STORY OF THE WEEK

NEVER DATE A K-POP IDOL

My name is Kyung Hu, I’m half American, half Korean, and five years ago I moved to Seoul with my recently divorced mom. It was a little hard adjusting, I didn’t speak Korean and I’d lived in California all my life, but as a sixteen-year old girl I was fairly adaptable and quickly made friends at the new school I’d started attending.

My mom was an administrator at a local university and she was there pretty much all day, so after school I’d come home, cook dinner, clean the house, and maybe go out to buy groceries if we needed anything.

Since there was only the two of us, my mom and me, I’d quickly learned to pull my weight.

In the beginning it was really weird. Just going out to the store was like some magical mystery tour. Mostly I shopped at Lotte Mart, which is like this super big chain out here in South Korea, and sometimes, if I was especially craving western food, I’d go over to Namdaemun Market near the old south gate.

I’d spend hours in those places, just browsing the shelves and generally marveling at all the things you could buy in Korea that you couldn’t buy in America, but I must have looked hopelessly out of my depth, most of the time I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was supposed to be buying, so I’d rely on strangers to advise me on what went with what.

I remember one day going shopping, just cruising the aisles, and at one point there was this tall guy standing behind me, wearing a hood up over his head, and he was smiling down at me as I rifled through seventy varieties of noodles. He was really good looking – he seemed to understand I was a foreigner and he gave me this small thumbs-up gesture. Like he wished me good luck.

I met him a bit later on in the fresh fish section and since he’d kind of broken the ice with that thumbs-up, I decided to take a chance and ask his advice on what kind of fish went with kimchi-jjigae. He seemed taken aback when I spoke to him and he peered at me really suspiciously. He looked like he was about to bolt. I thought maybe he didn’t speak English, so I tried a few words of Korean, but honestly, my accent was Goddamn awful.

He laughed at that point. He seemed relieved about something.

‘You’re American?’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ I nodded, ‘but my mom’s Korean – we just moved here.’

He nodded and smiled, and Damnnnnn – from what I could see underneath that hoodie, that boy was smoking hot. He was about nineteen or twenty, and he was tall with a sparse, muscular physique. He stooped a lot – the way tall people do when they’re trying to look less noticeable.

He recommended that I not use fish with my kimchi-jjigae. He said he preferred pork belly marinated in rice wine.

We got to chatting after that. He said his name was Park and he was a sessions musician. I told him a little about myself and after that we ended up going for a coffee – he seemed lonely, and nervous, and kept looking over his shoulder, the way a kid does when he expects to get caught by grown-ups.

A lot of young girls had been going missing in Seoul recently so I was a bit nervous about hooking up with a stranger. But Park seemed like a regular guy. His English was good. He told me he’d lived in Phoenix, Arizona, when he was a kid.

‘You like Seoul?’ he asked as he stirred his coffee.
‘I’m getting used to it, I guess.’
‘You look American,’ he noted, ‘that’s a good thing – ’
I was curious. ‘Why is that a good thing?’ I asked.
‘In Seoul, people who look different really stand out,’ he shrugged: ‘you stand out.’
‘Thanks – I think.’

‘So, why did your mom move here?’
I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my parent’s divorce so I said she just wanted to get back in touch with her heritage.
I think he read between the lines because he didn’t say anything else about it.

After that we talked about regular stuff and it was amazing how easy I felt in his company, like I’d known him for ages, he had a great sense of humor but he was really shy and every time someone got too close he’d tug his hood down over his face and turn away from them.

I wound up giving him my number.

‘Well. Listen,’ he said as he got up at last to leave, ‘I hope things turn out ok for you.’

At school the next day I met up with my friend, Song, during recess. She was sitting in a corner of the playground, reading CeCi, a popular gossip magazine, and instantly I recognized the guy on the cover.

‘Who’s that?’ I asked as I sat next to her.

