Book Reviews and Highlights

If I Had Your Face

Frances Cha

  • Asian
  • Asian American
  • Feminism
  • Fiction
  • Friendship
  • Literary
  • Women
  • Sujin is hell- bent on becoming a room salon girl.
  • Ara | Page: 3
  • #first-sentence
  • It is late and we are drinking soju in little paper cups.
  • Ara | Page: 3
  • Sujin has told me how much these men pay a night to have girls like Kyuri sit next to them and pour them liquor, and it’s taken me a long time to believe her.
  • Ara | Page: 3
  • Sujin wants to be a part of it all, for the money. Right now she is asking Kyuri where she got her eyes done.
  • Ara | Page: 4
  • Unfortunately, the truth is that even apart from her asymmetrical eyelids, Sujin’s face is too square for her to ever be considered pretty in the true Korean sense. Her lower jaw also protrudes too much.
  • Ara | Page: 4
  • Kyuri, on the other hand, is one of those electrically beautiful girls. The stitches on her double eyelids look naturally faint, while her nose is raised, her cheekbones tapered, and her entire jaw realigned and shaved into a slim v- line. Long feathery eyelashes have been planted along her tattooed eye line, and she does routine light therapy on her skin, which glistens cloudy white, like skim milk.
  • Ara | Page: 4
  • SUJIN AND I have been sharing an apartment for three years now.
  • Ara | Page: 4
  • It is a big deal for smaller hair shops to snag a room salon girl as a client because room salon girls get their hair and makeup done professionally every day and bring in a lot of money.
  • Ara | Page: 5
  • SUJIN IS STILL COMPLAINING about her eyelids. She has been unhappy about them almost the entire time I have known her— before and after she had them stitched.
  • Ara | Page: 5
  • SUJIN’S PET NAME for me is ineogongju, or little mermaid. She says it’s because the little mermaid lost her voice but got it back later and lived happily ever after. I don’t tell her that that’s the American cartoon version. In the original story, she kills herself.
  • Ara | Page: 6
  • That was how a lot of teenagers made money back in Cheongju in the winters— we stood on street corners in the snow and roasted sweet potatoes over coals in little tin barrels and sold them for a few thousand won each.
  • Ara | Page: 7
  • The man at the corner store wouldn’t sell them to her because he didn’t like her face.
  • Ara | Page: 8
  • I’ve been doing her hair for free so that she could save up for her new surgery. It’s the least I can do.
  • Ara | Page: 10
  • At the consultation, Dr. Shim told Sujin that restitching her eyes will not be a problem, and she needs to get both double jaw surgery and square jaw surgery, desperately. He’ll cut both the upper and lower jaws and relocate them, then shave down both sides so that she will no longer have such a masculine-looking jawline. He also recommended cheekbone reduction and some light chin liposuction. The surgeries will take a total of five to six hours and she will stay in the hospital for four days.
  • Ara | Page: 15
  • IN THE HOSPITAL, all I can do is hold Sujin’s hand while she weeps silently, just her eyelashes and nose and lips visible in her bandaged head.
  • Ara | Page: 16
  • I LEAVE EVERYTHING I own to my roommate, Park Ara, it says.
  • Ara | Page: 16
  • IN THE ORIGINAL STORY, the little mermaid endures unspeakable pain to gain her human legs. The Sea Witch warns her that her new feet will feel as if she is walking on whetted blades, but she will be able to dance like no human has ever danced before. And so she drinks the witch’s potion, which slices through her body like a sword.
  • Ara | Page: 16
  • And in the end, after she said goodbye to her prince and flung herself into the sea, expecting to disintegrate into sea foam, she was carried away by the children of light and air.
  • Ara | Page: 17
  • The girl called Ji walked slowly toward us and sat down where Bruce had indicated. 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.
  • Kyuri | Page: 19
  • Bruce was a recent big catch for our room salon—not only was his family famous (his father owned a stem-cell clinic in Cheongdamdong) but he had started his own gaming company—and Madam was thrilled that he’d been here every week for going on two months now.
