Across the Board

Approximation and Assimilation in “Free Food for Millionaires” and “White Ivy”

There’s something appealing about a character who’s observant and candid about whiteness and the myth of social mobility, and how corny it can all be.

I guess I’m fortunate to be in a position to say that dramatizations of unfailingly virtuous immigrants are not that interesting to me. Narratives about extreme selflessness, working so hard, doing honest work in America, etc. don’t really do anything for me but glorify suffering, especially suffering by women of color, that would be needless in a less xenophobic, more forgiving society, and I find them to be ultimately white-centric anyways for how they feed into a broader “good immigrant” narrative. Free Food for Millionaires (Min Jin Lee, 2007) and White Ivy (Susie Yang, 2020) are two recent counterexamples, centering around a first-generation Korean American and a Chinese immigrant respectively, that I enjoyed as fictional narratives and found more pertinent today. While the protagonists in these novels are hardworking, tenacious, and ultimately (somewhat) sympathetic, they’re also written as morally ambiguous or even bad– materialistic, unscrupulous, vindictive.

From a white point of view, they would be interlopers to whiteness dedicated to no higher ideal but the grift. And to be certain, Asian American women have been subjected to the antiquated stereotype of a conniving, amoral “dragon lady” who uses sex to get what she wants since the 1800s. But the protagonists here are three-dimensional, and their backgrounds and motivations are nuanced and written with the care of an author who, of course, sees Asian women as people. As such, I see these protagonists as anti-heroes of a sort. There’s something appealing about a character who’s observant and candid about whiteness and the myth of social mobility, and how corny it can all be.

The books are quite different from each other structurally, with Free Food for Millionaires being a thorough exploration of an entire family and various members of the community and White Ivy being more fast-paced and psychological, but they have a lot of the same themes, namely, social ascension and assimilation into whiteness alongside family obligations and traditional gender roles. In both novels, American class mobility is explicitly racial, cultural, and socioeconomic. Not only is wealth extraordinarily difficult to accumulate, but participation in the tenets of upper-class social life– top-ten college, golf and skiing, designer clothes, black-tie events, taxis around Manhattan– also requires a great deal of capital, and the characters go into serious debt to maintain this lifestyle. The extent to which Asian immigrants can achieve upper-class status is limited by the difficulty of integrating socially into this particular brand of East Coast WASP whiteness, and this is something only the daughters, never the parents, can get the hang of.

In both cases, the upper-class lifestyle, full of beach houses, dinner parties, and frivolous uses of wealth is shown as excessive and kind of grotesque at the same time that it is glamorous. For those who are not born into this lifestyle, assimilation requires constant, conscious effort and a deliberate cultivation of mannerisms and cultural familiarity. I think most people who aren’t wealthy and white have an instinctive sense of how to downplay their background when necessary, but this feeling is actually written out very observantly and keenly. The irony, of course, is that the wealthy families, despite possessing the money to “smooth out” their daily social interactions, can actually be very ungenerous to the protagonists, with in-laws who don’t offer to pay for a wedding that they had a hand in planning, or who give gifts that were clearly bought on sale. Knowing this, though, a wealthy, carefree lifestyle is still alluring, in an exploration of one’s complex relationship to class and classism instead of presenting a straightforward binary either in favor of or against it.

Furthermore, the female protagonists in these stories cultivate their proximity to upper-class whiteness by becoming close to upper-class white men, and the portrayals of the specifically gendered subjects with respect to white culture are very nuanced. This goes beyond having to navigate situations with white men who implicitly, but not explicitly, have Asian girl fetishes, though that certainly can be interesting. The protagonists simultaneously aspire to white male-ness, which, in this East Coast context, are the traditionally male-dominated industries of finance and law, and to white female-ness, which is in the class aesthetics and social markers in being a white man’s girlfriend or a white family’s daughter-in-law. Patriarchal expectations about by when women should get married or how they should be as wives can come from either the Asian family or the white one. When whiteness is no longer a survivalist need but a lofty want, it can be the object of leisurely study. I am as familiar with whiteness as anyone who grew up in the US can be. But I am not familiar with the counters at an upscale department store or with the meticulous selection of golf clubs. I am not familiar with a place called Nantucket. The pleasure in reading one of these books is not just in the perspective of someone who’s a bit of a rebel within Asian American society, but in the moments when the concept of upper-class whiteness is encapsulated by something like an expensive dress, a piece of art, or a beautiful house. Something you might feel alienated from, but that you will admire until you can have it for yourself.

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