Song looked at me like she thought I was having her on. ‘Gong Woo Bin,’ she said: ‘cute isn’t he?’
‘Yeah, but who is he?’
‘Are you serious. He’s like one of the biggest stars in k-pop, he’s the face for Junior 17.’

I’d vaguely heard of Junior 17. They were pretty much the biggest boy band in the country.

I stared at Gong’s photo. It was undeniably Park. I couldn’t believe it. ‘I met him, yesterday,’ I said and I realized my heart was beating hard. ‘I swear to God I met him.’

Song gave me a disbelieving look, then grinned. ‘No way,’ she said and resumed reading her magazine.

‘Yeah, really,’ I retorted, ‘I met him in the supermarket yesterday, he was wearing a hoodie, I thought it was because he was really shy, but now I reckon its because he didn’t want to be recognized.’

Song’s eyes snapped up from the magazine: ‘no way,’ she said again but this time she didn’t sound nearly so certain. ‘You sure it was Gong?’ She reached out and clutched my arm, ‘I mean, are you absolutely sure?’

‘Yeah. It was him alright.’

‘Oh my God – oh, my God!’ Song squealed and started flapping her hands like they were little wings and she was trying to use them to take off. ‘You have got to be freaking kidding me.’

I didn’t expect to hear from Park, or Gong, again, and I chalked the whole encounter up to one of those really weird episodes in life that you can’t really account for, but that didn’t stop me from looking Park up online and it was just like Song said, he was one of the most popular K-pop stars in Korea. He was the lead singer for a five-boy group called Junior 17, that had literally taken the charts by storm in the last three years.

I felt a little awestruck. I’d had coffee with a living idol and I seriously regretted not taking a selca (selfie) with him.

I pretty much forgot about him after that, so I was pretty surprised when I got a call from Park a few days later. He wanted to meet up for a coffee. Was that ok?

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘sure.’

What the hell did he want to meet up with me for?
I was a nobody.

‘You didn’t tell me you were a celebrity,’ I said as I slipped into the corner booth opposite him later that afternoon.
He was still wearing a hoodie, a green one this time, and he bowed to acknowledge me. ‘No, I didn’t,’ he said, ‘does that bother you?’

‘What do you mean, why would it bother me, we’re not exactly dating?’ I meant to sound light-hearted but Park looked mildly peeved.

‘Of course not,’ he said, ‘that would be crazy, right?’

I thought about this. Was he hinting that he might be interested in dating me, or was that wishful thinking on my part? ‘I’m a honhyeol,’ I said, referring to the fact I was mixed race.

He sighed. ‘That’s your hang-up, not mine,’ he said, ‘listen, I just want to chat, everyone I meet treats me like I’m this demi-god, you’re the first person to treat me like….’
‘…like you’re nothing special?’
‘Like I’m a human being.’
‘Yeah, well, I didn’t know who you were the other day.’
‘Believe me, you still don’t know who I am.’

I stared at him. I still couldn’t get over how good-looking he was, his features were chiselled to perfection, his gorgeous eyes moving in and out of the shadow of his hood. I’d watched a couple of his videos on YouTube since last meeting him. He was definitely the best looking in the band. I wasn’t really into his music. It sounded too manufactured. But I couldn’t deny how hard he must have worked to reach that level of perfection. It must have taken years to get that good.

We met regularly after that. In little increments. Slowly building upon the most fragile of relationships. The more I got to know Park the more he reminded me of a wounded animal, caught in a trap and ready to chew his own leg off if it meant being free.

He was obsessively careful about being recognized, always kept his head lowered, his hood pulled down so the only part of his face you could see was his jaw. And we’d meet in small, quiet places, in cafes and art galleries and local museums.

I asked him what he was afraid of. He said he was afraid of everything.

