Written by: Faria Islam – Grade 12
Author’s Note: This is a short story I wrote for English class last semester. It was inspired by Margaret Atwood’s poem “Variations on the Word Love”. If you haven’t encountered this poem yet in your own English class, I highly recommend reading it beforehand. If you are knowledgeable about the overarching subject in this story (and maybe its’ subtopics), you may be able to pick up connections here and there on where else I got my inspiration to write. To English students who enjoy writing creatively, inspiration can really come from anywhere! See where your interests take you. Anyway I’ll leave it to you, the reader! Hope you like it.
I moved to Seoul from Busan at age fourteen after being scouted by several entertainment agencies. They all came across my impressive MegaStar-K audition tape, in which I timidly sang my rendition of 2AM’s “This Song”. I quickly learned that most people enjoyed the sound my voice. I didn’t make any final cut, but they kept my tape and that’s what led me to Seoul. The day that I arrived, I ended up finalizing my contract with brother Namhyun’s company after witnessing him rap. Even though I didn’t understand much about hip-hop back then, his passion was undeniable, and watching him made me want to be just like him. Little did I know that years down the road, brother Namhyun and I would be brought together as part of the septet “YTC”; the idol-group that would later go on to change the Korean music industry forever.
I handled the training process well because I was young and extremely hopeful about my dream. My dream was to become a professional singer. This was also everyone else’s dream in that crowded practice room, consisting of trainees who were always older than me, and the handful who were like me or sometimes younger. Every day, people were kicked out and lashed out at, but no one dropped out by choice. I remember just pushing myself and not caring much about anything else. My parents believed in me, even though I didn’t get to see them that often. After months and months of training, I eventually became a dancer, a singer, and a rapper. I was practically molded into perfection by our tight-knit company. Once our group came together, I became the “maknae”, the youngest of the seven, later to be hailed the “golden maknae” because of my all-rounder status. My group members were all talented; some produced songs, some sang, some danced, but together we were a team. The seven of us began living together in the old dorm. The brothers were nice people, but I was the shy little boy who took showers after everyone had gone to sleep. I was the one who refused to talk unless spoken to directly. The brothers would even joke that at first I couldn’t even sing in front of them. After debut however, things started to look up and I gained more confidence. My bond with my members also became stronger. I was basically being raised in a dorm with six older men, in a city far from home that I didn’t have the time to explore. I didn’t have friends my age, but that didn’t bother me. I was only hungry for the thrill that I felt on stage when I performed. Every move was a jolt of energy that ignited the cheers in the crowd. Even with the long hours of practice and restless nights, I simply remembered again and again why I loved the stage every single time we performed.
I began high school at the Idol Academy in Seoul the same time that I debuted. Of course, they had a program for young entertainers like me. I didn’t have time to make friends because of how busy I was. Also the fact that I was constantly going abroad didn’t help my studies either. I ended up graduating a year late because of our schedules. I prioritized my work over everything else, and the fans made it worth it. Fans all over the world had twinkles in their eyes whenever they’d see us perform our songs. It was love between idols and their admirers based on mutual appreciation. This love was also the force that drove me and the members to work harder, and one by one, our dreams were coming true; number one albums, world tours, and we were gaining international recognition as “K-music pioneers”. Sure, we struggled to find a balance between stardom and the “regular life”, but there were prices you had to pay in order to reach your dreams. At one point, the only form of love I knew was the kind I received from fans. Fans who would chant, “Kim Jungseo! Kim Jungseo! Kim Jungseo!” What other kinds were there? I had no way of knowing for sure. I began to question what it all meant after meeting Ryujin.
