There's no chance to ask Sohee about the 𝕃𝕠𝕧𝕖𝕓𝕠𝕒𝕥 in private.
Potted plants divide the spacious, sunlit lobby into lounge areas furnished with chairs sculpted from twists of cherry-brown tree roots. Sohee and I join the back of a line to a registration desk. On the wall, six clocks made of polished cuts of driftwood display times In Los Angeles, New York, London, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.
All around us, more kids drop suitcases, saying to one another, "Don't I know you from DVHS?" A guy in a Stanford T-shirt fist-bumps another guy half a head shorter: "Yo, saw you in SoCal! Sorry, man, next time!" Three girls in near-identical pastel picnic dresses fall into each other's arms, squealing, "How've you beeeen? Did you see Subin's here, too?" Even Sohee reunites briefly with girls from something called a Center for Talented Youth summer camp.
"How do so many people here know each other?" I ask Sohee.
"It's that six degrees of separation thing. Only for us, it's like, two degrees, know what I mean?"
I don't. I don't know a soul here, but in this moment, the loneliness I feel is overridden by the larger strangeness of blending in. In the mall back home, heads sometimes turned when I walked by with my family, but now, my Asian Americanness is invisible, erased like a shaken Etch A Sketch. It's an unexpected relief.
As we inch forward, Jungwoo walks toward us from the opposite direction, balancing a tray of plastic cups. Sohee grabs two, along with fat straws. "Classic," she says. "I hate all the syrups people put in nowadays." Dark brown marbles revolve lazily in the bottom third of a coffee-and-cream liquid. A plastic film seals its top.
"What's this?" I ask, wondering the flavor.
"Bubble tea!" Sohee jabs her straw through the film and up the marbles. "You seriously never had it? Milk tea with tapioca pearls."
"I've heard of it." I'm wary—I've never drunk anything swirling with solids. But I imitate her, puncturing my top more forcibly then I intend, making Sohee laugh. I in a mouthful of cold, sweet tea, punctuated by the chewy spheres. "Oh. It's good."
Sohee laughs again. "Suzy. You're a Twinkie."
I frown. Like the Hostess desserts—white inside, yellow outside? Jenny Tran from my youth group would come out swinging if anyone used that term on her, but I'm not mad. Just defeated . . . again. Even among a horde of Korean Americans, I'm not Korean American enough. A sudden burst of missing Sihyeon weakens my knees.
Then a shuffle of guys descend on us: tall, short, lean, heavy, hairy—even a mustache and scary goatee. They ask our names and I find they all share two things in common: they're top college-bound (UCLA, Penn, Stanford, MIT, Yale) and they're sweating as much as I am. The humid air practically me. The male attention, the eager-eye smiles and handshakes—it's all a little overwhelming.
Two girls stop to introduce themselves. "Hi, I'm Sulli Choi." A girl with a pixie-cut hair offers a firm handshake.
"I'm Krystal Jung," says her friend in a baseball cap.
"We're Presidential Scholars," says Sulli. "We met int Washington."
"We met the President of the United States."
"That's how we got invited on this trip."
"Oh, Jinri-ah, we better run." Krystal checks her watch and flashes an apologetic smile. "We're meeting commissioner with the other Scholars—see you later!"
They speed off before either Sohee or I can get a word in.
"Oh, pardon me. A VIP awaits." Sohee rolls her eyes. "Wow, that was annoying."
"No kidding." I toss my half-finished bubble tea in the trash, all my appetite gone. It's obvious now. My parents have sent me here to be sanctified. As iron sharpens iron, so one well-honed nerd sharpens another—except these aren't ordinary nerds like me, they're prodigies on the order of Wonder Boy.
"Bae Sooji." A woman in her forties, heavy-set in a green hanbok, greets me from behind the registration desk. Her salt-and-pepper perm curls down like a helmet on her head.