  • Kyuri | Page: 19
  • A poor man cannot help me when he cannot help himself. I know, because I was in love with a poor man once. He could not pay to spend time with me and I could not afford to spend time with him.
  • Kyuri | Page: 21
  • No, what struck me each time I saw them was how close they were—how companionable and comfortable they were with each other.
  • Kyuri | Page: 26
  • THESE DAYS, it’s nice to finally be working at a “10 percent”—a salon that supposedly employs the prettiest 10 percent of girls in the industry—where the madam isn’t blatantly pushing us to have sex with clients for “round 2.”
  • Kyuri | Page: 28
  • She never lets me near the stove. The result is that Haena and I don’t know how to cook a single dish, not even rice in the rice cooker. “You will both have a better life than a housewife daughter-in-law,” she said to us growing up. “I would rather you not know how to cook at all.”
  • Kyuri | Page: 28
  • She had to give up her corner at the market, where she’s sold slabs of tofu for the past thirty-five years.
  • Kyuri | Page: 29
  • “Isn’t that why you suffered so much pain with your surgery?” she says, stabbing her finger into my cheek. “What is the point of having a beautiful face if you don’t know how to use it?”
  • Kyuri | Page: 30
  • EVEN AS A GIRL, I knew the only chance I had was to change my face.
  • Kyuri | Page: 30
  • When I finally awoke the evening of my jaw surgery and the anesthesia began to wear off, I started screaming from the pain, but my mouth would not open and no sound came out.
  • Kyuri | Page: 30
  • I wanted to reach over and shake her by the shoulders. Stop running around like a fool, I wanted to say. You have so much and you can do anything you want. I would live your life so much better than you, if I had your face.
  • Kyuri | Page: 31
  • I married him because I was tired and it was already too late for me, even though I was still so young.
  • Wonna | Page: 33
  • Sometimes, men talk about the women they are seeing and vice versa, but a lot of times, conversation is about TV shows. It is astounding, how much people talk about TV.
  • Wonna | Page: 34
  • I understand how reality TV can damage your brain, because the way they replay the same punch line scenes with the laugh tracks over and over is enough to make one go mad.
  • Wonna | Page: 34
  • IT’S NOT an original thought perhaps, but I think people watch so much TV because life would otherwise be unbearable.
  • Wonna | Page: 35
  • Unless you are born into a chaebol family or your parents were the fantastically lucky few who purchased land in Gangnam decades ago, you have to work and work and work for a salary that isn’t even enough to buy a house or pay for childcare, and you sit at a desk until your spine twists, and your boss is somehow incompetent and a workaholic at the same time and at the end of the day you have to drink to bear it all.
  • Wonna | Page: 35
  • But I grew up not knowing the difference between a bearable life and an unbearable life, and by the time I discovered there was such a thing, it was too late.
  • Wonna | Page: 35
  • “When the boy is born, the daughter is cold rice anyway,” she said. “Time to throw away.”
  • Wonna | Page: 41
  • There was actually another thing that made up my mind that day; the fact that he had chosen a restaurant near my house so it would be convenient for me.
  • Wonna | Page: 47
  • I had been on many a blind date at restaurants that were near the man’s work, or near the man’s favorite bar, or, the very worst, near the man’s home. The better he looked on paper, the more selfish he was, that much I knew.
  • Wonna | Page: 47
  • But this man, not only was he kind, but he had a dead mother. If we had a child—and I wanted a baby, a wee creature who would be completely mine—she would not interfere with its upbringing. Nor could she ever take it away from me. It was too good to be true.
  • Wonna | Page: 47
  • You see, I have long understood what most women learn by fire after they are married—that the hate mothers-in-law harbor toward their daughters-in-law is built into the genes of all women in this country.
  • Wonna | Page: 47
  • BUT I DO have to admit I feel a pinch of pride when someone asks if I have had surgery and I can say no.
  • Miho | Page: 55
  • “It’s just so wonderful how there are so many opportunities these days for people like you, isn’t it? Our country has become such an encouraging place.”
