Anything you might desire
Everyone heard it, the pop. Min knew what to do, gasping for air on the cleat-pocked grass, a semicircle of concerned teammates forming around him. Stretching the afflicted arm over his head, he slowly rotated his hand, fingertips cold, heat knifing into his lungs, and reached for the opposite shoulder, exhaling only when he felt relief, ball meeting socket again. Min couldn't help but smile. The looks on their faces.
Even the Australians had stopped playing, gawking at his dangling arm. Of all the expats who played rugby every Saturday, they were the toughest, always willing to play through a broken nose or a bruised quad, as long as it meant showing up the Brits or the Kiwis.
Min could have told them about the other times he'd dislocated his shoulder-basketball, football, a poor attempt at surfing-but he didn't. Better to leave some mystery, he thought. He'd grown used to injuries, bodily betrayal. Quick but slight, he'd taken his share of physical damage, especially in high school, where he'd insisted on playing football despite his parents' objections. He was never exceptional. Being exceptional wasn't the appeal. It was the physicality he enjoyed, the feeling of narrowly ducking a crushing hit over the middle, juking out of bounds, safe from hulking defenders intent on his destruction. More often than not, he was leveled, crushed, left blinking away stars. But there was something appealing about that, too. A part of Min liked being hit, showing he could take the pain.
From an early age Min had been drawn to competitive sports, craving their zero-sum nature, in which a distinct winner and loser emerged. He found security in having only two possible outcomes. There was no gray, no in-between. There'd been no opportunity for recreational football in Seoul, only soccer and rugby. Naturally he'd chosen rugby, prizing physicality and the risk of violence above anything else. His teammates regarded him with cautious kindness, miffed by his name and appearance. Of the expats on his team, Min was the only American, except he didn't look American, according to one of his Irish teammates, whose comments quickly garnered nods of agreement. Min only smiled. He was used to remarks like that. No matter where he went, people couldn't put their finger on him, puzzling over his ambiguous origins.
Tolerance was what Min practiced whenever he spent time with expats. It was the trade-off for getting to play rugby, getting hit. They were a lost bunch anyway, the expats. ESL teachers, ex-military, burnout backpackers, forty-year-old nothings with penchants for Asian women, these were the types of foreign men in Korea. Min considered himself different from them, somehow special, here for a reason. Biracial, Los Angeles-bred Samsung consultants were the exception in Seoul, something Min took pride in. He was here because of ancestry, because he'd never seen the country whose language he spoke, because he'd never felt wholly American, because in the snuggest kernel of his heart, he hoped to find some sense of belonging.
Arm in a makeshift sling, face badged with mud, Min was forced to watch the game's conclusion from the sideline. Afterwards, there were handshakes all around, the field chewed to a camouflage pulp, bad weather threatening on the horizon. Min zipped up his duffel bag with his good hand, hoping to beat the rain. One of the newer members of the team approached him, an amiable-looking guy named Mark.
"How's the shoulder?"
"It's felt better," Min said, wary of getting sucked into a conversation.
"We're going out for drinks. Figured you'd wanna come. Take the edge off."
Mark was new; it wasn't his fault. After rugby there were usually drinks at one of the tacky Western-style bars ubiquitous to Seoul, where teammates drank Guinness and listened to acoustic Oasis covers. Min avoided those places at all costs, and after he'd declined the first few invitations, the offer was never extended again.
"Sorry," Min said, wondering why he felt guilty. Perhaps it was Mark's politeness, the way his Canadian accent swallowed vowels. "Can't make it. I've gotta be at the office early tomorrow."
"But it's the weekend," Mark called after him.
A block away from the metro the sky opened and raindrops plummeted from the high-rise-cluttered sky. Umbrellas bloomed upwards as Min weaved his way through the lurching crowd. A jet stream of humid June air funneled down the street, slanting the rain and blurring neon signs and LED billboards scrolling ribbons with the latest financial news. Every storefront and city block called out in electric blues and pinks, offering up karaoke, libations, and fortune-telling.
