Cover Author Frances Cha, whose debut novel offers an intense view of modern South Korea (Photo: Illooz)

A debut novelist depicts the modern edge of Seoul and the societal pressures faced by young women through the lens of four remarkable characters

Frances Cha grew up in the US, Hong Kong and South Korea, working for several years as a travel and culture editor for CNN International in Seoul and Hong Kong, where she covered many of the more extreme trends in pop culture and beauty for a global audience. The world’s ravenous interest in stories about the prevalence of plastic surgery, the obsession with K-pop stars and the competitiveness for a top-flight education went a long way towards informing her first novel, If I Had Your Face, which tells the stories of four young women in a fast-paced, ever-intense environment where appearances are literally everything. Cha puts the societal pressures and hierarchies of Seoul in a context that defies the reader to cast judgment on her characters.

Kyuri, whose face has been altered to fit an ideal picture, works in a room salon, a private bar where men pay for the company of beautiful women. Miho is an artist who discovers the family of her wealthy boyfriend disapproves of her background. Ara, a mute hairstylist, harbours dreams of meeting her favourite K-pop singer while Sujin, another friend, wants to follow in the footsteps of Kyuri. What they have in common is that the measures they take to fit into the world into which they were born seem not only justifiable, but necessary. Here, Cha discusses her debut work.

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How did you go about writing this book and how do these characters represent what you experienced in contemporary Seoul?

I started writing this book in grad school, but once I went to work for CNN, I would occasionally try to write, but that was a full-time job so I put it aside. In retrospect, I realise that was the best kind of training for fiction writing because I was assigned an article or two every single day, while working on a longer piece at the same time. That kind of daily writing trains you to write on command, which is really hard to do if you’re a fiction writer. I was interviewing people as a Korean in Korea, but contextualising the story constantly for the international audience. The articles themselves were very extreme, because contemporary Korea is all these superlatives that I bring up in the book, both good and bad, from having [among] the lowest birth rates to the highest suicide rates in the world. It’s a very workaholic country, where everyone is obsessed with education, and all these things blend into one another. They’re all connected, but what it comes down to is I just thought of characters I wanted to base in the modern landscape and try to make as authentic as possible.

Why do you think a lot of these trends, from K-pop culture to the prevalence of plastic surgery, seem so much more intense in South Korea?

It comes down to education in my opinion, because there are so few universities that everyone is competing to get into and it’s not the kind of culture where people think you don’t need to go to college to have a good life. In Korea it all boils down to what college you go to and that leads to what job you get and if you don’t perform as a young student, it leads to a lot of escapism, internet gaming, the intense K-pop fandom, as well as the pressures that lead to high suicide rates, because mental health is not a subject that is openly addressed there.

Given that level of education, then, why do you think such a specific standard of beauty remains so ingrained in Korean culture today?

For my characters, beauty is a more practical solution because they’re not born into wealth. They did not achieve academic success or go to college. Beauty is not a short cut, but the only practical way to make their lives better, to get a better job. It’s not out of vanity or frivolity, which I feel is the western lens through which plastic surgery or any emphasis on beauty is regarded. Western women are just as interested in beauty, but it’s perhaps not spoken of in the same way. Braces are something that a lot of westerners go through and it’s a very accepted part of an American upbringing. You could argue that completely changes your life as well, it changes your face drastically and gives you more confidence and probably affects your love life, your job prospects if you’re more confident, all in indirect ways.

You address the complicated expectations on marriage from a familial perspective, but are traditional norms beginning to change?

Actually, Koreans are marrying extremely late if at all. They are not getting married or getting married so late they are not having children. The government sees it as a huge problem because of social security and an ageing population where there are not enough people to support the elders. The #MeToo movement, while it is still a lot smaller in scale than the West, that’s also a huge pivotal moment in Korean women’s history. That’s going to affect every industry—it already has. It’s really doing away with the notion that there’s absolute power in the hierarchies of different industries, and I think it’s really affecting the way people behave. I recently read that Korea still has an appalling lack of female CEOs in the workplace, but there is at least the sentiment that’s wrong. I think it will take a very long time to change, but the fact it’s being discussed at all is a big step. The higher young women rise, the more it will change.

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In If I Had Your Face, the debut novel by Frances Cha, four young women reflect the challenges of contemporary life in Seoul in their struggles against established social hierarchies and standards of beauty. This excerpt focuses on Kyuri, whose work as a room salon escort and her extensive use of plastic surgery to change her appearance fall well outside even the norms of Korean society.

My mother calls me hyonyeo—filial daughter—and strokes my hair with so much love it breaks my heart. But sometimes, she has spells when she shakes with anger towards me. “There is no greater sorrow than not getting married!” she says. “The thought of you alone in life, no children, that is what is making me old and sick.” I tell her I am meeting scores of men at the office where she thinks I work as a secretary. It’s just a matter of finding the right one.

“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?”

Even as a girl, I knew the only chance I had was to change my face. When I looked into the mirror, I knew everything in it had to change, even before a fortune-teller told me so. When I finally awoke the evening of my jaw surgery and the anaesthesia began to wear off, I started screaming from the pain, but my mouth would not open and no sound came out. After hours of persistent agony, the only thing I could think was how I wanted to kill myself to stop it—I tried to find a balcony to jump from and when I couldn’t, frantically searched for anything sharp or glass; a belt to hang on a showerhead. They told me later that I had not even made it to the door of my hospital room. My mother held me during the night as I wept, soaking the bandages that encased my face. I am terrified of her dying. When my mind wanders, I think about her tumours spreading poison throughout her body.

The other day at my clinic, I finally saw the actual girl that I modelled my face after: Candy, the lead singer from that girl group Charming. She was sitting in the waiting room when I walked in, slumped in the corner with hair spilling messily out of a black cap. I went to sit beside her because I wanted to see how clear the likeness was. I’d brought in photos of Candy’s face when I had my first consultations with Dr Shim. She has a slight upturned bump at the end of her nose that makes her so uniquely, startlingly beautiful. Dr Shim was the surgeon who gave it to her, which is the reason I had come to him.

Up close, I saw that her eyes were streaked with red, as if she had been crying, and she had ugly spots on her chin. She hasn’t been having a good year, with all those rumours flying about how she has been bullying Xuna, the new girl in their group, and that she’s busy running around with a new boyfriend and missing rehearsals. The comments on internet portal sites have been merciless and torrential.

Sensing my staring, she pulled her cap down lower and started twisting her rings—a slender gold band on each of her ten fingers. When the nurse called her name and she stood up to walk in, she turned to look at me and our eyes met, as if she could hear what I was thinking.

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.

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