The regular patrons were present: mostly old Cheongsando locals, their skin darkened by hard labor under the heat of the sun. Hyerin recognized almost all of them as she sang in the makeshift stage at Mama Choonhee’s restaurant.
Soft music piped in from the old speakers, so different from the upbeat tunes Hyerin was forced to sing when she was younger. Her mother had always said that her voice was much more suited to ballads.
The patrons were swaying and clapping along while having their lunch--mostly variations of yukgaejang, the spicy beef soup that brought Hyerin to this restaurant in the first place.
She finished to the usual applause. Dasom, Choonhee’s daughter and the love of Hyerin’s life, stopped mopping the kitchen to applaud, even as she’s heard Hyerin sing dozens of times before. Hyerin beamed.
“You’re like one of them K-Pop idols! On TV!” one old man cheered.
Hyerin and Dasom shared a knowing look. She thanked the man and the rest of the audience and stepped off her little stage.
Choonhee came in, carrying a basket full of vegetables in one hand and a small white envelope in the other. Hyerin rushed to help her.
“I can handle it,” Choonhee chided as she handed over the basket. Hyerin just grinned at her and began putting away the produce.
“This came for you, too,” Choonhee said, handing over the envelope. Hyerin took it, confused. She never got letters; almost no one knew where she lived. Was it from her mother back in Seoul? They usually just kept in touch through phone calls.
Miss Yoon Hyerin:
I am Kim Sanghoon, a representative from the Korean Broadcasting System. I invite you to join our newest show, “Second Chances,” a reality competition for former K-Pop idols. The winners would get to debut as a new group under a brand-new company.
We believe you have great potential. We have watched you closely since you were a member of the group Hello Sunshine, when you performed under the name Hana. We believe the industry still has a lot to offer you. Should you be interested, please proceed to ETV Towers in Yeoeuido on June 18th, at 9 AM sharp.
Hyerin read it again, hardly believing the words. Hana. She hadn’t been called that name in years.
Dasom appeared, bringing with her the familiar scent of jasmine. She leaned over Hyerin’s shoulder to read.
“Hyerin, this is amazing!” Dasom exclaimed. “You have a chance to achieve your dreams again!”
Hyerin nodded, still dumbstruck. Here it was: a second chance. She was surprised she was even approached to join, considering the scandal that forced Hello Sunshine to disband in the first place.
“Mom, look,” Dasom said excitedly, gesturing for Choonhee to come over. “Hyerin’s been invited to join a new show. She can be a K-Pop star again!”
A K-Pop star. When Hyerin was only 15, she had trained to become just that. Singing was her life, her one true joy since she was very young. It was all she wanted to do.
Being an idol wasn’t easy, but she did enjoy some of it. She loved her members: Yuju, Chaewon, and Nayoung most of all. She loved it when fans told her how much their music meant to them. Most of all, she loved performing. Even though Hello Sunshine’s bubbly pop music wasn’t what she really wanted to sing, it was still a joy to sing for crowds of thousands. She loved belting and hearing the crowds go wild. She loved harmonizing with the other members and creating music that was, in some ways, truly beautiful.
Mostly, though, she hated it. She hated that most of the fans were men twice her age, hated how their deep voices overpowered everything whenever they cheered for Hello Sunshine onstage. She hated the online forums that scrutinized everything they did. She hated how rigorous the training was: ten hours everyday. She hated having to learn how to rap and dance when all she wanted was to sing. She hated the pressure to stay thin. A year after debut, when Hyerin was 18, she noticed how much they had shrunk. They were stick-thin.
Most of all, she hated how it never, ever ended. K-Pop idols had no days off. Even during their so-called “vacations,” they were constantly filmed and recorded: Look at the girls of Hello Sunshine having fun at the beach! Look at them building sandcastles! Look at them in their cute little bikinis!
It was exhausting. Hyerin was gone. Instead, she became Hana: someone who smiled all the time even when her male fans told her to dress sexier. Hyerin found herself deeper and deeper into this hole, and just when she thought she would never be able to get out, the scandal happened.
In some ways, she was actually thankful for the scandal. At least it finally put an end to it all.
A candid photo of Nayoung kissing Hyerin’s cheek went viral. They were wearing sunglasses, but people still knew who they were.
Nayoung was Hello Sunshine’s main dancer and rapper. Hyerin still remembered how she marveled at Nayoung’s dancing, how she moved in ways Hyerin never could.
