“Do you have a boyfriend?”
It was one of the first questions my students asked me when I stood in front of their class on the opening day of the school year. Thirty-some heads of dark hair, thirty-some dark eyes, thirty-some blue-and-white uniforms, thirty-some giggling girls.
“It's okay,” I said, calming down their laughter. “No, no boyfriend.”
Another girl raised her hand. When I called on her, she whispered to the girl next to her. They exchanged a brief conversation. The second girl spoke. “She want to know about first love. Teacher first love.”
“First love?” I turned to the chalkboard, glanced up at the ceiling, thinking of something to say. “Well, there was a boy I loved in college.” I sighed and spun back around to face them. “We were best friends, but one day, we had to say goodbye.”
“Why?” the students asked, in English and Korean. “Why, teacher?”
“Well, he was from another country. And he had to go back.”
The students sighed in near-unison, nodding their heads. As if they understood.
“So sad, teacher.” The girl who asked the question nodded as well, looked down at the paper on her desk.
She was sitting at the bar, chin resting on her hand. Her black hair was tied back in a sloppy ponytail, but one of those kinds that was messy like she meant it to be messy. A swath of bangs swept across her brow.
She was sitting at the bar, alone. I thought maybe she was an American—a Korean-American. Even at places like Casa Cabana, Koreans don't sit alone.
“What's your name?” In her voice, the slight hitch of a Korean accent, the words a little misshapen. Behind us, around us, an American pop song swam out of the speakers, the kind my parents used to play on long, cross-country road trips.
“Hayden. Hayden Perry.”
“Isn't that a boy's name?”
“It's a family name.”
I tried not to notice her smile there among the shadows of the bar's low lighting. The corners of her pink lips curled upward, and I waited for her teeth to break through, but they didn't.
“My name is Minji,” she said. “Han Minji.”
Harisu used to be a man. She's one of the most beautiful Koreans I have ever seen. She was born as Lee Kyung-yup, but by the end of the 1990s, she was a woman named Harisu. One night, an agent discovered her in a nightclub, and she quickly became a supermodel and a superstar throughout Korea and beyond. She's released five albums since 2000, was married to then-boyfriend Micky Jung in 2007, and was the second person in Korea to legally change her gender.
When Korean model and star Kim Ji-hoo came out in 2008, netizens flocked to his website and blog, denouncing him and harassing him. His agency refused to renew his contract; TV shows canceled appearances. The 23-year-old hanged himself in his home in Seoul in 2008—one of four Korean stars to commit suicide in one month. His suicide note said he was lonely and in a difficult place.
In Casa Cabana, the night after Ji-hoo's death, the bartender held a moment of silence in the young man's honor, and we all raised a glass to his memory.
She had this way of tucking her bangs behind her left ear—the direction she always pushed them. But they weren't long enough, so they always fell forward, and she pushed them back again.
Her hand on mine, gentle fingertips. Someone laughing in the background.
Her fingers on her lips, poised in thought, something she read somewhere or some Korean saying I didn't yet know or this book she'd picked up from the English bookstore the week before—and had I read it?
Her skin soft on my skin, and I wondered if she plays piano. She has for years, she told me.
One night, she brushed back my hair from my face, cupping my cheek in her palm. “You're beautiful. Like a movie star.”
But I knew she was only saying it because I'm American, because I'm white, because that's what people say—they say Meg Ryan, they say Jodie Foster, they say—
I shook my head and pulled away, turning on the stool, and her hand lingered on my arm, her fingers pressing into my skin. I imagined her in my arms, I imagined us cuddling in the park, imagined us entangled on the heated ondol floor of a nearby motel.
Her fingertips on my skin, in my hair.
“Let me buy you a drink.”
“I really like your style, teacher.”
It was after class. Three students had come to talk to me—they usually came during lunch. One of them, A-rim, wanted to teach English, wanted to live in America and become fluent. She touched my sleeve. She liked my style. One and a half more years, and then she would graduate—and then she would follow her dreams. She knew it. She told me this one day. She told me she liked my style.
I wasn't aware that I had a style. She touched the sleeve of my black dress shirt. “It's just—so different from the teachers here.”
Her friends nodded along.
I would recognize that, after our conversation—the women teachers dressed in tops with ruffles, with embroidery or beads or spangles, in skirts that ruffled, too, with makeup and earrings. Men in polo shirts and button-ups, in suits and slacks.
“Do other people dress like this in America?” A-rim asked, her eyes bright with questions. “Do a lot of girls have short hair?”
I felt her hand on my arm. I looked at her, the other sets of eyes looking at me, her friends curious. “I know a lot of people who dress like this, yes. And, well, some girls wear their hair short.”
