I fixed my eyes on Fujimoto-san’s receding silhouette, willing the sunset not to swallow his figure as he headed across the parking lot towards his crookedly aligned Toyota. His final words rang in my head, an air of resignation weighing them down:
“I’ve said all I can, and I’ll give you a chance to discuss this matter as a family now.”
Slumping miserably in the back car seat, I watched helplessly as the scenery began to shift beyond my car window, and my mother cautiously steered us off of NiSo records’ property and onto the highway, filling the tense silence with the sappy crooning of radio ballads.
“Mom?” I said tentatively, the word tumbling and turning clumsily on my tongue.
“That man says you’ll have to leave the country.” My mother’s voice came flat and unreadable from the front seat. She refused to refer to Fujimoto-san by his first name.
“I… I know.” I faltered. Turning to face the window again, I sought reassurance in the crimson sky, stained an urgent, pulsing shade of red as the sun sank below the horizon.
Suddenly, my mother sighed, her breath hissing like a deflating balloon.
“Jae, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I’m tired. An entire week of this nonsense is enough.” Her leather gloves squealed with tension as she strangled the steering wheel. “I know you’re talented.” The slightest taste of tenderness mingled in her wooden voice. “But your talent would be of better use else where.” The note of exhaustion in her voice struck a chord with my own aching mind, about to crack under the pressure of seven days of endless bartering and shouting, and tears. Biting my lip, I let a fresh wave of tears well in my eyes in silence, running salty trails down my cheeks. No matter how much I fought to compose myself, it would be no use- I was a natural crybaby- and whatever hope I had clung onto of changing my mother’s mind over Fujimoto-san’s last seven visits was vanishing. Fast.
How did it come to this? I could almost hear the thought echoing in my mind, revisiting the last seven days with a heavy heart. Honestly, from the moment I saw my mother’s growling in the parking lot as I stepped out of the waiting room, my heart was already on a steady freefall towards the bottom of my stomach. Mother knew best, I suppose. And it had not taken her long to figure out that I had run off to audition for a talent search she had not allowed me to attend when she burst into my room, demanding that I go down stairs to practice piano, only to be greeted by an empty room, with the window ajar.
The ride home set the tone for the rest of the seven days- they weren’t as bad as they could have been, I suppose, but that was mostly because Fujimoto-san managed to cover for me quite suavely when he met my disgruntled mother. Luckily for me, he stepped out of the building with his suitcase in hand just as I met eyes with mom, who looked as if she had been preparing to give me the longest lecture I had yet to face and a lifetime’s worth of chores.
“Mrs. Ahn? I’m very pleased to meet you.” I firmly closed my mouth, sighing with relief as the familiar, elderly judge trotted over to my side, giving my mother a small bob and a receptive smile. Slightly disoriented by the new acquaintance, my mother’s features quickly re-arranged themselves in her pleasant ‘public face’, and she and Fujimoto quickly exchanged greetings and traded a few words about me.
“She is quite a talented girl- you should be very proud,” Fujimoto-san praised in his oddly accented Korean.
“Oh, it is an honor for you to praise my worthless daughter.” Mother replied with flourishing modesty, stealing steely glances at me as she spoke to Fujimoto-san with a voice that rippled with warmth. There was no mistaking the lecture that I was doomed to receive now. After gazing at each other for a moment longer than comfort would allow, Fujimoto-san seemed to decide to give take another hack at the decidedly icy air that had formed between them.
“My panel of judges and I have decided that she is ready to be signed to our label.” He put forth.
Having never heard the news, I would have expected my mother’s face to show even the slightest hint of surprise, but her rigid smile didn’t waver.
“Oh, but she couldn’t possibly be up to such a demanding job.” She said, her face retreating from the side window as if she was about to roll the glass up, erecting another wall between me and my dream.
“I’m sure it’s a lot to consider.” Fujimoto-san seemed slightly taken aback by my mother’s lack of reaction, but plodded on, unfazed. “but we have time to talk about it. I can visit your family over the next couple of days, if you would like- we could discuss the contract together.” My heart leapt at his words, and before my mother could refuse, I eagerly interjected,
“Yes, please! Please do. Where can we meet?” no sooner had the words left my mouth did I remember the unfortunate condition of my would-be contract: I would have to go to Japan. But for a fleeting moment, my desperation to keep my dream within arm’s reach overwhelmed all other feelings.
“Well, I really don’t think-“ my mother began, her politeness tinged with annoyance.