This was what had mesmerized Min upon his arrival in Seoul a year and a half ago: the sheer magnitude of it all, the way it loomed over you, dwarfed you, obliterated the senses while simultaneously offering everything and anything you might desire. In awe, Min had watched cobblers toiling in their street stalls, boys fanning coals in the back alleys of restaurants, businesswomen checking their makeup by the glow of their phones. With its mirrored skyscrapers and pulsing chaos, the city itself had seemed to whisper in his ear: you're home. In recent months, though, these revelatory flashes had grown less frequent, and Min had begun to doubt his reasons for coming to Korea. Still, there were sights he'd yet to see, parts of the city he'd put off visiting that he hoped might yield that fleeting feeling.
By the time he was underground, Min was soaked. Warmth radiated from his shoulder blade as he wrung out the bottom of his T-shirt and waited for the train. Why hadn't he told Mark the truth? He could have easily said he'd made plans with Yu-jin, that they'd set aside their Sunday for each other. It was simpler this way, Min thought. He wanted to keep her separate, away from the usual strategizing and maneuvering that would ensue if the expats discovered he was dating a Korean woman. There'd be endless questions about Yu-jin: How'd they meet, did she have cute friends, was she a prude like all the other girls in Korea? A white lie had been better, Min decided as a train approached, the plastic barrier between the platform and the track humming to life. He'd extricated himself without having to wear the mask of civility for too long. Still, it hadn't saved him from getting wet.
Leaving it all behind
Focused, driven, ambitious, obsessed: I was all those things in high school. None of this set me apart from my classmates. It didn't make me special. We knew what was at stake. Our eyes were on the prize, unflinching: gaining admittance to a university in Seoul. For those with even loftier goals, SKY (Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University) was the ultimate-admittance to any one of the three instantaneously setting you on a course for financial, social, and marital success. College wasn't just the next logical step. It was the foundation upon which your entire adult life was built. It was everything. Slip up on a test at school, mess around during night classes at hagwon, or, worst of all, bomb the College Scholastic Ability Test-there went your future, all your hopes and dreams gone in an instant, every future self you'd ever imagined, vanished.
I had plans of my own. Or, I should say, my family had made plans for me: Ewha Womans University. It was my mother's alma mater, one of Seoul's most prestigious schools, and an all-girls one at that, something my father particularly approved of.
But more than the promise of Ewha's rigorous education, more than its vaunted postgraduation connections, more than the alluring prospect of escaping my parents' house, more than anything, I wanted to be in Seoul, in the center of it all. As long as I was there, somewhere in that city, I knew everything would work itself out.
I didn't hate growing up in Gyeryong. It's not like it was dangerous; there was no crime or drugs. That might have at least made it a little interesting. Of course there were good schools, clean parks, a nice shopping mall, but even at an early age, I had the sneaking suspicion that the tiny city I inhabited was boring, prefabricated. Like most of the kids I went to school with, my family had moved to Gyeryong because of the military. It seemed like everyone's father, including my own, worked at the army, navy, or air force headquarters based around the city.
Boxcar administrative buildings, dull government workers in identical gray suits, military officials with matching buzz cuts-this was all I ever saw. Even the housewives wore the same dresses and blouses, never deviating from their neutral tones of beige, black, and pale blue. Uniformity engulfed the city, smoothed its rough patches, varnished it to a perfect sheen. With every restaurant serving the same three dishes, the movie theater only showing two movies at a time, and the norebangs updating their music catalogues once a year, I had little trouble focusing on my studies. Unimpeachable grades and a top score on the CSAT were the two goals that saved me from boredom.
I yearned for a place with grit and edge, a place with a pulse, something boiling beneath the surface. And I was almost there. I could feel it in my aching fingertips as I scribbled class notes. I could taste it in the cheap curry donkatsu I scarfed down between day and night classes. In three weeks, I'd take the exam and be set on my track, hurtling toward that magnificent megacity, overflowing with chaos and life. It was all I ever talked about with my friends: Seoul. Home to ambitious students, aspiring artists, high fashion models, and brilliant CEOs, it was everything we didn't have, everything we craved. I'd been to Seoul twice with my parents. We'd toured the palaces and seen the sights. I remember being astounded by the sea of pedestrians emerging from the metro, the cacophony of blaring horns during rush hour. There was an energy, a marvelous desperation to the way these people lived their lives. From then on, I knew I had to come back. And as I sat in the dingy classroom of my hagwon, going over one multiple-choice question after another, it took all my self-restraint and focus to sit and study. I was so close. So close to getting out, leaving it all behind.
