendation on the book cover by that shameless David Henry Hwang). The language was great--even the gratuitious sex scenes between the main character white worshipping Casey Han and her irresistable YT male fuck-buddy Hugh were well written. Lee, in my opinion, is a better storyteller than Amy Tan, and even though I disagreed with the not-too-subtle racial message, it was good to read the first novel of a new talented Asian American storyteller.

Some spoilers to follow, but I don't think this will ruin your enjoyment of the book.

Most 44's don't come here to see us beating the same Tan/Kingstonian drum as the mainstream; you come here to see real commentary, so I'll give you exactly that; you guys and gals know where else to go if you want people to say what everyone wants to hear. In this spirit, I believe in unity and supporting our fellow Asian American writers and artists, but when an author writes a novel that perpetuates the same old, same old neo-colonialist stereotypes and hawk it as a work of Asian American empowerment, someone has to say something. That's the crux of the argument that I've made throughout this whole "Falling For Grace" thing: I don't care that these works elevate white men. I don't care that IR is celebrated as the wave of the future. Just don't call it "empowerment" and then get offended when people question it. I'm absolutely serious about this too. I watched the Last Samurai. I watched Miss Saigon. I saw Natalise's China Doll. I even watched David Henry Hwang's Golden Gate. I'm perfectly fine with those films and works; I just think it's crazy to claim that they have any empowerment potential for Asian Americans.

I don't believe that Min Jin Lee is being malicious with her treatment of Asian men or Asian women, yet there is a clear reliance on ideas and techniques that don't help her story.

1. Stupidity: The main character is helplessly stupid. One of my Thymos members has my copy of the book right now, and he has said that he has been having trouble finishing it because of the protagonist's stupidity. While Min Jin Lee hooked me in with her language, I can see his point. If there's something stupid to be done (i.e. walking in on her white boyfriend who is engaged in a threesome, taking the same foolio back, flirting with all the guys on her professional team and eventually sleeping with one of them, etc.), she does it.

2. Poor male character development: All the male characters, Asian and white, are poorly developed. The white guys are typical fratboys who can't keep the ladies away with a stick, and the Korean guys are so unrealistic that it almost seems like farce. While it may seem to be empowering for white guys to see themselves portrayed radiating irresistable studliness that we haven't seen since Joy Luck Club, at a certain point it gets ridiculous, even for white male readers looking for an ego boost. White Cassanova's are just as cool as any other, but after a while, it gets boring if they've got nothing else. Even the Greek Gods had real faults.

The Korean men are simply not believable. I don't know where she got them; they don't seem to be based in any kind of real people. In the interview Min Jin says that Ted Kim is her "favorite character." Is she kidding? Ted Kim is a cardboard caricature who lacks any kind of depth whatsoever. He cheats with the office slut (whom Min euphemistically refers to in her interview as the "prettiest white woman"), and he lacks any ability to empathize or see beyond his own needs. Is it strange that the racial aspects of what he does never occur to him throughout the story? Is it strange that it never occurs to anyone else? The only good thing he does is divorce his beautiful Korean wife so that she can find love and eternal happiness in the arms of a white guy. (again, these is Min Jin's universe, not mine.)

Unu is even worse. What a loser! I wanted to reach into the book and slap him silly. He radiates loser in everything he does, and his gambling addiction is about as believable as my Christian fundamentalist religious addiction.

I won't even get into Charles Hong, the stereotypical Korean rapist. Every Kingstonian story needs an Asian male rapist, and my, does Casey show that evil Asian guy who is boss! The woman warrior puts the evil Asian man in his place once again!

3. Jumping: Something that all the reviewers say is that Min Jin Lee is good at jumping into different characters to reveal different viewpoints. While they are correct that she makes the transitions well, ALL the characters have the same personality, just different situations. (see #1) In other words, Unu's doorman is exactly the same character as Unu who is the same character as White Stud Hugh; one just happens to be a doorman with a wife, while the other happens to be a ghost with a hard-to-believe gambling addiction, while the other happens to be a white guy whom the Asian damsel can't resist. They have the exact same personality but happen to be in different situations.

Serious spoilers in the next two paragraphs:
In the FOC interview, Min Jin also sells the book as a representation of empowerment since the Asian woman ends up with an Asian guy. Min Jin is obviously aware of this issue, and I admit, I was hoping to see that sort of thing when I started the book, especially since Min Jin is the only Asian American female author married to an Asian guy (I think Lois Ann Yamanaka used to be, but who can keep track these days.). In the end, it doesn't deliver. Unu is a loser, and I really could find no reason why any woman would be attracted to him. Not only does he have the personality of a cold fish, but he's also a social loser, and he sucks in bed (this was clear from the obvious implied comparisons with White Boy Hugh). You can have one of the three problems and the relationship may work, but three of three? The only reason that a woman like Casey would like a guy like Unu is that he is stupid enough to take her back after she and White Boy Hugh shag each other silly, and tolerance of infidelity isn't exactly a quality that lends itself well to empowering relationships. The only good relationship is between Ella and her White Savior. The moral of the story is the same as JLC and Woman Warrior: thank goodness for White Guys.

Moreover, I was less than impressed with Min Jin's treatment of racism. I'm not going to come down on her too hard because I realize that portraying racism is extremely difficult, but Min Jin portrays it almost as an afterthought. These characters are Wall Street types--come on, you should be able to at least hear some serious racial differentiation and stratification just by spending half an hour with these guys! Not just verbal differentiation, but real differences. Instead, the only real instance of racism seems to be the White Cassanova watching White-on-Asian porn, which really isn't racist at all if you think about it--the only (and I say this seriously) difference between David Henry Hwang's Golden Gate and Asian porn is the degree to which all the playahs get nekkid.

In the FOC interview, Ms. Lee compares her situation to Spike Lee, whom she commends for being "brave," but let's be honest--when it comes to their works as a means of minority empowerment, the only commonality between Min Jin and Spike are their last names. Although Free Sex for Rice Chasers isn't nearly as racist as the Joy Luck Club or the Woman Warrior, it pushes rather than challenges stereotypes. During the interview, Min Jin also says that Asian Americans tear each other down. I hope I don't fall into that category, but I have to call it the way I see it.

Great writing ability, but not exactly a message that changes things up. Jaehwan gives it a C plus.

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