“Please, there won’t be any obligations. I know how hard it is for families to send their children away, so I’m fully willing to discuss the details of these procedures with you in the privacy of your own home.” This comment finally jolted my mother. Blinking confusedly, she leaned back out of her window, squinting as she repeated the words,
“Send her away?”
“Well, yes. We are a Japanese record company, and to be trained adequately, she will need to go to Japan at the earliest convenience.” Fujimoto-san’s fluid, wizen voice seemed to lend a sense of harmlessness to the proposal, as if leaving the country were as simple a requirement as writing your name on your belongings to prevent them from getting lost. My exuberance of the moment was quickly swallowed once more by the sickening numbness of knowing that pursuing my dream would come at even heavier a price than simply going against the plans that had been carefully carved for me ever since I could remember, from my first piano lesson to my latest recital. My mother was as quick to recover from the shock.
“Well, I certainly don’t think that this child is independent enough to be out of the country on her own.” Her voice seemed to lose its warm, inviting undertones, now morphed into a metallic stern-ness that sent shivers down my spine. “I’m afraid that we truly may have to disregard this offer, er…”
“Fujimoto-san-“ The smiling judge supplied, using the chance to slip in a few extra words, “but I’m sure that we shouldn’t come to such hasty conclusions. This must have been a shock to you, and my offer to discuss this in more detail obviously still stands.” He reached into his pocket, producing a business card with a deft hand. “Here is my contact information.” Pushing the card into my mother’s reluctant hands, Fujimoto-san seemed just as eager as I was to keep his foot in the door.
“I know that as a parent, you must be concerned about your daughter’s well-being and success. I can assure you that should she decide to join us, we will do our utmost to promote her and ensure her success- and any other conditions that you may have would be put into full consideration as well.” He seemed to pause for a moment, assessing the effects of his sweet words on my mother.
However, one glance at my mother’s sour expression told me that no amount of sweet talk was going to persuade her.
At least not today, I told myself, beginning my spiral into a week of delusional self-encouragement and pig-headed stubbornness.
“We’ll discuss this later.” She said in a tone that rang as a clear, resounding, “No” to whatever request she expected to come out of my mouth, decisively rolling up her window without sparing her breath to bid Fujimoto-san goodbye.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Fujimoto-san said brightly, giving us a wave and a nod as the glass wall between my mother and himself materialized. I gave him a pleading look before pulling open the back door and settling myself in the sunken seat.
Over the next few days, Fujimoto-san kept true to his word- much to my mother’s surprise and dismay. I was giddy with excitement when I answered his call at home (through the telephone number from my file) early in the afternoon to find out that he had arranged to take the whole family out to dinner that night, during which he led a one man conversation about the prospects of my training in Japan as well as well as the robust state of the Japanese music industry.
“She would still be able to write emails to you, and come home whenever she is free. Of course, we will provide housing for her with some other girls her age-“ he paused, catching my mother’s horrified glance “or under other supervision- it is really all up to you.” He quickly revised. “I could not think of a better time to debut a foreign artist. People are looking for something new, something fresh- and someone from another country would be the perfect supply for that demand.” He reasoned, exchanging looks of mutual understanding with my father and making sure he made eye contact with my mother as well.
On our way home that night, my mother’s answer was still a nonnegotiable no. The plane ticket I showed her did nothing more to sway her either- I had kept them aptly hidden, shoved in the inner pocket of my handbag- partly because I didn’t want to give her any more reasons to yell at me after suffering her verbal abuse for hours on end when she first brought me back from the audition, and partly also because I didn’t need a reminder of the slight personal roadblock I would have to face if I was going to see this dream through.
Even as I gazed at the world map that hung in my bedroom wall through tear-filled eyes every night after yet another disappointing shouting match with my mother, I found myself baffled by the tiny hop of distance between the southern tips of Korea and the Land of the Rising Sun. I would run my fingers over the two countries, the tip of one finger standing in South Korea while the other stood on Japan. If I strained my eyes hard enough, I could sometimes picture a bridge forming over the two landforms under the dim illumination of moonlight. It was so close, yet it was a world I had only seen through the TV screen, under the warm filters of soap operas and the cheery frames of music videos. Its language was full of familiar sounds, but those had only ever come from the radio or from the sultry, 2-D of Kimura Takuya, perpetually trapped in J-drama-land.
Despite my mother’s stubborn refusal however, dad seemed oddly compliant to the idea of sending me into a foreign showbiz.