  • Miho | Page: 58
  • “Rich people are fascinated by happiness,” she said. “It’s something they find maddening.”—
  • Miho | Page: 59
  • I STOP BY Joye department store to buy miniature orchids from the flower shop on the first floor. It costs ten times more than the flower market near my apartment, but the pot bears the Joye logo and name.
  • Miho | Page: 59
  • Her apartment nourished a part of me I didn’t know I had—a desolate craving to touch and see and luxuriate in objects.
  • Miho | Page: 65
  • For all its millions of people, Korea is the size of a fishbowl and someone is always looking down on someone else.
  • Miho | Page: 68
  • It’s basic human nature, this need to look down on someone to feel better about yourself. There is no point in getting upset about it.
  • Kyuri | Page: 90
  • But when I tell Sujin she should learn to look out for herself before worrying about anyone else, she tears up and says Ara cannot adjust to the real world and must be protected and Sujin has to make as much money as she can for both of them.
  • Kyuri | Page: 90
  • You work, work, work until your body is ruined and there is no way out but to keep working. Even though you will seemingly make a lot of money, you will never be able to save because of the interest you have to repay.
  • Kyuri | Page: 91
  • Even though Nami has also moved out of Miari and into a third-tier room salon, she will continue to work until either she kills herself or they throw her away like a used dishrag.
  • Kyuri | Page: 95
  • What, exactly, do they think their men do between the hours of 8 P.M. and midnight every weeknight? Who do they think keeps these thousands of room salons flush with money?
  • Kyuri | Page: 95
  • “You don’t do things in moderation. You just shut down when you don’t eat like this. You can’t work if your body shuts down.”
  • Kyuri | Page: 99
  • “Good riddance,” I say. “Why would you want to bring more children into this world so that they can suffer and be stressed their entire lives? And they’ll disappoint you and you will want to die. And you’ll be poor.”
  • Kyuri | Page: 107
  • All my adult life, and in my marriage, I am trying not to be cruel because I know that it is only a matter of time before what is in my blood rears its ugly head.
  • Wonna | Page: 111
  • “Why don’t we go around the table and offer some theories for Miss Chun?” Department Head Lee says once the meat order has been placed by Chief Cho. “Chief Cho, what do you think?” Then the men take turns dissecting her height (too tall), her education (too threatening), her personality (too strong), her clothes (too dark), and start offering advice about how to attract a man (incorporate cute mannerisms in speech).
  • Wonna | Page: 119
  • Anxiety, like a dark bat, fluttered in my chest.
  • Miho | Page: 129
  • She wanted to become a doctor, she said. But I think that’s because it was the only job we knew of at the time that made any money.
  • Miho | Page: 130
  • In the beginning, when I first moved to New York and met Ruby and Hanbin and all of their friends, I had let them see my insecurity, my terror, simply because I had been drowning in a kind of panic in this alien world. They’d never seen anyone so raw before and they must have marveled at me. They cloaked themselves so well with assurance, smug and luminous.
  • Miho | Page: 135
  • In a way, I will be glad when we are almost home and the scenery will turn into rice fields and farm plots, and I will be reminded of how far I have come, instead of what I cannot reach.
  • Ara | Page: 151
  • It was only recently that I understood they were now worried that no normal man would marry me. The idea that I would never experience motherhood was so distressing that it unleashed a separate wave of guilt for their not having given me siblings.
  • Ara | Page: 154
  • OFTEN WHEN I am in a place that is crowded and loud, I look around at all the people who are talking and I think about how much of their being is concentrated in their voices, and how I am living a fraction of that life.
  • Ara | Page: 154
  • “Such style,” says Mrs. Sukhyang. “It’s Gangnam style,” they chortle together.
  • Ara | Page: 159
  • It now feels strange to her that in Korea, if you try to strike up a conversation with someone you have not been introduced to, people look at you as they would at a large rat, but if even the flimsiest of introductions is made by the most peripheral of acquaintances, they fuss over you like a long-lost sibling.
  • Ara | Page: 166
  • The men shake hands gruffly and there is a disgusting orgy of bowing and compliments all around.
