Lovefool 04.11.11 | The Love Less Traveled

Taking a look at two East-meets-West romances, The Story of Lee and Love as a Foreign Language.

I’ve been thinking a lot about decisions lately, having made some fairly large ones in the last few months. The decisions we make are important. Who we talk to, who we don’t talk to, how we talk to them, where we live, what we do, who we love: they all add up to something and, for the most part, like it or not, that something is us. Am I going to choose the things I’m supposed to? Grow up, live near home, marry a nice boy, get a desk job, buy a house, stop buying Hello Kitty things and going to conventions, get shirts that don’t have band logos on them and, finally, become a grown-up? Am I going to do some of those things or all of them or none of them? Will I be what I feel like I’m expected to be? Or will I, as I have a history of doing, flout a lot expectations and do what I think is best? Will I move away, will I keep being a creative nerdgirl, will I fall in love with the unlikely (but not really) boy? Who am I going to be? And how much will who I love shape my life? Will I give up my Chucks and Death Cab shirts for heels and sweaters?
Of course, the mundane processes of growing up always look better in black and white shojo books. A recent acquisition to my review pile, Sean Michael Wilson and Chie Kutsuwada’s The Story of Lee, is presented as just what it says on the tin, the story of a twentysomething Hong Kong resident. Lee has dropped out of her father-approved dentistry course and is working in her family’s shop. She’s writing secret poetry that she slips into daily readings to her ill grandmother, listening to the Clientele and, yes, dating inappropriate men and being a little chilly to the appropriate ones. She’s dedicated but disinterested, thinking deep thoughts about haiku while stocking the shelves and dreaming about spending a year in London. She’s fond of her father but not the way they communicate or his ideas of what her life should be. She certainly doesn’t like the boyfriend her father has selected for her, preferring mysterious Western boys. Honestly, she’s a little typical for this sort of thing but still manages to convey the romance of girls like that. (Girls like that, I say, like I wasn’t one.) However, while The Story of Lee is presented as a pretty straightforward coming-of-age tale, there’s a lot at work under the surface. For not only is it the story of Lee, it’s the story of Matt, a likewise poetry-writing young Scot abroad for a few years who displays a lot more typical boy behavior than gents in these books usually do. And Matt and Lee come from two very different cultures, and it takes them some work to come to an understanding about the way things work, from language to sex to attitudes. And, yes, it takes some very conscious decisions.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, the other example that springs immediately to mind is J. Torres and Eric Kim’s Love as a Foreign Language, but it made me wonder what is it about the appeal of East-meets-West love stories that keeps them fresh and popping up? One could, I think, even argue that Paradise Kiss (which will never stop coming up here, nerdlings, so just read it) has a touch of culture clash between George and Caroline, despite their common nationality, but we’ll leave the field fairly narrow. The Story of Lee is certainly a more honest, adult-but-not-overly-so appraisal of the problems that might come up in any outrightly multicultural relationship, which is probably some of the charm of this book in particular. That might explain why I like Love as a Foreign Language just a smidge better. I famously veer wildly between wearing the very rosiest of rose-colored glasses and being utterly cynical and, honestly, both of these books bring both reactions out in me. Lee should probably stick to London but I guess Scotland is cool and she’s going to have a native guide that way. Joel should’ve gotten it together enough before he left Korea to figure out what was going on with Hana but Hana in the snow was gorgeous.
The Story of Lee talks frankly about how Western and Eastern ideas about sex and behavior can be dramatically different while Joel and Hana (the Canadian and Korean protagonists of Love as a Foreign Language) are a bit twee. Honestly, though, I’m into twee. The Story of Lee also presents Lee as part of a family unit, while Hana seems to be on her own, and I do firmly believe that no girlie is an island. Even Matt, The Story of Lee‘s charming Scot, has a brother back in Edinburgh. I suppose that The Story of Lee is a more realistic, in-depth view of how a relationship with these circumstances would end up, even with Lee’s literal and figurative flyaway happy ending.
But, darn it, Joel and Hana are just so cute. I can’t imagine Hana accidentally getting wasted at a hostess club while running away from home for an evening. Maybe that’s what tips my scale ever so slightly for Love as a Foreign Language: I like reading about the decisions I wouldn’t make. Because, honestly, I would end up drunk in the hostess club. Actually, there’s more than a fairly decent chance I’ve done something comparable. There’s no mystery to The Story of Lee, unless you’re counting the surprisingly familial shifts, but it’s a far more practical exploration of love in strange lands. But every lovefool knows, though, that you don’t have to fly across an ocean to find a strange land. Sometimes they’re just down the street. And everyone can tell you the story of the paths they’ve travelled. But we all like to get lost on someone else’s path sometimes. | Erin Jameson
Click here for a preview of The Story of Lee, right here at PLAYBACK:stl.

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