“I can’t say I didn’t see this coming,” he exhaled when the three of us finally stumbled back into our simple abode after a night of feasting at Fujimoto-san’s expense (although my father had put up some weak efforts to foot the bill himself). Easing himself onto the couch, he patted the empty cushion next to him, and I eagerly left my seething mother’s side to join him.
“Now, I’m not saying that I’m happy about this- nor that I’m agreeing to this- at least, not unless your mother approves,” he qualified with a few uneasy glances at the other obvious furious other half of my parental unit, “but I have to say, I never quite believed that you had it in you to go pass one of these auditions. I didn’t want to see you hurt.” With yet another furtive glance in my mother’s direction, he lowered his voice and added, “I thought that was what your mother had in mind when she told me she thought you weren’t meant for this kind of business, but… clearly she had another idea in mind.” He turned his attention back to me, locking eyes with me,
“But if you had enough nerve to barge out of this house and take this risk… well, we’ll have to think about the whole traveling out of the country part of it, because I’d rather you not do that… but otherwise, I’d just like you to know that I’ll be behind you every step of the way.”
Ignoring my mother’s piercing scowl, I let dad’s words roll over me, each syllable placating my anxious mind.
My parents had always been united in my eyes- ever since I was little, it didn’t matter if I asked mommy or if I asked daddy to play outside when I came home from school- I would get the same answer. It didn’t matter who I complained to about practicing piano or about my fake belly-ache for school- neither of them would allow me to skip out on the things that they had decided were best for me. This private confession of support- so quiet and secretive I felt like I was conspiring with my dad- made my heart swell with hope. False hope, perhaps, but hope nonetheless.
As I pretended to sleep that night, the sound of my mother’s fury penetrated my door. “How can you just encourage her like that? She’s just a girl. Are you ready to see your child go off in the world already?”
A moment of silence, and her voice flared again.
“I just want the best for her- and what’s best for her is most certainly not out on some stage. How will she complete her education? Do you remember how many of these entertainers finish their education, even just up to the high school level? Not many, I tell you.”
I closed my eyes, burying my head in my pillow. I didn’t like this either. But there had to be light at the end of the tunnel, I chanted like a mantra. I would look back on this- we would all look back on this one day- and be glad.
That is, given that I actually get on that plane. To Japan. I swallowed, forcing my the wild swarm of worries, fears, and questions out of my mind.
Over the next couple of days, Fujimoto-san never failed to drop by at our home to give my parents an extra snippet of information, surveying my mother’s skeptical expression for any sign of change and continuing to pepper my easily converted father with the more attractive details of my contract.
“She’ll be able to attend a private school especially designed for children in the performing arts- and of course, like all professionals, she would be required to stay out of any and all inappropriate relationships with her peers and co-workers. Otherwise, she would risk losing her career and being expelled from school.” He supplied on his third visit, earning a nod of approval from my father- the man who had made me pinky promise not to date until I was twenty when I was ten.
I don’t know whether it was stupidity or idealism, but somehow I managed to convince myself that if I just protested enough, if I just shoved Fujimoto-san in my mother’s face one more time, if I could just re-iterate myself with enough authority and finality, she and I could at least see eye to eye. In fact, even last night, when I knew that my resistance was wearing thin on both my parents as a terse dinner conversation erupted into yet another bout of tear-choked shouting (the tears part contributed by me, of course), even as I ran into my room (again) and dad quietly crept to my side (again) to comfort me after the storm had passed (again), I somehow managed to entertain the prospect of gaining my mother’s approval to sign Fujimoto-san’s record contract.
But as I gazed at the lightly stained back of the driver’s seat, thin-lipped and I could finally feel my heart’s plummet to the pit of my stomach come to a stop. My eyes followed my mother’s hand as she pushed open the door and stepped out, and as if on autopilot, I followed suit, shutting the door quietly as I hopped out of the car and fell into step with her. As she walked briskly up the steps to my home, I felt my pace slowing, dreading the moment I would have to set foot beyond the door again… not knowing when I would be let back out.
“Mom? Please.” I murmured, naked despair sending tremors through my words. For a moment, I thought she hadn’t heard. Then,
The key turned, and my legs carried me through the door. The house buzzed with the familiar crackle of dinner on the stove, and sure enough, before I had even slipped out of my shoes, mom was tying an apron around her waist, joining dad in the kitchen.