  • Kyuri | Page: 176
  • “Looks like a sangyeonrae,” whispers Sujin into my ear. “They look straight out of a drama! Can you believe the jewelry? It must be real, right?”
  • Kyuri | Page: 176
  • “Your life is over, you psycho bitch.” It’s from Bruce, of course. From the next room, a lifetime and a universe away.
  • Kyuri | Page: 177
  • You will not be able to save your money because there will never be enough of it. You will keep doing things you never expected to do. You will be affected in ways you could never imagine.
  • Kyuri | Page: 185
  • When I got there, I vowed to get out as fast as I could, and when I did they told me I was a ruthless, toxic bitch, that they couldn’t believe how ungrateful I was to leave them behind when they had done so much for me.
  • Kyuri | Page: 188
  • Perhaps I should have continued to act as if nothing was different. But I have feelings. You should know that.
  • Kyuri | Page: 190
  • It is a text from Bruce. All right, it says. Now fuck off.
  • Kyuri | Page: 191
  • I’m okay. I have survived the day, again. All I need now is for these stupid fucking pills to work.
  • Kyuri | Page: 192
  • She believes girls should operate like Venus flytraps—opening only for prey that can actually be caught.
  • Miho | Page: 193
  • Kyuri also suffers from persecution mania. This is entirely my own and secret opinion. She sees herself as the victim—of men, of the room salon industry, of Korean society, of the government. She never questions her own judgment, or how she creates and wallows in these situations. But that is another story.
  • Miho | Page: 194
  • I am spoon-feeding the muse that lives in a well deep inside of my brain—hearing Kyuri’s stories, watching her drink to oblivion every weekend, obsessing over her face and her body and her clothes and her bags.
  • Miho | Page: 194
  • In America, one of my professors said once that the best art comes from an unbearable life—if you live through it, that is.
  • Miho | Page: 195
  • She is near forty, divorced and overweight, which renders her entirely invisible in the eyes of Korean men of every generation.
  • Miho | Page: 199
  • There is a limit to how much Korean men are willing to endure female money, especially if they are wealthy themselves.
  • Miho | Page: 205
  • “Why do you have to put it that way?” I say. “Are you trying to pick a fight with me? You don’t think I work hard? That I’m not terrified that I am going to lose everything any second?”
  • Miho | Page: 207
  • There is something about this picture—of her in a lace-edged slip, in front of her oval mirror, slowly wiping off the colors of her face in anger—which is riveting.
  • Miho | Page: 208
  • What am I to do now? It gnaws at me bleakly, this question. For all that I had thought I protected my heart, knowing this would happen one day, I am not prepared.
  • Miho | Page: 210
  • I RELISH the thought of him attending my exhibition, only to find Ruby at every turn—her face, her body, her hatreds and desires, her apathy and disdain, her cherished treasures.
  • Miho | Page: 214
  • I will build myself up so high in such a short time that when he leaves me, I will become a lightning storm, a nuclear apocalypse.
  • Miho | Page: 215
  • I WILL NOT come out of this with nothing.
  • Miho | Page: 215
  • I want to share this with someone—anyone. I want to clutch the lady who is sitting next to me on the subway and tell her. I want her to know a little world is erupting inside of me. My baby is trying to talk to me. She is trying to live.
  • Wonna | Page: 216
  • He would not think it exemplary or empowered or motherly, which is how it makes me feel.
  • Wonna | Page: 217
  • MY HUSBAND is in China again this week for work. This means at night, I can stretch my body across the whole bed and the sheets feel twice as delicious against my skin. I can roll toward either side of the bed and toss and turn to my heart’s content.
  • Wonna | Page: 217
  • If there was a marriage handbook of do’s and don’ts, the first chapter should be titled “Buy a King-Size Bed.”
  • Wonna | Page: 218
  • I wonder if her boss in her former department was nicer than Miss Chun and whether she felt such fear about broaching the topic of maternity leave.
  • Wonna | Page: 222
  • “When are you due?” Her voice is crisp. I can feel her eyes boring holes into my skull. “September ninth.”“And have you talked to HR?”“No…”“Good.”
