The typhoons grow in severity, sheeting rain against our bus windows and blurring my view of the passing countryside. Our bus quiets as we drive by an entire Suwon village submerged: tin roof peaks poking up through muddy water like islands swept clean of life. Debris floats everywhere: the spinning wheel of an inverted rickshaw, dead fish flashing silvery underbellies, a muddy doll with her hair and red-, yellow-, and blue-striped skirt fanned out around her.
"Was anyone hurt?" Sulli asks up front. Our tour guide tells her no, and conversations pick up again.
On the last day of tour, we arrive at the hot springs resort Sohee has raved about since summer began. A wooden gate leads into a lush grove of trees. Private's Letter plays from hidden speakers, setting my feet dancing as Joohyuk and I pick our way down a stone path ankle-deep in flood waters, under dripping palm fronds that hang like curved combs, and through a grove of bamboo to the flat-roofed resort beyond. I'm hand in hand with Joohyuk as we've been since his letter, though we haven't kissed again, as though we know that once we do, there will be no holding back that flood.
"I'm a er for Jacuzzis," I tell him as we move through the hallways toward my room. After six days of walking the entire southern shore of Korea, the Jeju Strait is the water channel between Korea and Jeju Island, not to mention dance practice, my sore body is eager to sink into the heated pools.
"Alas, hot springs are separated between men and women." At my door, he hands me my bag, which he insists on carrying.
"Seems kind of old-fashioned."
"Those darn rules." He gives me that sly grin of his that brings to mind naughty things in the dark. His hand grasps the small of my back and he pulls me close, rubs his nose against mine. I close my eyes, anticipating, wanting the touch of his lips on mine.
Then he pulls away. Flashes a teasing smile.
I pouted. "You know something I don't and want to lord it over me?"
"Rules are rules." He heads down the hallway, refusing to say more.
"And I'm still breaking them," I call.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
Sojee and I tie on a pale pink robe and set out for the women's hot springs on the ground floor. In a small reception room, a chubby-faced attendant hands us fluffy towels, then gestures with both hands up and down his body. He's about our age, and reminds me of my cousin Hardy. He speaks rapid Korean.
"Sorry?" I lean in, not wanting to miss important instructions.
"!" He gestures with alarming enthusiasm.
"Japanese-style." Sohee laughs as we duck through a pair of linen curtain printed with blue cranes in flight. "These hot springs are used . He has the key word for tourists."
"Joohyuk told me they're separated by gender. 'Alas.'" I laugh. That sly tone of his. ". No wonder."
Sulli and Krystal are disrobing in the bathroom already. Wall-to-wall mirrors reflect rows of cabinet where we store our robes and slippers. A teapot of red oolong tea steeps among a garden of porcelain cups. Warm air wafts from beyond a curtained doorway, along with the seductive gurgle of water and scent of minerals.
"I'm in heaven," Sohee sighs.
"Me, too." I wrap my towel around myself as the Dragon enters, stout in her own robe, salt-and-pepper hair hidden in a plastic shower cap. My locker key drops with a clatter as her eyes fall on me.
"Sooji," she scolds. "Did Jihyo forget to tell you? No hot springs for you."
My own worries about my last photo isn't punishment enough. My parents have struck again.
"Oh, please let her stay," Sohee begins. "It was my fault—"
"It's fine, So." I'm already pulling my robe from my locker. For all I know, the Dragon has spies watching our dancem and the last thing I want to hear is, "No talent show for you." I hope Jihyo isn't in trouble now, too.
Sulli and Krystal shoot me sympathetic glances; Sohee a guilty one. But underlying my disappointment runs a deeper undercurrent of sadness. My parents are trying to rein me in the only ways they know how.
But they can't undo the ways this summer is changing me.
"See you later," I say.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
Kang's voice makes me jump and nearly knock over a vase on a stand holding a purple orchid. He steps from a guest room door and leans against its frame, a sardonic smile twisting his lips like it did in the early days of summer. His T-shirt is paint-smeared and his long box of paintings is under his arm.
"Kang. Hey." I take hold of my sash, needing something to hold on to myself.
"I was right, wasn't I? The jocks of the world get what they want, don't they?"
I flush. But at least he's speaking to me. "That's not why I like him."
"Then what is it? Those broad shoulders? Yale? The -kissing fan club?"
"That's unfair and you of all people should know that. Joohyuk's—" I try to boil it down, what it is, when there's so much, his generosity, his humility, his kindness, his devotion, all the while feeling I shouldn't have to justify myself. "Sometimes we don't have reasons. We just love who we love."
Kang's eyes flicker. I brace for a laugh.
"We can't help who we love."
his crosses his arms over his box, dark eyes brooding. I wish we could recapture that friendly comfort, but it's gone, elusive as sunlight during this typhoon season.
I let go of my sash. "Thank you for helping with Seonho that other night." It's a long overdue thanks.
He grunts. "Any decent guy would have."
And that's exactly what he is. A decent guy.
"I owe you an apology," I say. "For what happened the night at Aunty Yumi's."