"Sooji," she thunders at me with general-like authority. Clearly, it's not up to me what I'll be called this summer. "Eoseo osibsio. Jeoneun Gin seonsaengnim-ibnida." Welcome. I'm Teacher Gin. Gin—"tall." It suits her. The rest of what she says is lost on me.
As she digs into a box behind her, Sohee murmurs, "Everyone calls her the Dragon. we're stuck with her as program head this summer." The name fits her haughty jawline and nose.
We are roomed by arrivals. The Dragon hands Sohee and me keys to room 39, along with a tote bag stitched with a white, black, red, and blue flag of the Republic of Korea, a red and blue yin-yang with black lines around the white background. It contains a yearbook and folded map of Seoul.
The Dragon switches to English in a Seoul dialect to set forth the program's expectations: Korean, Korean culture, study hard.
"What electives would you like?" she asks. "Each runs for two weeks, then we have field trips.
"I'm doing a double cooking class," Sohee says. "I already sent mine."
"Elective?" I say. "I haven't picked any." Sohee gets a binder of recipes while I flip through the materials: paper cutting, zither, kite making, lantern making, lion dancing, fan dancing, ribbon dancing, KPOP workshops, dragon boat racing, stick-fighting, Taekwondo, sword fighting, wow—
"Oh! Sooji, your parents already sent in your electives."
My head snaps up. "They did?"
The Dragon hands me a sheet bearing my Korean name at the top:
Hangul: Level 1
Elective 1: Introduction to Korean Medicine
Elective 2: Calligraphy
"Hey, we're in Hangul together," Sohee says, but I barely heard her.
They picked my electives.
Just like they picked them through high school: French instead of Latin, a dead language, Advanced Topics in Biology instead of Dance.
"Can I switch one to ribbon dancing?"
"Ah, I am sorry. Class is full."
"What about fan dancing?"
"Full as well."
The Dragon shakes her head. "Your parents asked for these. You can call them.
I imagine the dead-end conversation with Eomma: Korean Medicine is for med school. Calligraphy is practical. Good for writing prescriptions the rest of your life. Six thousand miles away, their invisible hands are still tight around my life.
I answer through gritted teeth. "Fine."
"Please reserve an hour for homework each night, always travel with a buddy, bed check at nine thirty p.m. No boys and girls in a room with the door closed."
"Of course not." If Sohee held her hand up, Scouts honor, she couldn't appear more sincere. "We wouldn't think of it."
I can't help but smile. Until the Dragon introduces he demerits system.
The wall to her right contains a grid of the Korean names of all Yonsei students, more than I can count.We get demerits for coming late to class, failing to turn in assignments, using cell phones during school hours, failing to be in by bed check, getting caught up after lights out. Too many demerits means a call home. Twenty strikes and we lose the two-week Tour Down South—a chartered bus tour of the city at program's end.
"What?" Sohee protests. Apparently, that trip's worth something.
I frown. Nerd camp with Bae-family level regulations. Everything about the Dragon—including her dialect and short, permed hair—reminds me of Eomma. Studies come first. Why do you need to go out with Wendy when you see her every day? My summer's shaping up even worse than expected.
As the Dragon turns away to file our papers, I lean in to Sohee. "You said no supervision."
"There are rules. You just have to not get caught. They've sent one or two people home in their whole history."
"One more thing." The Dragon's back. "Every year, the kids put on a talent show on the last night."
Of course they do.
"Maybe you'd like to participate?"
Right . . . how about a solo flag corp dance? I shake my head.
"Oh, I have no talents." Sohee cheerfully pushes back the sign-up sheet. I can't help laughing. Sohee is a bit overwhelming, but also seems pretty down to earth, and funny . . . not her fault she's related to Wonder Boy. With her around, maybe this summer will be more bearable.
We gather our bags and head for the elevators. Sohee waves to a few guys we'd met earlier. "Seo Kangjoon is a doll, isn't he?" she whispers. "And Sungwoon Ha-aaavard-bound—so cute, don't you think?"
