Love as a Foreign Language
Created by: J. Torres, Eric Kim
Published by: Oni Press
ISBN: 1932664416 (Amazon)
When I was younger, I wanted to go to Japan or Korea and teach English for a year or two. I would plan to be the typical touristy foreigner, to read comics in a language I didn’t know, and to maybe even find a nice foreign girlfriend for my expatriated self. (Pinkerton's “Across the Sea” admittedly held unnatural sway over my heart.) It would be romantic and adventurous and the best life-building experience ever. Perhaps fortunately, J. Torres cured me of these delusions right quick. Love as a Foreign Language drew liberally from the well of reality and splashed its icy waters all over me—which is a funny thing for a romance comic to do.
The problem is food. Forget the cultural differences. Forget not being able to make eye contact while talking. Forget my brash American ways. Forget the barriers of language, an absence of shared history, and the fact that I hail from one of the most internationally embarrassing nations from which to hail when traveling internationally. These are not insurmountable problems. The problem is: the food.
While I prefer to describe myself as having a truly refined and delicate palette, it really all just comes down to the fact that I’m a picky eater. If it’s not the taste of something that bothers me, it’s the texture. The number of possibly delectable cuisines that these two guardian angels fell without discrimination are beyond counting. I don’t mind it so much since I’ve never really known any other way, but my unadventurous culinary spirit is a real headache for my wife. Still, since America doesn’t have any culturally prevalent dish, I can pretty easily navigate around the obstacles that present themselves to my tongue. This would be doubtlessly more difficult in Korea. Kimchi is right out. Kalbi is fine, but anything made of vegetable matter is probably going to present a problem. I would undoubtedly grow lean again were I required to spend any substantial time in Seoul. While this sound like I’m talking a lot about myself (and I am!), I’m really just empathizing with Joel, Love as a Foreign Language's beleaguered hero.
Joel is a Canadian who has been nine moths in Korea, teaching at an ESL school. He’s run down: weary and exhausted by the foreignness of everything he sees. He’s no longer enchanted by the strangeness of the place. Rather, he’s beaten down by it. He understands nothing, believes that everyone is staring at him, and generally just feels deeply out of place. And the biggest signifier of his alienation is the food. He can’t eat spicy food and there is lots of spicy food. He characterizes many other Korean edibles as things that originated as the objects of dares. And kimchi is impossible. And I’m right there with him. Joel’s story is my own hypothetical story.
And so, Joel can’t take it any more. Nine months in a strange place. One would hope his gestation would complete and that he’d emerge newborn into a world he could be comfortable in, but it just doesn’t happen. Joel is not adventurous enough, not brave enough, to ever be comfortable in this alien landscape. He’s deeply homesick and hearing about his mom’s Thanksgiving cooking seals the curse on his lips. He’s going home because he cannot stand it any longer. In the battle between comfortable and alien foods, comfort wins out without firing so much as a single shot. And so Joel prepares to leave, abandoning co-workers who will miss him and a contract only half completed.
But! Enter La Femme.
Joel’s plans to return to a land that will love him grind perilously close to a halt when the school gets a new secretary. Hana is someone Joel’s seen before, someone he’s had his eye out for. She’s beautiful and attractive and pretty and nice to look at and… well, that’s all she is to him at first. She might be more but Joel couldn’t know because he’s never really spoken to her. But that doesn’t stop him from flailing into love at her—not even for a minute. And really, that’s okay. Raw physical attraction is how most relationships begin anyway, right? Only: Joel can’t drum up the courage to get past goggling at Hana all moon-eyed as she walks by.
But because this is a romance, we know (roughly) our trajectory. And we’re not unhappily surprised when we discover there is even going to be something of a love triangle. And as we watch Joel start to grow up, we’re not sure if it’s because he would actually do that or because the kind of story we’re reading demands it. But in the end it doesn’t matter. Maybe loving from afar is destined to help all but the most embittered toward life to grow up a little. Maybe the romance of the tale is enough to smooth over the disappointment of having our expectations met. Or maybe we read stories that we know because we know that we like them. Maybe we need happy endings every now and then to ward off the stings we associate with the Blanketses, the Footnotes in Gazas, the Asterios Polyps. Maybe we need to see Joel return home and be happy about his trip so that we can believe that we might have done the same.
Had we gone to Asia to teach English. Which we didn’t. Grumble grumble grumble.
At the end of the day, Love as a Foreign Language is a charming little story and one well-paced. Joel spends the bulk of the story (like 5/6 of it!) just getting to the point where he can talk to Hana, and then the final chapters speed to the story’s conclusion. Some have complained about this and I think that reading it over the more than couple years it took to trickle out (originally as six slim volumes) left readers feeling a bit disjointed. But now returning to the book years later and reading it all in a fell swoop, the story seems perfectly pleasing (to me at least). After the climactic affirmation of the will-they-or-won’t-they question at the end of Book 5, I didn’t need much more from the story. The purpose was to bring two members of the triangle together and everything after that was merely a happy extrapolation of What Happened Next—like how at the end of certain (awesome) movies, the filmmakers will take a moment to offer a little snapshot of how the rest of the various characters’ lives turned out.
Joel, being clueless, really has no idea what’s going on here.
I can see why someone would want to spend more time watching a new couple get to know each other, to watch their love build and grow, but this wasn’t ever probably going to be that story—which is okay, because it’s not like that story doesn’t exist in a dozen places elsewhere. J. Torres is one of my favourite creators of small stories and even if he leaves some hanging (I’m shedding a tear for Sidekicks even as I type), I’ll follow him for as long as he has a career. Love as a Foreign Language is just one fine example among many of what he can do with a story.
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