"Don't apologize." His jaw works. "You said it yourself. We were both in on it." He pulls the box from under his arm and pulls out a rolled sketch. "You forgot to take this."
Three old men. I hold the stiff, curling paper, trace my fingers around its border, admiring the detail in their beards, the patches on an elbow, the wistfulness he's captured.
"I love it. But I can't accept this."
He unbends a bent corner. "Why not?"
"It's too valuable. You can do so much more with it than give it to me."
He gazes at it helplessly. "Like what?"
My throat tightens. "You'll just—know. When the time comes."
"You're so fatalistic." His voice is rough as he rolls the sketch back into a tube. "Well, maybe I am, too. If I'd met you first."
"Kang ..." My hands falls helplessly. Was there a reason Kang and I came together this summer? Outwardly, we're on the same journey—fighting to do our art despite our parents' opposition. And he made me feel attractive when I didn't believe I was. We could have kept it there, but I let it go too far.
"We have to reset." Is that even possible? "I want us to be friends. I want us to stay friends."
He slouches against his doorpost. Then he says, "Wait a sec?"
His disappears into his room. When he reemerges, he takes my hand and presses a small photo into my palm. He closes my fingers over it.
"I'm sorry," he says. "It was wrong not ti give it back."
My photo. My hand trembles. "You had the last one."
"I dated a girl last year who told me I'd pay some day for all the girls I ran over. I guess she was right."
"Kang, please. Don't—"
"Reset. I'm trying, okay?" His eyes are on his toe, scuffing the carpet. "I'm working on a mural. Maybe I'll even take your advice and stick it to the talent show." With a smile that doesn't reach his eyes, he slips back inside his room and closes the door.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
"You can't miss the hot springs. They're the best part of Korea." Joohyuk's hand on my elbow guides me ahead of him into the buffet line of the resort restaurant. A row of silver chafing dishes, warmed by tiny blue flames, gives off a mouthwatering aroma.
"You said Cobra Alley was the best in Korea," I mock-complain. "And the shaved ice. And beer gardens. And night markets." Back with Joohyuk, I feel better already about the sting of the ban, about Kang. I scoop eggplant onto my plate and pass on the black-bean clams, he loads a dozen onto his plate.
"They're all the best." His warmth nestles against my back, magnet to my iron, as we wait for the line to move. "Dohyun and I found a bathhouse out on our run today. I'll sneak you in after lights out."
"Those are the rules."
I'd quipped back before I could censure myself, but I feel a thrill. Yes, breaking rules has consequences, and sometimes the're in place for a good reason. But sneaking out is no longer about rebelling. It's going after the things I want.
And I want this night alone with him.
"Which way to the onsee?" An over-enunciated male voice, a British or maybe South African accent, breaks through the low rumble of conversation in the restaurant. A tourist and his brunette wife walk through the double doors. Beside them , a balding hotel clerk spreads his hands helplessly, speaking Korean. The tourist fusses with his white hat, like he's headed into the Australian outback. His wife pulls a silk shawl tight around her shoulders.
"Which way to the onsee?" The man turns to Jihyo as she sails in, bird-like in a red blouse. She tugs her earphones from her ear.
He repeats his question with exaggerated loudness.
Jihyo's brow wrinkles with confusion and she flips her long braid over her shoulder. "Sorry, I don't understand."
His voice rises with impatience. "We're looking for the outdoor onsee."
"She doesn't understand either. Let's go." The wife tugs on her husband's arm.
"Can't speak English properly," he says, loud enough to be heard in Seoul. "No one here speaks a damn word of English."
The color leaves Jihyo's cheeks. Silence falls like a heavy curtain as all conversations ceases in the room. A smear of red crosses my vision. Yes, mot staff in this rural part speak almost no English, compared to Seoul. But most Western tourists I've encountered have been respectful, eben more so than some Yonsei students. Tis man's tone—I've heard it before: the woman at McDonald's yelling at Eomma, the store clerk who called Appa a stupid chink.
My first instinct is to pretend it didn't happen, as I have all my life. To spare Jihyo the embarrassment, because maybe if we don't acknowledge the disrespect, it won't exist.
But then I set my plate on the buffet and walk toward them.
"You owe her an apology." My hands ball into fists. "She's not your servant. No one here is."
The man turns chili red. At last, someone speaks perfect English.
"We weren't talking to you."
"You were talking to the entire dining hall. And news flash—not speaking your language—in their country—doesn't make anyone less intelligent than you."
Joohyuk's hand braces my back. His disapproval radiates at the man, who scowls up at two hundred pounds of running back.
After a moment, he spits, "Apologies," in Jihyo's direction.
"No problem, sir." Jihyo really is that kind. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
His wife glares at me as she hurries him away. Jihyo puts her hands to her cheeks and gives me a tremulous smile. She bursts into Hangul, then interrupts herself. "Ah, I always forget you don't understand—thank you."
"Sit with us?"
"My parents called. I need to call them back, but I'll join you afterward." She planted a floral-scented kiss on my cheek, then leaves.
Back at the buffet line, Joohyuk hands my plate to me, then takes it back when I almost drop it. My hands tremble. The dining hall chatter is subdued.