The bell rang. They were gone.
The bartender was saying something to her in Korean, some joke I didn't get, and she laughed. I listened to the music, looked around at the faces—the men and women, all these different skins, all these different tongues.
When we left, the streets were still crowded, even late into the night. She was leaning on me, her arm linked with mine. Neon light flashed on her face, a red afterglow.
“Do you want a Korean name?”
I felt the drink on my lips, in my step. I smiled. “What, so I can be more Korean? Are you telling me I don't fit in?”
She worked for an American business in Seoul—a big corporation that would send her to Chicago once a year for an annual conference. In America, she told people to call her Minnie—“like the movie star.”
“Sometimes Koreans take American names in English classes, you know. You can take a Korean name.”
A neon sign that said noraebang pulled us closer and closer, and I heard an old man's roughened voice belting out a Korean tune from somewhere inside. Looking down the alleyway, I saw more lights and smelled the sweet grease of street food, the vendor up the street selling fish-shaped cakes with red-bean filling, steam rising from his cart—the perfect end to a cold day or drunken night. I shivered in spite of my thick coat. “Fine. What would you call me?”
She angled me toward her and put her cold hands on my cheeks. Her eyes hooked into mine, and I knew that whatever she said would be true, would be mine, would be ours. “Haneul,” she said. “It means 'heaven.'”
Saturday nights in Seoul, the crowds bustle in the streets, shoulders pushing shoulders, no excuse m's, no I'm sorryss. The young kids go to the clubs in Shinchon; I'd take the train in each weekend and make my way to Itaewon or Hongdae or Jongno. I'd stumble over to Casa Cabana in Itaewon, the foreign district, a few drinks in me already. The faces along the way would jar me—the array of colors, voices, accents, languages. But once I got to the Casa, as we fondly called the place, everything was okay. I'd dance to the music, drink down beers, smile and laugh and think, Here I am. Maybe I'd end up in a motel room with someone, or an apartment, or maybe I'd make friends and we'd head to a different bar, a place nearby where we could talk or laugh or dance or know, be known.
“There aren't too many places like this here,” people would always say of the Casa. And there would be Koreans and foreigners and Koreans who didn't fit in in Korea and foreigners who didn't fit in anywhere, and we'd all realize that none of us fit in anywhere, none of us. Except there—in the Casa, we all fit in.
It was there I'd met Minji.
“What if I did?” she said when I asked her if she'd come home with me. She held her small soju glass delicately between her fingertips, her lips smirking.
“Do your parents know?”
“No, of course not. In Korea—well, you can't. You know.” She always looked down when we talked about her family. Her eyes traced the grain of the bar's wood.
“But things are changing.” It's the same scene, a different day, the skin, the faces. Tongues and voices and singing.
“Yes. But slowly.”
“Most suicides happen in rental cars,” my brother said to me. He'd just gotten a job working at Hertz, and he frequently told me stories of the leftover crap he found in returned cars—expensive sunglasses, a solitary shoe, a bikini top designed like the Confederate flag.
“That's bullshit.” We were talking on the phone, twelve hours apart, South Korea to North Carolina.
“No, I'm serious.”
I was digging through my refrigerator for breakfast. “God, Trevor.”
“People don't wanna do it in their own cars. It'd mess them up or something.”
I pulled out a jug of milk. “Have you had to clean up some blood or something?”
“What if I did?”
She was shaking her head. “Blood is too important here. Family is too important.”
But there were things I would never understand, things that neither language nor time nor place could bring to me. Not the Casa, not the night, not the cold of the air. “But what about love? And sex?” And I would look up at the night sky, feel the unfeeling neon like ocean waves banging around my head, cymbals clanging and noiseless at the same time. “I mean, what are you supposed to do? Fuck a man or something?”
“I don't know. You have a family. That's all.”
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
The voice came from above, in Korean, from a huddle of uniformed students—bright blues and greens painted gold by sunshine—grouped along a railing. The girl who said it was taller than the others, her pleated, blue skirt brushing against her knees.
I was visiting an orphanage in rural Korea. On that particular, hot day, I'd decided to help with some construction work. I was wearing cargo pants spattered with cement and a faded T-shirt.
I forced a smile. “Girl,” I yelled up to them, my answer in Korean as well.
An older girl beside me touched my arm. She and her friend had been talking with me for most of the morning—asking questions about America, telling me of their dreams, their futures. “No, no—you look like a girl. It's stupid if they can't tell.”
“It's because you are working very hard,” her friend said.
“Yes, you look like a girl, teacher.”