"Mhm." I'm noncommittal. Kangjoon brought his stuffed bear, Kimchi, little too cute for me. Sungwoon—I'm definitely not a facial hair girl.
"Oooh, check this out." Sohee rips a purple flyer off a bulletin board pegged with glossy pages offering massages, tutoring, summer concerts. She plunges into the empty elevator. "We need a plan!" Sohee bats my arm with the flier. "The clubs! I've got a list of the best restaurants. Oh, and our glamour shots!"
"Glamour shots?" My stomach dips as the elevator rises. "Like what movie stars get?" For the girl stapling Summer Reading Lists posters to the guidance office bulletin board just last week? "I can't afford—"
"They're crazy affordable—trust me. I'll book our appointment. Also, Joohyuk and I are visiting our aunt at the end of the month—you're invited, of course."
"Oh, um. Wow." How generous—she seems to have taken a liking to me and I find myself not wanting to let her down. "Are you sure?"
"Roommates are family. Especially ones who aren't speeding off to meet the commissioner."
We laugh. "I'd love to come. But aren't we in classes all day? One hour of homework a night? Where are we finding time to do anything else?"
The elevator halts on the third floor, and I drag my luggage into a lounge of blue silk couches arranged around a coffee table. Sohee's eyes glint with mischief. "Two hours a morning, plus two hours of culture class in the afternoon. Who cares about homework and the rest of the time is ours." She lowers her voice. "What'll they do if we skip? Send us home? No way. They want us to have a good impression of Korea."
The elevator chimes behind us. To my surprise, the Dragon steps out, a crowbar in hand, face as grim as if she's breathing fire. She's followed by Jihyo Park, the petite counselor Wonder Boy mowed over earlier.
"Uh-oh," Sohee breathes. "Something's up."
The two march past us to the third white door on the left, which the Dragon pries open with her crowbar. Her sonorous voice berates and scorches. We pass the doorway as a half- girl bursts out, giggling, clutching her pink dress to her bra. Behind her, a guy in a black shirt scrambles off the rumpled bed. Lights glint off his straight, crow-black, tousled and falling in his face. He grabs his shorts—but not before I catch a glimpse of his . . . equipment.
Omo omo oh my God.
Back home, I'm not even allowed to watch kissing scenes—whenever one comes on during family movie nights, Appa always flips the channel. Now I'm too stunned to close my eyes. Seconds later, the guy's in his shorts, shuffling past the Dragon into the hallway. His arm brushes mine. Insolent eyes—dark, liquid, opaque—slide to make contact. His lips curve in a wolf-ish smile and I read a spark of interest, an invitation. A dare.
The girl giggles again. She's pulled on her baby-doll dress. "Let's go Kang!"
A hot name to match the rest of him. I feel a small shock as our connection breaks. The Dragon chases them down the hallway and Sohee clutches my arm in a Wendy-like way. Her body shakes with silent laughter as we weave toward our room.
If Appa were here, he'd have swatted Kang down the hallway with his rolled-up World Journal and placed me under house arrest for my own protection.
Maybe nerd camp isn't so nerdy after all.
"So that—" I finally say.
Sohee's cheeks are red from holding back her laughter. "That's Loveboat."
I'm starting to get the picture.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
Our door is stuck, swollen into its frame with humidity. I turn the key and shove, then Sohee turns the key and shoves; then she says, "Here, you keep the key turned and we'll shove together." With our collective weights, the door flies open with a whoosh of air.
"We make a good team." She laughs and swoons onto her pinstripe mattress. "Omo, Suzy! That Kang was the hottest guy I've ever seen."
"He's taken already," I point out. Not that the pink girl had stopped him issuing that once-over.
"Taken?" Sohee snorts and sits up, flipping her sleek hair behind her shoulder. "One out of four relationships break up because of Loveboat."
"Yeah, my cousin was dating someone then she met a guy at registration and they've been together since ..."