Ryujin was the nurse that attended my sick father in Seoul while I had been travelling the world for a stadium tour. In our first encounter, Ryujin was quick to leave the room before I could thank her. My father, however, was lying motionless on his deathbed, managing a smile when he saw me. I was able to tell him that I loved him before he took his last breath. Mother and I were devastated, and she kept reassuring me that my father lived as long as he did to see me succeed, and I had. Nurse Ryujin approached me with her condolences but I couldn’t say anything, not before and not even then. I returned to the hospital a few days after the funeral to properly thank the nurses and the doctors there. At the given opportunity some even asked for my autograph, which I graciously provided. Ryujin, however, watched me from afar. I approached her this time but before I could ask her myself, she invited me to join her for lunch. My mute condition was back once we sat down in the cafeteria, but she had no problem talking while I mostly listened. She explained to me that she didn’t know my father for long, but she could tell the great pride and love he had for me. I felt uncomfortable because I knew I had failed to ever be a real son to him. A real son, one that had been willing to visit and call home more often despite his work. The truth was that I was always away. I was always unable to express my gratitude for the sacrifices that others had made for me. I didn’t think I’d be able to tell Ryujin this, but once the tears rolled down my cheeks, she knew almost everything about me. At the time, I couldn’t explain to her that I felt like I was being deprived of something in my life. People always assumed that I had everything I could possibly need. Saying something otherwise would make me another ungrateful and self-centered celebrity, which wasn’t completely wrong. That lunch break ended up being my long-awaited therapy session. Ryujin and I decided to keep in touch, and I ended up meeting her weekly during the time I had off. I noticed later that she was my first real friend outside the company after becoming an idol for over six years. During those times that we met, I was able to unravel the reality that I was living.
My father’s death took the toll on me that I desperately needed to finally wake up from my dream. Starting off so early in this industry had its downside. I missed out on being the kid that troubles his parents by going out to play with his friends instead of studying. My idol-self was loud and energetic on stage, but off-stage I was hesitant to have a genuine conversation with an acquaintance, like it was a tougher task than performing in front of thousands of people. The world I lived in was considerably a lot smaller than others. I never slowed my pace to see things as they were, complicated and utterly messed up, but also with significance. The loud music and cheers that I heard on stage blocked out all the sounds I couldn’t hear. My parent’s phone calls. The sounds from my lost childhood. The simple experiences I never got to have, and of course the love I never got to truly feel. Love was something I would often hear and sing about, but I did not know what it was. At least not the way I should have.
During a fan-meet, a fan once whispered into my ear that I was her favourite member in YTC and that she would always admire me the most. I heard this from most of my fans, so I smiled shyly as I always did while signing the album. Next she proceeded to give me several presents, including some of my favourite snacks, the latest high-tech game-controller that I had wished for, and even a scented hand lotion. I also received cards, bordered with pretty lace and shaped as typical hearts, written on with words of endearment. I won’t lie and say that I didn’t enjoy those thoughtful presents and letters, but it took me awhile to understand the ambiguity of the situation. The way people received and gave “love” was as if it was consumable and materialistic. I was one cause of it being so. This was the kind of love that was used in an instant, providing you with temporary comfort and not much of anything else. It wasn’t the kind that made you actually care for someone, or as brother Namhyun puts it, “the kind that leaves you wanting to write a song”. I could never write my own lyrics to a song, but that was genius brother Name Hyun’s job in our group. When I asked him about how he did it, he said he found inspiration to write songs from books, movies, and experiences in life. As idols, we aren’t meant to fall in love, but we are expected to write and sing love songs. These often had to do with finding love, loving someone and eventually that love falling apart. I asked brother Namhyun if he had someone like that in his life. His smile unmistakably faltered before he said yes. I got the hint that it was an ending like one of those sadder love songs. I realised then that I never experienced true heartbreak before either.
My schedules began again after the break, but I still made an effort to communicate with Ryujin whenever possible. I knew I’d be living my whole life as a singer, but I also wanted to live life knowing what real love was. Ryujin told me that her first love was her dog named Cloud. Cloud was with her for twelve years until he passed away on that cold spring day at her stepfather’s home. Love did this marvelous thing to people; it gained people’s trust to hold on, but sooner to later you would be forced to let go. That’s how it worked for humans, but who knows, it could be just as well be the same for any other creature. Ryujin helped me realise that there was more I had to learn and grow from. There was more love I had to experience, as well as the pain that comes along with it. Sometimes it’s the kind that’s exactly what we need, like those cheers and chants before an encore.
Wherever there’s hope, there are also trials. When it became clear to Ryujin and I that we could no longer just be friends, we weren’t sure what to do. Although there was so much distance between us, we still managed to see and talk to each other. I supposed that meant that we were holding on. We, just like everyone else, fell for the four-letter word “love”, but didn’t have the courage to fight through its circumstantial consequences. By that point in my career, dating wasn’t an option. The brothers reminded me that one day it would be, but still, I held onto her. So the word “love” was all we had until, somehow, it no longer lingered or maintained its power. The universe once again reminded us that everything good comes with time, yet ends rather abruptly.