A Different Kind of Butterfly Effect: Frances Cha’s If I Had Your Face

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Here’s a curious fact: the rates of racial intermarriage are notoriously gender-specific—over a third of Asian women but only about a fifth of Asian men go outside their race to marry. It’s a trend so startling that it led PBS to do an investigative piece several years ago called “Do Asian Women Have White Fever?” Much has been said about white men’s purported reasons for liking Asian women, beginning with “jungle fever” and (not) ending anytime soon by more recent discussion of the limited ways Asian women are portrayed in Hollywood movies or the silver screen (if they are portrayed at all) or in porn (where they appear quite regularly). Less has been said about Asian women’s selective preference for white men, although one common claim is that it has something to do with marrying for higher status (at least, that was PBS’s answer to so-called “White Fever”).

Frances Cha likely did not mean to throw her hat in the ring for this debate when she wrote her debut novel If I Had Your Face, but read this eerily contemporary account of coming of age as a woman in present-day South Korea and you, too, may experience an unforeseen side effect: an up-close, brutal look at the many ways we can be racist against ourselves. In an indirect way, this novel may also help explain why one in every three Asian women decides to roll the dice on “happily ever after” with a white man, rather than with someone from her own tribe.

There are many ways to slice a novel as layered and intricate as Cha’s—she seamlessly interweaves the (generally tragic, albeit distinct) lives of four young women in Seoul. There’s Ara, the mute narrator who launches the book with her quiet observations of the girls in her apartment complex, even as the accident that led to her broken vocal cords haunts her story; Kyuri, the most unnaturally beautiful of the bunch, who works as a hostess-with-benefits in one of the “10 percent” salon rooms, a moniker that refers to the “prettiest 10 percent of girls in the industry”; Wonna, pregnant and married, whose unhappy present union and traumatic past can be summed up by her single-sentence explanation for her current lot in life: “If you asked me why I married my husband, I would say it was because his mother was dead”; and Miho, the idealistic painter who seems to hover above the obsessions of her compatriots either by virtue of the purity of her art or simply because of her exposure to American culture as someone who once lived in New York.

As much nuance and shadow as the novel brings to these women’s stories, though, one thing is clear: it does not portray Korean men in too great a light. Fathers are largely absent, and boyfriends are, at worst, vindictive, adulterous snakes (à la Bruce, Kyuri’s wealthy lover and frequent patron of her salon room) or at best, soft boys trying to hide the fact that they are also reliably snakes (like Miho’s boyfriend, whose defining and most memorable quality appears to be his taste for the fake tits of child-like salon girls who are not his girlfriend, or Wonna’s husband, whose only contribution to the plot is being a sperm donor to her unborn child and lying, weakly and predictably, about his own financial situation). As Kyuri muses, “I don’t know at what age men become assholes—boyhood, teenage years? When they start earning some real money? It depends on their fathers, and their father’s fathers, probably. Their grandfathers are usually the biggest assholes of all.”

If Kyuri’s observation wasn’t scathing enough, she stumbles upon this conclusion during an otherwise tender and romantic moment in the presence of Bruce, love of her life, reminiscing about their last rendezvous when he still looked “like a lost little kid and the name Bruce seem[ed] ludicrous.” But as the juxtaposition of innocence and cynicism demonstrates, few things are sacred and even fewer things last forever where sex and money are involved; lost little boys almost always turn into men whose most skilled and favored tradition is destroying the women who love them most. Bruce does this in a predictable fashion, yet the violence and vindictiveness with which he responds to Kyuri’s jealousy still manages to singe.

Wonna’s man has less teeth, but manages to kill (in the spiritual sense of the world) all the same:

He is a person who expects people to be kind because he is kind. When he drinks or watches a movie, he will say sentimental things that will make me embarrassed for him. If we are in a group setting, I become deeply ashamed. I married him because I was tired and it was already too late for me, even though I was still so young.

In a different cultural context, perhaps one closer to home, we might say she has “emotional baggage.” In hers, though, she is not so much a depressive realist who married the wrong guy but more of an inevitable byproduct of a society who sees her utility and her obedience but not her tragedy.

Men aside—because really, If I Had Your Face is not about the men but the women who suffer them and each other—the central allegory of the novel appears to be about beauty, not as a virtue or even platonic ideal but a requirement, a demand so unrelenting and absolute that the society portrayed in the book seems almost anachronistic in its glorification of age-old gender divides. A fortune teller Kyuri visits sums it up in a prophecy that is invariably self-fulfilling:

Grimacing in pity, she told me that because of the shape of my nose, all the money that would flow into my life would flow right out again. And she told me that I had the weakest luck in love… She said I had the same saju as a famous historical commander, who went to war knowing he had nothing to lose… It is easy to leap if you have no choice.