Sometimes my friends would talk about visiting each other once we were all in college. In this scenario we'd all gotten into our top choices in Seoul. It was an indulgence, this fantasy. Except it wasn't a fantasy for me; it was a nightmare. I wanted a clean slate, an impossibility with my high school friends around. I wanted the chance to reinvent myself, start anew. Secretly, I hoped we'd never see each other again after graduation day. I was embarrassed by our dialects, our taste in music and clothes. Everything about us screamed rural and backwards; everyone would know we didn't belong. For months, standing before the bathroom mirror, I'd practiced my Seoul dialect, merging my vowels, committing each unique intonation to memory. Still, I contributed to their stories, played the game. I said how exciting it would all be, visiting dorms and meeting roommates. But each night, kneeling beside my bed, hands clenched, I prayed none of them would get into Ewha. I prayed none of them would set foot in Seoul.
The fall had been a sprint to the finish, the placement exam looming like a dark, treacherous thunderhead. I charged forward, into the fray, fearlessly. Some fell by the wayside-depression, eating disorders, mystery illnesses-but not me. My eye was on the prize. A high score in November would guarantee my acceptance in January. Some of my classmates opted to take the test after graduation, so they'd have more time to study; others took their chances with the Susi process, avoiding the CSAT entirely, pinning their hopes instead on transcripts, recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities. I wasn't one of those students. I didn't need extra time to study. I didn't need to take the easy way up.
The day before the examination my father took me out for ice cream. I couldn't remember the last time we'd done something together, just the two of us. He was always working, gone before the sun rose, sometimes not making it home at all, opting to sleep in the dorms at army headquarters. Like a ghost, he came and went, his presence only detectable from the half-empty bowl of fried rice on the kitchen counter, his smudged fingerprints on the doorknob from the morning newspaper.
It was a typical November day: gray, cold with a bite. We sat in the window of a cute diner-style parlor, eating offensively large chocolate sundaes. It was my father's favorite place in Gyeryong. He said it reminded him of America-the good parts of it anyway-drive-ins, milkshakes, roller-girls.
I couldn't help but smile and be happy. Despite my age, he still delighted in theatrical gestures of appreciation and celebration. It was his way: an enormous inflatable bouncy castle for my elementary school graduation party, a platinum bracelet for my sixteenth birthday, a new Mercedes for my mother's fortieth. He cared a great deal about appearances, was proud he could give those gifts.
He sat across from me, jaw square, dark brown eyes betraying nothing. My mother always joked that he should play poker for a living. "With that face," she'd say, "we'd be rich by now."
But my father never gambled. "For degenerates and fools," he'd said once, when we'd passed some elderly men comparing lottery tickets on the street. "There's no such thing as luck. You remember that. There's only hard work. Everything that comes to you is meant for you. You deserve everything-good or bad."
My mother was right. Nothing surprised him. When he did lose his temper, it was a quiet fury, churning beneath the surface until it ruptured. As a child I'd learned to read the silence, the subtle creases on his brow. Still, I wasn't always successful, incurring his wrath if my grades dipped or I talked back.
That didn't happen anymore, not since I'd understood what my parents expected of me.
"I can't tell you how proud I am," he said that day in the diner, taking my hand in his. "You know that, right? Me and your mother. We see the hard work you've been putting in. It's all going to pay off."
His phone vibrated on the table. He eyed it wearily. I was surprised when he ignored the call, smiling instead. As Chief of Strategic Planning-a title I'd memorized because I was proud-he was never without his phone. He was forever ducking out, holding hushed conversations in the bedroom. But this phone call could wait. In that moment I could feel it: paid attention to, loved. This is a special day, an important day, for both of us, he was saying.