Sohee prattles on as I set my purse on my dresser and cross toward our double-paned window to check out the view. Our room is clean but simple: two beds, two desks, two dressers, a hot water thermos. Three stories below, the lush green lawn separates us from a row of brick buildings. a concrete wall, twisted over with green foliage, encircles the compound. Beyond it, to the left, the blue-green Han River divides us from the far bank—a sprawl of rectangular high-rises of Seoul, and beyond those, a gray-blue mountain dominates the horizon.
The view could have been really nice—except for the pipe that stretches across the entire river, supported by two concrete columns. A read maintenance catwalk tops it. For sewage or draining? What an eyesore.
"What music do you listen to?" Sohee winds her airpods into her ears.
"Oh, um—I love musicals," I admit, a little embarrassed. Most of my classmates were into rock, hip-hop, metal/goth, pop stuff.
"What's your favorite?"
"Oh, lots. Anything Disney. Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera. My best friend and I've watched The Greatest Showman about a half dozen times."
"I adore Greatest Showman. When Phillip ran into the burning building after Anne, I about died." She lays a hand on her heart, so dramatic I have to smile.
"I loved her trapeze dance. When she's telling him they're impossible."
"The same songwriters did La La Land," Sohee says.
"Really?" Cool that she knew that—she knows so many things I don't.
Sohee plugs mini-speakers into her phone. The opening beats vibrate her desk and I resist an urge to stomp in time to them, like I would in my room back home. She unfurls her sheet over her mattress, rattling off the names of musicals she's seen live o Broadway. I've only seen The Lion King, on a class trip to Manhattan. She's great, but our lives back home must be so different.
"So, do you have a serious boyfriend?" Sohee asks.
No, but my best friend does. God, I miss her. "My parents said no dating until after med school. I need to establish my career first."
"Of course they did." Sohee smirks. "No dating, then all in a day you're expected to land the heir to the throne and produce grandchildren. I've had four boyfriends—not that my parents had a clue." She rolls her eyes. "Anyways, what are you looking for?"
"Looking for?" I'm still stuck on the heir and grandchildren parts.
Sohee hugs her pillow. "I have criteria—I call them the Seven C's: Cute, Cool, Cash, Clever, Creative. Charisma and Charm."
"Oh, wow." It's a power list, not qualities I'd even presume to want fo myself.
"Every girl has lists."
I nod. "My best friend had a long one—hazel eyes, six-foot-plus, good muscles, nice . She got all of them, too."
Sohee laughs. "Lucky her. What about you?"
I push my pillow into my pillowcase. A girl the grade below me, Jenny Tran, had a short list: Christian and Vietnamese. Mine was even shorter—not Aiden Lee—the only Korean American boy in my grade, whom people have been trying to get me to date since kindergarten.
"Someone I can dance with. Completely unrealistic." But my heart finishes the thought. Someone to lift me high and weightless into the sky like in the musicals—if the partner dancing didn't violate my parents' no-inappropriate-physical-contact rule.
I'm back by the dumpster again. My stomach knots.
"I bet you'll find him here." Sohee smooths her blanket.
"In eight weeks?" I laugh at her, but she just twitches her brows back.
"It's Loveboat. Lots of parents send their kids here hoping they'll find someone."
"Parents do that? On purpose?" And I thought my parents were interfering.
"Joohyuk's and my parents are old-fashioned like that." Sohee shrugs. "But like I said, I'd have come anyways."
I should probably feel horrified, but instead, I feel a strange thrill. If Wendy were here, she'd have shoved me out the door already with a, "Go for it, Suzy!" Not to find him, but to do something besides hanging back, wishing things were different with Nick—and boys in general.
I my own suitcase. To my surprise, my dance bag sits in the center, a periwinkle egg in a nest of my clothes.
A lump forms in my throat, and I try to swallow it down. Is this Eomma's way of apologizing, even if it's too little, too late?