When they got together, they tried hard to keep it secret. The other two members knew but stayed silent. Back then, Hyerin’s relationship with Nayoung was one of the few things that actually kept her going.
Reactions to the photo were either: A) disgust, or B) perverted enjoyment.
They both got hundreds of messages, either condemning them or asking them to post a picture of them kissing. It was the absolute worst time of her life. She was either getting death threats from conservative fans or getting constantly fetishized by creepy older men.
The backlash was unbelievable. They couldn’t go anywhere without people calling them slurs. At some point, someone started vandalizing Hello Sunshine’s posters all over the city, scratching out their faces. Disbandment became inevitable. Hyerin was 19.
Hello Sunshine pretty much got blacklisted from the industry. The whole ordeal drove them apart. Hyerin hadn’t seen them since.
She moved back in with her mother, worked at a coffee shop, and tried to maintain a low profile. Occasionally, someone would walk into her workplace, recognize who she was, and begin calling her names. Her manager had to step in multiple times. It was a miracle Hyerin wasn’t fired even after the tenth such incident. She had a feeling the manager felt sorry for her. Well. Hyerin did, too.
Just when she was starting to accept that this would be her life forever, she found an article online. It was about Cheongsando, an island off the south coast of Korea. Every year, tourists and locals would gather to parade through the sprawling canola fields, walking as slow as possible to really savor their surroundings. Hyerin stared, mesmerized at the never-ending fields. The canola flowers were bright as suns. She stared at pictures of rice paddies, of the indigo-blue ocean.
I’ve completely fallen in love with the place, one tourist said in an interview. Being here has made me feel so at peace. Maybe I’ll even move one day!
Hyerin was transfixed, imagining the peaceful life she so craved. Maybe I will, too.
It didn’t take much to convince Hyerin’s mother to let her go. She’d been watching Hyerin spiral further and further into a depression for the past two years.
“Maybe this will do you some good.” Her mother’s smile was sad when they hugged goodbye.
When Hyerin arrived in Cheongsando with her luggage as her only companion, she started to second-guess her impulsiveness. She had enough savings to last for a few years, but she would eventually need a job. Still, she was here now, and the first thing she needed to take care of was, well, lunch.
There was a yukgaejang restaurant nearby. Yukgaejang was her favorite, something she’d been deprived of during her life as Hana. There she met Choonhee, who took her in and offered her a room and a job after learning that she was moving to Cheongsando. She also met Dasom, who served her. Dasom was excited to meet someone who was so close to her age. According to her, most of the tourism they got came in the form of seniors. Dasom was friendly and warm, and Hyerin found herself staring at her, full-bodied and sun-tanned. Everything in Cheongsando was mesmerizing--Dasom most of all.
Hyerin began to work at the restaurant, mopping up floors and washing dishes. At night, she slept in Choonhee’s husband’s old room, blanketing herself against the chill. There was a silence here, a stillness that could never be found in the city. It was like the whole world had gone quiet, save for the cries of insects and the occasional flap of wings.
When she told Dasom and Choonhee about her past, they were calmer than she expected. It gave Hyerin a thrill when she fully realized her anonymity. No one in Cheongsando had even heard of Hello Sunshine, nor of the scandal.
“You really don’t know who I am?” Hyerin asked them.
“Are we supposed to?” Choonhee said, confused.
Dasom shrugged. “You’re Hyerin.”
Soon after, Hyerin began to sing for the customers, mostly old songs as requested. The applause she got was nothing compared to the roaring scream of crowds before, but as long as she was singing, she was happy.
Now, though, there was a chance to bring all that back.
Dasom nudged her. “Aren’t you happy?”
“I’m not sure about this,” Hyerin said, still staring at the letter.
“But it’s your dream, isn’t it? And you’re definitely way too talented for this place.”
“Maybe my idol journey ended for a reason. Maybe I’m just meant to be here, with you and Choonhee. I like my life here,” said Hyerin.
Dasom’s eyes softened. She gripped Hyerin’s hand. “Just try. If it doesn’t work out, then Mom and I will be here, waiting for you.”
Afterwards, Hyerin walked along the well-worn paths through the canola fields. They were in full bloom, almost too yellow to comprehend. The air felt crisp and cool, and there was the familiar sound of the gentle waves. Could she really leave all of this behind?
Her phone dinged. The Hello Sunshine group chat was active for the first time in years. From the flurry of excited messages, she surmised that the other members had gotten letters, too.
