I visited Korea in the early 2000s. One day we were in the district of the Ewha’s Women’s University. Near the university is a shopping area situated on a long downward slope. My husband Ned and I were at the top of the hill and all you could see was a sea of shiny black hair. My breath caught in my throat. Here, everyone looked like me. We all had black hair and the olive skin tones.
Growing up in the midwest, amongst a sea of Norse and German descendants, I looked like the one orange amongst a bushel of apples. To minimize my differences, I tried to attire myself with the accoutrements of the apples, putting on the red skin over my orange peel but my deceit lasted only until I saw my reflection.
Ned turned to me, “Don’t take off your hat. I’ll never find you.” But I paid no heed. I walked a little ahead of Ned and took off my hat and lost myself in the sea of people who all looked just like me. All of my life I was keenly aware of my otherness and here, for just a moment, there was this immediate sense of belonging.
But for all my similarities, I was still Other here. I was big boned compared to the dainty Asian girls that swirled around me, pale and delicate like the wings of a translucent butterfly. “So tall,” clucked the mother of my host family as I towered awkwardly over her under five foot frame. I could have snapped most of those girls in two. And for all my physical similarities – the eye color and shape, the hair, the skin, I was Other.
When I read a book about the Far East, its culture is just as foreign to me as the culture of the British and Regency England or the high society of the New York Five Hundred. To some extent, I’ve always been Other, for as long as I have read books but it has never bothered me when reading because once lost in the book, my Otherness disappears. For a moment, for the span of the novel, I am part of the author’s world, traveling along with her as she carries me to ancient times or fantasy lands or even just across the countryside.
I admit that when I see a book with a cover like Jeannie Lin’s Butterfly Swords, there is an instant affinity because no matter how white my insides are, I will always be generically Asian to everyone who looks at me. And I want and enjoy the affirmation that my ancestors have stories and tales worth publication. That is meaningful. I won’t deny this.
Yet for all affinity that the cover brings for me, Butterfly Swords, isn’t a banana, all yellow on the outside and white on the inside, but there is a core of universality in her story that any romance reader will instantly recognize. A girl bound to honor the wishes of her family, struggling to bring justice for the death of her brother, and wondering how she can fit her own love into the tapestry of the family legacy. A man who has lost his identity, or maybe never had it, who finds a purpose when he falls in love.
When I was reading Butterfly Swords, it spoke to me on a very deep level. This was a story, not technically about my people and my heritage, but it was a story that was about Others and even though I grew up very Western, my blood was forged in the East. I so appreciate that Jeannie Lin and Harlequin are bringing the history of the East to all of us. I just hope that people who might feel Other by looking at the cover, will remember that stories are all a bit of fantasy and you can lose yourself in this story as easily as one set in Regency England.