He told me that being a teen idol was nothing like they made it out to be. Everyone assumed it was so glamorous but underneath the glitz, beneath all the polish, there was this twenty-four-hour machine churning out carbon copies of the same act over and over, and no matter how special they made you feel, sooner or later you realized you didn’t matter at all. The moment you stopped making money for the machine you were kicked to the curb.

Park said his agency controlled every part of his life, as far as every k-pop idol was concerned, the agency was God. That was the way it was. They manufactured you. They decided what you wore, what you said, what you thought and when you thought it…and then there were the sasaen….

What were the sasaen? I wanted to know.

Out of control fans. He replied. The kind of fan that stalked you, harassed you, assaulted you, and murdered you if you ever fell short of their expectations.

‘Is that why you don’t want to be seen with me?’ I asked.
‘I want to be seen with you,’ he said bitterly, ‘but since when did anything I wanted ever count for shit?’ he frowned, ‘besides, there’s a clause in my contract,’ he went on, ‘I only date who the agency tells me to date.’

‘Are you serious?’
‘As cancer.’

Just to get a taste of normalcy he had to sneak out of the dormitory he lived in with the other members of his group. The other guys covered for him and whenever they needed some “away” time he’d cover for them. It was a fraternity of mutual dependency.

It was the fourth time we’d met up together and unlike previous occasions, Park actually walked me part of the way home this time.

As we neared the head of my street he cupped my face in his hands, lowered his head, and allowed our lips to brush. It was an “almost” kiss, not quite a true kiss, but it made my heart flutter like a kaleidoscope of butterflies and I blushed furiously as I pulled away from him.

‘I’m not sure about this,’ I said.

‘Neither am I,’ he confessed, ‘which is a good thing.’

When I got home that evening I was floating on cloud 9. I felt like a giddy schoolgirl. I’d just brushed lips with Korea’s biggest k-pop star and it was pretty much beyond belief.

I switched my laptop on and started checking my social network sites and instantly I noticed my twitter page had lit up.

“Maechunbu!”
“Chang-nyeo!”
“Hua-nyang-nyon!”

All of these phrases were variations on the idea that I was a cheap whore.
My heart froze as I stared at the screen.
My twitter page was literally flooded with these insults and there were photos of me with my eyes scratched out.

I sat cold and confused, staring at the screen as though it had suddenly turned into a portal to hell. What the hell was going on?

“You think Gong likes a half breed like you!” Said one comment.
“Why don’t you go back to America, bitch?” Said another.

It was then that I realized word must have gotten out about me and Park.
Jesus, I’d stirred up a hornet’s nest.

If this had come from a few people I would have retaliated, or ignored them, but there were dozens of these insults and I traced some of them back to the accounts of young girls mostly, the type who were heavily into k-pop.

I checked my Facebook page and it was the same thing, my timeline was swarming with insults.

I was horrified.
I switched the computer off.
I was literally shaking with fright.

Everybody’s attitude had changed at school. The other girls were all talking about me behind my back. A lot of kids were ok with it, they just wanted to know what Park was like, what his favorite food was, or his favorite music, whether he was planning on going solo or staying with the band, stuff like that. But then there was this other group that would insult me every opportunity they got.

“Oekuk-saram!” They’d call out to me in sing-song voices. The word meant “foreigner”.

‘You’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest, Kyung,’ Song told me during recess, ‘k-pop fans can be seriously crazy, but Gong’s fans are the craziest of the lot, they’re practically a cult – they think Gong is the second coming.’

‘Nothing happened between us,’ I protested, ‘we’re just friends.’
‘Good luck telling that to his sasaen,’ she said.

After recess I was called into the principle’s office. She told me the school was receiving threatening phone calls and that she thought perhaps I ought to take a few days off, just until things blew over, but you could see from the way she looked at me that she secretly hoped I’d just disappear and never come back to school.

I headed back home. I felt nauseous at this stage. I felt like the whole country had turned against me.