And leap Kyuri does: she changes her nose and stitches her eyelids, shaves down her jawline, whitens her skin, and alters her hair. For all the newest technological trappings the women in the book refer to—plastic surgery procedures so novel it makes blepharoplasty and liposuction sound like lobotomy and bloodletting—modern-day South Korea, where being hot and maybe good at pouring drinks stand out as the two qualities a girl should work toward (and it really is work, the novel goes to great lengths to show), sounds outright Pleistocene in its treatment of feminism. Toward the end of the novel, when Kyuri tries her hand at a career change by going back to the same plastic surgeon’s office that gave her the enviable track of a ten-percenter, she comments nonchalantly at the new menu of additional options set before her:

I’m sorely tempted by the “Strapless Package,” which includes Botox for the back of the shoulders, “fat kill” injections for the underarms, and a choice between Healite II LED therapy or cryotherapy… Going down the list, I am reminded I need more armpit whitening and lip edge injections because the little curls on either side of my lips have begun to droop…

Sexism, though, is a tale as old as time, and if you read closely, a far more contemporary breed of racism bleeds through—an internalized racism, directed at yourself and your own “kind.” Early on in the novel, Kyuri meets the rare female patron at her room salon and has this to say about the woman’s prototypical Asian features: “Up close, I could see that her face was devoid of surgery—her eyes were single-lidded and her nose was flat. I would not have been caught dead walking around with a face like that.“ And really, we don’t even need Cha’s (very worthwhile) narrations to know that wildly popular procedures like skin bleaching, double eyelid surgery, and nose jobs did not achieve their cult status in Korea because of magic or sorcery, but rather, by focusing on predictably Eurocentric features that Asians in particular and people of color in general have aspired to for generations. Even good ol’ boob jobs can fall under this category.

Here’s the thing: you can’t grow up in a cultural milieu and be immune to what it loves. Even the regrettable men of If I Had Your Face are pawns as much as the women they use and abuse. If American husbands are familiar with the quip “happy wife, happy life,” then the Korean men in Cha’s novel appear to serve as its natural counterpoint: stuck in unhappy jobs and unions with unhappy women, they treat their misery as their birthright, ignorant—or perhaps just refusing to believe—that life can be any different.

Maybe, then, this so-called “White Fever” malaise has less to do with white men’s sparkling attributes and more to do with Asian women’s own beliefs about themselves. Maybe it’s an act of mental jiujitsu: by marrying outside their culture, Asian women get to find a different culture to call home, one that hasn’t heard about the monolid versus double lids debate. That ignorance in itself is a kind of reprieve from the pressures that nick and cut. At one point in Cha’s novel, Kyuri considers the alternate life waiting for her if she, like so many other salon girls, moved to New York or Hong Kong: “Who knows?” she says. “Maybe someone will marry me if I move there. A foreign man who will think I was born beautiful, because he cannot tell the difference.” The great appeal of marrying outside of one’s tribe, she seems to suggest, is getting to relish the other person’s oblivion and their blindness to what everyone in your own country knows, or thinks they do. Cha’s novel is ultimately as much social commentary as it is indulgent fiction, because it begs the question of whether it’s possible to tout obscenely Eurocentric standards of beauty in plastic surgery offices and not have that Eurocentrism rub off elsewhere, in bedrooms and bars.

Cha’s debut novel is a glorious feat of storytelling, a page-turner written by a journalist who did her homework, and who also happens to be an Asian woman likely familiar with the specific and astounding demands levied against the quartet of protagonists anchoring her story. But more than a novel, If I Had Your Face is a protest against the cultural pressures women like her heroines (and men like her anti-heroes) have eaten up their whole lives. In that sense, Cha’s fiction does more than just represent the specific, modern cultural milieu of South Korea today in all its dazzling, devastating glory; it implores us to look at ourselves and our desires and choices more severely.

According to the butterfly effect, a pair of wings fluttering in the Yellow Sea can cause a maelstrom in Boston. Cha’s novel, in using a diasporic Asian American lens to portray and understand Asians living in Asia, raises questions about a different kind of butterfly effect, one more invisible and cultural in nature: how do European American beauty standards raise a furor in doctor’s offices and salons in the East, and what does that do, in turn, to the hyphenated Americans like Cha, with one foot in each corner, wondering—and documenting—where things went terribly, beautifully wrong?

When she is not reading or writing, Christine Ma-Kellams teaches psychology as an assistant professor at San Jose State University. Her writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review, ZYZZYVA, Catapult, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. More from this author →