I lifted it out but it's all wrong. Rectangular, heavy, folded in half, instead of a soft with a leotard and tights—this is why my suitcase weighed so much. With growing foreboding, I flip the bag upside down, and dump out a green-and-yellow ... textbook.
Principles of Molecular Biology.
I once read about a burglar's lantern, made for sneaking around in the dark. A metal box built so not a single ray of light can escape without the owner opening one of its narrow shutters. I'm that flame. Every want I have meets with its metal walls, like a supernova locked in a titanium prison.
I whirl on Sohee. "You know what my life is?" I tear out a page, crumpling it in my hand. "Get straight A's. No more dancing. Insane curfew, dress like a nun—"
"No until you die?"
"The most sacred rule of all!" I fling the book down.
"Well, no more following rules this summer." Sohee shoves her purple flyer at me. "This Thursday, we're sneaking out."
I drop my eyes to the flyer:
NO COVER FOR UNDER 21S! FIRST DAY FREE!
A guy in black leather, chains, and tattoos jams on his guitar. His bleached-blond hair styled. He's with a Korean band called KILLers, and he looks like the kind of guy my parents don't even know exists, and if they did, they'd never approve of me going to listen to him.
"Clubbing all night," Sohee says. "Drink what you want, dance, dress to impress, and your parents can go eat dirt."
How many invitations from Wendy and the girls for dinner and a movie in Phoenix have I turned down because they'd keep me out past curfew, or because boys were going?"
"There's a guard downstairs," I point out.
She pulls a wry face. "Yeah, they've beefed up security. But Joohyuk says we can climb the wall." With her bare foot, she shoves her emptied suitcase under her bed. "This is Loveboat. One big party. All summer. And no one's going to ruin it." Sohee fans her yearbook pages at me. "Suzy, you are never going to meet this many eligible guys in one place. Admissions is super selective. I've been waiting for this trip for, like, forever. I'm so done with all those rock band-poser boys I grew up with. I'm finding my man here." She points to me like she's passing a parliamentary baton. "And your game plan, madam?"
With a sweep of my hands, my two-hundred-dollar textbook clunks to the floor, and I back-kick it deep under my bed. I pick up her Club Kiss flyer and jot my lists on its back.
BAE FAMILY RULES
Dress like a Nun
Curfew at Ten
No Wasting Money
No Dancing with a Boy
NO Kissing Boys
I write the last one with a thrill, like I'm signing up to a sky-dive off a cliff—it's not going to happen, but oh, what if it did? I dangle the list before Sohee: all the reasons I'm a baby compared to the rest of the world, because I'm med school-bound, because I'm my parents' daughter, because I'm Suzy Bae.
"This summer, I'm breaking all the Bae Rules."
"Well then you left out the most important one." She grabs my pen and adds to the bottom:
"Not that." I snatch my pen back, hating myself for blushing. Even if it's the most sacred of the Bae Rules. Maybe I've read too many Victorian novels, but I'm saving that for love.
"Fine." Sohee laughs and stabs at Curfew. "That's one first. We just need a way out."
I look out the window to study the concrete wall that rings the campus. "We could climb the wall. If we stacked chairs. But it's a long drop on the other side." The wall's a good fifteen feet high. I scan the courtyard until my gaze lands again on the eyesore pipe crossing the green river. It disappears beneath a highway overpass. On our side, it starts from a concrete pillar beside the buildings across the lawn. A red utility ladder leads up to it and presumably down the other end. It must be a hundred feet long, all exposed to the eyes of Yonsei by day.
But not by night.
"That's our route," I say, and I realize my decision is made. Wendy would kill me if she knew.
Sohee presses in beside me and looks out. "You're not serious. If we fell—"
"There's a catwalk." I give my partner in crime a tight smile, ignoring the stab of fear in my gut, the image of tumbling dozens of feet down into dark waters. "Thursday night. We're on."