I knew there was nothing more to say. The last embers of my motivation doused, I slumped on the couch, eyes dry of tears, too tired to force a smile or frown.
Dinner began in a quiet ballad of chopsticks tapping against china, of slurping too loudly to fill the dense air.
Before I knew it, my chopsticks were scraping the bottom of my wooden rice bowl. I stood up, silently placing the empty bowl in the sink. As I headed towards the den, my mother’s voice stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Jae, you’ll have to make up for the piano practice you’ve been neglecting because of the past couple of days.”
I could have sworn my vision glowed red for a moment, but I bit my lip and didn’t break my pace. I jerked myself towards the piano, flipping on the light switch and unveiling the pretentiously polished instrument. As I slid onto the piano bench, my feet reaching for the well-worn pedals below, my eyes fell on the picture of a little girl, sitting at this very piano bench, a small, timid smile plastered on her face, posing with a single hand splayed noncommittally on the shiny keys, framed and carefully placed atop the piano.
It was me, a mere kindergarterner- if that- sitting at the piano for one of my first lessons.
The reason behind my agitation struck me then.
My mother rarely yelled at me when I disobeyed. Instead, she would pretend that nothing had gone wrong, and as if to insist that nothing was amiss, she would order me to go about my typical homework assignments as per usual- I could not count how many times “practice piano” had been her way of admonishing me for my wrongdoing. I could not remember how many times I sat at the piano, bitter and sulking as I pounded out chord after chord, angrily pouring out my frustration with each note I played. In a way, it was therapeutic. But in another, each time I returned to that piano bench, I remembered with vivid detail all the other times I had been punished and trapped.
This time was once too many, for something too large and too precious to be swallowed by music.
Whirling around, I marched back towards the dining room, each step pounding in my ears.
“Mom… I can’t.”
Both of the parental units looked up from their food, my father mouthing a warning while my mother gave me her typical, unreadable look.
“Can’t what? You need to practice piano. If you’re tired, you can wait a bit later, but it has to be done.” She replied coolly.
“I don’t mean that.” My voice was tight. I took a deep breath.
“Mom, I want to be a singer. I know that’s not what you think I should do, and that might not be the easiest thing to do. But it’s what I want to do.” I glanced at my dad, whose slight frown seemed to be clearing. “I’m going to be an adult in a year. And to be perfectly honest… there are still plenty of things that I’m scared of. That’s why I want to know that you’ll support me when I’m out there.”
In that moment, my mind cleared. I finally understood that nagging hope- not hope, but determination that dragged me from one painful argument to the next. I knew in my heart of hearts that no matter what, I was going to do this- because like it or not, chances like this did not come often. But even if I had resolved to do it… it would be nice to know that I wasn’t forbidden from glancing over my shoulder at the memories I was leaving behind.
Finally, my mother spoke, her voice heavy with a mixture of defeat and relief.
“It’s unbelievable how absolutely stubborn you are.” A twinkle of amusement flashed in her eye for a moment, but her serious demeanor was quick to return. “But no matter how much you beg or repeat your self, I’m afraid this is a decision I cannot stand behind. I’m sorry that you can’t see things my way but… if only you knew what I knew, maybe you wouldn’t jump into this so hastily.” I opened my mouth to protest- after all, it wasn’t as if she had taken any time to impart what she knew to me- but closed my mouth again when I met my father’s eye. “Although, your father seems to be perfectly fine with the decision, so if you need to ease your conscience, you can just talk to him.” I remained silent, waiting for her to say the words. “I can’t say I agree, but if your father agrees…”
Instinctively knowing that this was about as close to a ‘yes’ as I was going to be able to draw out of my mother at that point, I turned to my dad, who graced me with a barely perceptible nod of his head.
For the first time in what seemed like years, I felt the beginnings of a smile blooming across my face. My mother stood up, and as she walked past me, the backs of our hands brushed, and I murmured,
She didn’t say anything, but I knew she heard me. The way she paused, her back turned to me told me that there were a million words unspoken between us… but those were words for another time. All I could do at that moment as I met my father’s gaze was keep grinning, as widely as I possibly could, as if to make up for all the tears I had shed over the last couple of days.
I was one step closer.