They smiled at me. I looked back up at the row of kids who looked down at me, my skin covered in grime and soot.
I poured her another glass of soju.
“They think it's biological.” She lifted the glass to her lips and paused. “But parents don't think that about their own kids. They don't think it happens in Korea. So you can be, but I can't.”
She took a drink, eyes closed to the bite of the liquor. She'd had a few too many, said she'd had a rough day at work. I put my arm around her shoulder; under the table, our knees barely touched.
Her eyes opened wide as the drink came down, but she wasn't looking at me. “You know, my parents want me to get married.”
“So do mine.”
She swirled the glass between her fingertips, her eyes trained on the television screen, some stunt-filled comedy show with an obnoxious laugh track. “They have someone they want me to meet.”
“Are you married?” the taxi driver asked me in Korean.
I shook my head.
This conversation had happened before. Would happen again. I shook my head. “No. No boyfriend.”
The taxi driver gasped surprise. “Why not?” He smiled.
I shook my head and watched the neon signs fly past. “I don't know.”
What I remember is the melting snow, the water gathering on sidewalks, stepping in puddles that soaked me to my socks. The cherry trees with tight, pink buds standing firm on fragile-looking boughs. Wanting to cup my hands over them, to warm them, to make them bloom.
“Where are you going?” The night and my hand on her arm. A kiss stolen in a shadowed archway. The trip-stumble up the stairs. The heat rising up from the apartment floor, my hands at her waist, at her clothes, in her hair.
“Minji, don't. Stay.”
Her face turned away from me, hands shading them, covering them. Her hair undone, her bare shoulders.
“You should tell Mom and Dad,” Trevor said.
I shrugged, but, of course, he couldn't see. Out the window, pedestrians tracked back-and-forth in the rain, umbrellas bobbing in a multi-colored mosaic.
“They probably know anyway, Hayden.”
He sighed on the other end of the line. “It's not like you can hide it.”
In the noraebang, she always picked American love songs. One night, I asked her to sing a Korean one I'd heard, and she said only if I'd sing along with her. Her voice was sweet and small compared to my unpolished force. The Korean vowels felt thick and unwieldy in my mouth.
The song was over, the speakers fallen silent, only the slight buzz-hum of the screen remained in the air.
“I love you,” she said, her voice quiet in the sudden silence of the room, microphone at her side.
I held my own mic tightly, the switch biting into my skin. “Don't say that.”
“But I do.” She was nodding, and she kept nodding. Her microphone clattered to the floor, her hands limp.
I took a step toward her. “Minji. Please.”
She stared at the floor but didn't move—a statuette, except for that nodding head.
I came closer and wrapped my arms around her, there in the darkened room, and felt her face press into my shoulder.
The heat of her breath on my skin, her warm tears seeping through the fabric of my shirt.
Two men were holding hands late one night in Itaewon, both stumbling from drink—two ajeossis, old men, faces wizened with lines. They smiled, leaning into each other, mumbling in slurred Korean. I bit my lip as I watched them pass, their feet dodging the remaining puddles.
“This is okay,” A-rim had told me when I asked about it after class one day. “It's only between boys and girls that you can't. But it's okay for friends. And family.”
“What would happen if boys and girls held hands?”
“Well, it happens sometimes. Things are changing. Especially in Seoul.”
“What if I did?”
I shook my head. “Don't talk like that.”
She was pacing, her hair wet with rain, droplets clinging to the tips before they plunged into her cotton T-shirt. “But what if I did? I can't—nothing is—nothing is—”
“Don't. For God's sake, Minji—it's not worth—honey—”
Trevor was silent on the other end of the phone.
“Trevor, are you okay?” Milk and cereal again. I was running late.
He cleared his throat. “We rented a car to this guy and he—and today….”
I listened to him breathing.
His voice trembled when he spoke again. “He had three kids. He had three kids, and he—”
“I don't think I can see you anymore.” She was sitting on my bed, legs crossed. It was raining outside.
She took my face in her hands, pushed a curl off of my forehead. “I have to.”
“But I don't understand.”
Black hair swimming on the pillow, her face smiling, her teeth showing through. This is what I remember. Her hand in mine, her lips on the soju glass, the songs in the air and the smell of her hair and the way the rain came down that summer, hard and awful, flooding the streets with endless streams and deep puddles. I would carry my umbrella and walk down the streets of Seoul and would see her in every face—the smooth, black hair, dark eyes that looked away, a shy smile that never quite broke through. I asked her to come home with me, I'd asked her—
Her small hand pressed into my skin. She smiled at me, but only with her lips. “Haneul. You are beautiful.”