  • Wonna | Page: 226
  • If we do not perform well and the entire department goes, then you will have as long a maternity leave as you desire.
  • Wonna | Page: 228
  • That he has not been on a business trip the past two times he said he was. That he actually lost his job two months ago. That he has been staying with his father when he pretended to leave so that he could apply for jobs and interviews.
  • Wonna | Page: 230
  • What I daydream about most is an older version of you. You are a young woman, perhaps the age of those girls who live above me—not that much younger than I am now. But unlike them and unlike me, you have a perpetual smile lurking at the corners of your mouth because you’ve had a happy childhood.
  • Wonna | Page: 232
  • In my daydream, you are coming to visit—you are practically flying to see me because you have some good news and you want to tell me in person because we are so close, you and I, and you want to see my face shimmer with joy.
  • Wonna | Page: 232
  • You ring the bell, your foot tapping impatiently, and when I open the door, there you are, in your splendid, regal confidence, wielding your happiness like a scepter.
  • Wonna | Page: 232
  • And your news will spill from your mouth, your words running over each other because it is something you have worked hard for and you are so proud to tell me how you have achieved this.
  • Wonna | Page: 232
  • And I will pull you inside, saying come in and sit down and tell me more slowly and fully, and I will cry because the process of raising you will have made me sentimental, and I will wrap my arms around you and marvel at how beautiful you are, how tall and strong and shining. And all of my memories of you will dance in front of my eyes as I thirstily listen to all that you have to say, laughing and holding my hands and leaning on my shoulder, or perhaps putting your head in my lap the way you would do as a child.
  • Wonna | Page: 232
  • And then it is time for you to leave me again, to go back to your own life, humming with aspiration. You don’t have to worry about me—I will be the happiest I have ever been, even as my heart breaks a little to let go of you.
  • Wonna | Page: 232
  • Still, I know you will always come back to me. And that will be the only wish I’ll have ever known.
  • Wonna | Page: 233
  • Even at the salon, where we each have the little acreage of one chair in front of a mirror, everyone is trying to decorate the hell out of the thirty centimeters of shelf space in front of the mirrors.
  • Ara | Page: 239
  • One of my customers said to me once that the problem with a lot of my generation in this country is that we do not live for tomorrow.
  • Ara | Page: 242
  • “You have to grow up with parents whose lives become better as time goes by, so you learn that you must invest effort for life to improve. But if you grow up around people whose situations become worse as time goes on, then you think that you have to just live for today. And when I ask young people, What about the future? What will you do when the future comes and you have spent everything already? they say they will just die. And that is why Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world.”
  • Ara | Page: 242
  • I wanted to ask if his own children were brilliant and filial and successful, because no one is actually like that. Sometimes, it is a good thing that I cannot speak.
  • Ara | Page: 243
  • Sujin takes my hand, and we both start walking fast again. I know how she feels and she knows how I feel and soon we are both running.
  • Ara | Page: 248
  • With most of her swelling down, beauty has emerged dramatically from her face this past week. I am amazed, as I always am, at how suddenly it blooms when it finally happens.
  • Kyuri | Page: 251
  • “The adults there never think ahead about our future—to be fair, they’re busy putting out fires, with girls like me—but that’s why those of us out here are constantly looking for information for the younger ones. That’s how I got that salon job too, an unni from the Center called me. I mean, the job was gruesome, but at least it got me here!”
  • Kyuri | Page: 256
  • I know I will not get this job—nothing in this life is this easy. But as long as I am trying, doesn’t that mean something?
  • Kyuri | Page: 263
  • So we all stand up to make our way upstairs together, as the sky starts crackling, taking aim at each of us and the drunk men stumbling by.
  • Kyuri | Page: 268
  • While writing about these young women, I drew upon many topics that I worked on as the Seoul editor for CNNGo and later CNN Travel.
  • Acknowledgments | Page: 272
  • Min Jung Lee walked me through the storied corridors of Random House long before my book was ready, and after an early reading, told me that she was certain I would be published one day soon. Without her, I never would have had the courage to send out my manuscript.
  • Acknowledgments | Page: 272