As I headed towards the station I barely noticed a group of school girls heading towards me along the sidewalk. They were all wearing blazers and tartan skirts and were chatting and laughing among themselves, like every other schoolgirl ever, it was only when passing them that they all suddenly stopped, pointed at me, and started screaming.

It was the weirdest, most frightening thing I’d ever experienced.

There were about seven girls and every one off them was glaring at me with a twisted expression on her face, screaming at the top of her lungs and thrusting her fingers in my face, and they formed a semi-circle that slowly backed me up against the nearest wall.

The screaming was so shrill and animal-like that I clamped my hands to my ears as I stared into all those faces, and then, just as abruptly, they all switched off, became normal again, and walked away, chatting calmly to each other, laughing gaily, as though nothing had just occurred.

For a while after that I was too terrified to move, I just stood there and stared after those girls, and then I turned and raced all the way to the station.

Mom met me at the door when I got home which was unusual. She was usually working around this time.

‘I heard….’ She said.

She looked tired.

I immediately started to protest. ‘I swear to God, mom, I didn’t even know this guy was famous, I met him a few times for coffee – that’s it – nothing went on between us….’

‘I believe you,’ she sighed.

‘Everybody hates me,’ I said morosely.
‘Don’t worry, it’ll pass – the school wants you to take a week off – maybe that’s a good idea – give this whole thing time to blow over.’

The online hate had become a deluge, the insults thick as flies. I was in tears as I read some of the comments, they were so full of hate they chilled me to the bone. One link directed me to a webpage where a video showed me waiting at the station only an hour earlier.

Someone had been filming me.

‘Jesus,’ I muttered, my skin crawling with dread, ‘what the fuck is going on?’

My cell phone rang.
It was Park.

‘What the hell is going on, Park?’ I demanded, ‘I’m getting nothing but hate mail.’

‘Listen, I’m in bad trouble with the agency,’ Park sounded stressed, ‘I didn’t mean this to happen….’

‘But it did happen,’ I insisted, ‘what the hell is it with your fans, they’re psychopaths…?’
‘They’re very protective.’
‘You’ve got to say something to them – tweet something out for Christ’s sake, tell them to back off.’
‘I gotta go, I’ll see what I can do.’
He hung up –

God – what the hell had I gotten myself into?

The next day I figured I’d go do some course work in one of Seoul’s many public gardens. I avoided the internet. I really didn’t want to start the day reading about how much the world hated me.

There was this girl on the bus I rode into town. She pushed past me, really hard. I was quite shocked. In South Korea people are pretty polite and even if they bump into you they’ll always apologize, they’ll almost never cop an attitude, but when I said, “excuse me,” to this girl, she just turned and shot me a look of pure venom.

Another girl turned and dug an elbow into my ribs. I yelled at her but she hissed in my face. Like a cat.

I tried to move to a quieter spot on the bus but people were pushing and shoving me, and everyone looking at me with such hatred that I started to get really freaked out. I thought I was going to die.

Suddenly everyone took out this Park mask and placed it over their faces.
At that point I thought I was going mad.

Everyone on the bus was wearing a Park mask and glaring at me.

I started to sob. I kept asking them to forgive me like I’d something wrong but they just kept glaring at me, and then the bus pulled into a stop and I swear to Christ I’m not exaggerating, but every single person got off the bus at that stop.

One moment it was standing room only.
The next moment I was alone and the bus was pulling away from the curb.

I sank into a seat, still sobbing.

I went home after that.
I haven’t had the nerve to leave the house since that incident on the bus.
I’m terrified.

Yesterday evening Park appeared on TV. His hair was completely shaven. He looked really contrite. He looked really tired.

He was apologizing for letting his fans down.

He said he’d been lonely and vulnerable after the death of a favorite aunt. He said that I had enticed him. He looked straight at the camera and basically blamed me for everything. He said that I’d seduced him. That I’d flung myself at him.

The most horrific thing was how sincere he looked.
If I hadn’t known any better, I would have believed him.