Maybe I shouldn't have made a fuss.
But by the time we reach out table, Subin and Dohyun are behind us. Sohee is talking to Kang at his table, then she carries her plate over to join us.
"A woman yelled at my dad to go back to China," Joohyuk says. "We were just walking down the sidewalk. I was six."
"Happened to my mom, too," I admit.
"My dad didn't say a word back," Joohyuk says. "I hated him for that then. But now, I think he was tired of having to fight it."
We're breaking another taboo, talking about racism, but I've just broken a bigger one confronting that guy before the entire restaurant, instead of sticking to that Asian nonconfrontational thing. But these are rules meant to be broken. Something happens to a kid when they see their parent treated like that. Something happens to the parent.
"It's thousand little deaths," I say. How weird to have come all the way to Korea to understand this. Joohyuk takes my hand and squeezes.
"My family always had trouble crossing the US-Canadian border," I say. "Once we got detained overnight, my mom, Sihyeon, and me, coming back from visiting my uncle." Brusque interrogations while I eyed the guns strapped to holsters, Eomma so terrified she dropped and broke her glasses, a night in a grubby motel room we couldn't afford. "When I was old enough to drive. I took over for border crossings. They cut me more slack. You learn to put on a certain face and tone so they leave you alone, right?"
"Or play basketball so they'll respect you," Joohyuk says quietly.
My fingers tighten in his. Dancing taught me how to charm, a defensive shield. Maybe it's another similarity that drew us together, for better or for worse.
"It's not so bad in LA," Dohyun says. "In some places, Asians are the majority, even half Asians like me. Worst I got was name calling on the basketball court, but all kids are mean."
"Some people have it even harder." Subin shreds his sesame biscuit. "One fo my friends wears suits when he goes through airport security. He says otherwise, as a black guy, he'll get frisked and it takes too long. First on my agenda when I get to Congress is to overhaul the Department of Homeland Security."
"I'd contribute to your campaign," Dohyun says. "But I'm going to be a starving journalist. How about I cover you? 'A vote for Yoo is a vote for YOU.'"
"Joohyuk will fund your campaign," Sohee says.
"Sohee will run your campaign," I offer.
"I could." She tosses her hair. "And once you hit the Oval Office, Suzy will be your surgeon general."
"My dad would bust an artery from sheer joy." As for me, I imagine advising the President of the United States as his chief medical officer. No blood involved, just dispensing pearls of wisdom. I would be lying to say the prospect isn't exciting on some level.
But for the first time, I realize it's exciting as someone else's story. Not mine.
"If she wants to do it, she could." Joohyuk kisses my ear, surprising everyone else around the table. How is it that he doesn't know my favorite color yet understands this part of me so well, better than even I do?
I smile at him. "My first order of business will be to add warning labels to snake-blood sake. It's definitely hazardous to your health!"
Everyone laughs. We're only dreaming, of course. All our parents' lives have been full of struggle.
And yet we want to believe.
A familiar crash of win shakes he building, setting the white paper lamps swaying overhead. Raindrops accelerate their drumbeats against the windows. Then the light flicker out, plunging the room into darkness.
A chord of dismayed cries rises.
"Blackout," Sohee says.
A light flares in Joohyuk's hands, illuminating his chin. Matching flows appear at other tables.
The hotel manager addresses us in Hangul, and Joohyuk translates for me. "There's another typhoon over the southwest coast. Six villages flooded.
"Six villages." I recall the doll floating in the muddy waters. "Where will the families go?"
"Who knows?" Subin says. "Our tour guide said the shoreline changes every season because of typhoons. They're constantly getting hit."
"How can they live like that?"
"We're so privileged," Joohyuk says, and even on the heels of our talk of racism, he's right.
Our mood is somber as we leave the restaurant. the hallway is lit by pale yellow emergency lights. I bump into Jihyo, pulling her rolling ba. Its cloth is so worn she's bounded it rope to hold it together, something Eomma would have done to save money rather than replace it.
"You're not leaving?" I ask, dismayed.
She didn't bat an eye when the tourist yelled at her, but now her eyes fill. "My home was one of the six villages flooded. My whole village is destroyed. I'm going back to help my parents."
"Oh, no! Your sisters. Your parents—are they safe?"
"Yes, but we've lost everything—our clothes, photos, furniture. Everything's gone."
Like a stage emptied of its dancers, all her joy's been swept away. A ragged sob issues from . I wrap my arms around her, inhaling her floral scent as she clings to me.
"I'm on a scholarship at my university," she says. "How can I afford to stay? How will they survive? What will they do?"
I imagine her parents, already eking out their survival day-by-day, minorities in their own country, sacrificing to give their daughter a leg up. Except for the accident of my birth in the United States, I could have been Jihyo.
The wind blows open the door, gust a blast of rain over us. I feel helpless as I release her.
"We're doing a dance to 'Private's Letter," I say. "Thanks for sharing it with us."
A genuine smile flits over her face, before it disappears into shadows again.
"Thank you, Suzy."
"Please let us know if there's anything we can do."
She nods and wipes tears from her face, then drags her suitcase out into the unrelenting rain.