I blundered, crashed, and dashed through the next three weeks, my days colored with the ringing of my newly assigned company cell phone- a gift from Fujimoto-san, who kept tabs on me at all times after I signed the contract. And so, by the end of the month, while my classmates were returning to their stuffy classrooms, my father and I were running in circles trying to get our passports in order for our flights. There was plenty to plan- from my living arrangements (My father for a short while- thank god, and after I would be transferred to live with some of my fellow underage singers-in-training), my school (I would enroll in Japanese high school on a pass/fail grading system for the first semester to make things easier for my transition) and my work schedule (I had yet to hear back about my vocal coach). But even as all of this was being decided, I paid little attention to it- in fact, I didn’t even know the name of the high school I would be attending the day I rolled my luggage onto the sleek floor of Seoul Incheon International Airport, my boarding pass in hand and dad at my side.
As the two of us shuffled our way through Customs and waltzed through metal detector after metal detector, I was almost happy that we seemed to be wildly off schedule, loving the adrenaline and anxiousness as I had to focus on finding the right portals, keeping my mind firmly off of the prospect of being sped across the ocean to an unknown land.
But as the time trickled away like sand in an hourglass, I soon found myself settling into a plush window seat in business class flight. I waited for my dad to take the seat next to me, and when he didn’t I sighed and got up.
“You can have the window seat if you want it that badly,” I said, squeezing my way into the narrow aisle. He shook his head.
“No, actually, it looks like I’ve got a seat a few rows back.” He said, frowning at his boarding pass suspiciously. I peeked over his shoulder.
“That’s alright. I can take care of myself.” I reassured him- although, considering this was my first time riding a plane, I wasn’t really sure I would appreciate the solitude. My dad eyed me like he could read my mind, but nodded.
“You’re right. Just remember, if your ears start hurting when we take off, just swallow- or chew gum.” He advised before padding off to his back-row seat.
As passengers ambled in and out of aisles, stowing away carry-ons and swapping seats with whoever was in sight, I wondered if I should tell my dad to come up and just take the seat next to me, which had yet to be taken. When a fresh-faced air-attendant strolled past me to check if my seat belt was secured a few minutes later, I figured that it would be safe to assume that the person next to me would be a no show.
As soon as I unfastened my seat belt and stood up, I realized I had spoken too soon. A young man wearing a beanie stood in the aisle beside me, getting ready to slip into the empty seat. I lowered myself back down awkwardly, giving him a shy smile and quickly turning my attention the unchanging scene beyond the round window.
Determined not to pay any attention to my plane mate, I kept my eyes glued to the window as the captain’s welcoming message crackled on the radio and the ground began to slip away beneath us. Slowly but surely, I realized what my dad had been talking about when he warned me that my “ears might start hurting.” As I cringed, partly because I felt completely deaf and partly because I could now see the place I called home quickly disappearing between the clouds, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. I turned, coming face to face with the stranger who sat next to me. His mouth opened and closed, but I could hear nothing above the dull roar of the plane’s engines and the blockade that seemed to have formed in my ears. Swallow, I reminded myself.
A few gulps later, I could hear him, although it was another challenge to decipher exactly what he was saying.“How do you do alright?” he uttered in heavily accented Korean.
“Yes, I’m okay. This is just my first time traveling on an airplane, is all,” I finally explained when I understood his question. He nodded, although I suspected it was one of those nods you give people when you don’t really understand what they are saying but want to pretend that you do. After a moment he said,
“Sorry, I uh, Korean speak little. I am Japanese.” I nodded, feeling a bit intimidated yet excited. Somehow, his chiseled features seemed somewhat familiar- as if he was another face I had seen on the street. I decided to try my hand at some basic Japanese, recalling a few phrases I had picked up from J-drama marathons.
“O shiriai desu ka?” I asked, hoping that it meant something along the lines of ‘do we know each other?’ the man seemed puzzled for a moment, and I was afraid I had said something weird, but his expression cleared after a moment.
“Japanese good! Where learn it?” he fired at me in Korean. I laughed, answering back in Japanese,“doramas.” Dramas. His eyes seemed to light up for a moment, but he seemed to decide against saying whatever had come to his mind.
“I introduce myself.” He said, quickly changing the subject. “Kanzaki Hiro. Nice to meet you.”
“Ahn Jae desu.” I reciprocated.
Caught in the midst of practicing elementary Japanese with my new-found friend, I had completely forgotten the fact that the journey away from home was remarkably painless, my mind distracted by Hiro’s oddball Korean phrases to realize that I should have been staring down at earth, wishing with all my might that I didn’t have to leave, etching those memories in my heart and willing them to stay there. Maybe then, I would have been able to come back to those memories when I needed them most.