Hyerin missed them. After the whole scandal, none of them really got to talk to each other. It had all been such a blur. She knew she needed to finally talk to them.
Hyerin: When are you all free?
That night, Hyerin sat in bed waiting for Dasom. Nowadays they lived like an old married couple, in every sense except, well, legally. After a few years of working and living together, it had felt only natural when they confessed their love. Well, not in so many words. Dasom had Hyerin’s favorite cup of tea ready every morning. She knew just how Hyerin liked her yukgaejang: extra spicy. Every time Dasom went into town, she always came back with a basket full of Hyerin’s favorite treats even without her asking. All these gestures spoke of love more than words ever could.
“What are you looking so serious for?” Dasom teased. Her face was freshly washed. Hyerin looked at her. What a miracle that Hyerin even met her. What a miracle that she was even here.
“Nothing,” Hyerin smiled. Dasom came over and kissed her, and Hyerin’s problems melted away. She still wasn’t used to this, to Dasom’s mouth warm as summer, opening up like a flower against her own--this simple but profound joy. Their bodies fit together like cupped palms. Hyerin breathed in her jasmine scent. She loved her, all of her. She adored the soft curve of her belly, the slope of her shoulders, the fullness of her cheek. Hyerin conveyed her love in the only way she knew how, her kisses falling over Dasom’s body like stars.
Was she willing to give this up, too?
The last time Hyerin was in Seoul, she was 21. In the six years since, the buildings seemed to grow even taller, their edges sharper. She was no longer used to crowds, and the hustle and bustle of the city made her feel almost claustrophobic. She walked over to the familiar awning next to their old building, now occupied by a different company. Inside sat Chaewon and Yuju, talking animatedly. They had stylish haircuts and classy clothes, their faces all dolled up.
“Hyerin!” Yuju stood up to give her a hug. She could feel Yuju’s spine even through the layers of clothing.
“I almost didn’t recognize you,” said Chaewon. How could she, Hyerin thought. She felt so different from her idol days, and she was sure it showed in her appearance. Her body was far from stick-thin, and she wore only simple clothes and a bare face.
“How are you guys?” she asked as she sat down between them in the circular table.
“We were talking about Second Chances,” said Yuju. “It’s so exciting. I heard the boys from TnT got invited, too.”
“Finally,” Chaewon huffed. “I haven’t had consistent work in years.”
“What have you been up to?” Hyerin asked.
“Yuju and I mostly appear in commercials and indie films now,” Chaewon said. “It doesn’t pay that well, but what can you do?”
“And Nayoung?” Hyerin asked.
“She ghostwrites songs for groups and soloists,” said Yuju. “Oh, and there she is now!”
They all turn to see Nayoung walking towards them, waving. She wore a baseball cap and oversized clothes. Her style hadn’t changed one bit.
They all stood up to hug. Hyerin felt nervous, but Nayoung simply held her tight and said, “I’ve missed you, Hyerinnie.”
They ordered lunch. Hyerin had forgotten how expensive food was in Seoul, though when their orders arrived, it seemed like she was the only one who actually ordered a full meal.
“Oh, did you guys eat already?” Hyerin asked, looking at their tiny portions. Yuju had only a glass of water.
“No,” said Yuju. “But I’ve started dieting again as soon as I got that letter. You know what being on TV is like. People are brutal.”
“You mean dieting even more,” Chaewon chided.
“My body’s used to it,” Yuju said, shrugging.
The conversation made Hyerin feel uncomfortable. It felt strange to be the only one actually eating a full meal. She had almost forgotten about that, too--the intense dieting.
“I wanted to apologize in person,” Hyerin began, picking at her kimchi. “We didn’t get a chance to talk back then.”
“Hyerinnie, it’s not your fault nor mine,” Nayeon said. “It took me a long time to accept that, but it’s this industry’s fault, really. They shouldn’t have done that to us. No one deserved to go through that. We were so young.”
Yuju nodded. “You know how toxic this industry is.”
Hyerin did know. Was she willing to go through that all over again?
“But of course, we still want to be part of it,” Chaewon laughed bitterly. “You know, I had to break up with my boyfriend last week, because obviously I can’t go into this show in a relationship.”
“You did the right thing,” Yuju said. Hyerin stared at them. She had lost her appetite.
“A shame, though,” Chaewon said, smiling sadly. “I had a feeling he was about to propose.”
Hyerin understood them--she had been the exact same way before. But now she was starting to question if her “dreams” were worth all of this sacrifice.
“I’m not going to join the show,” she announced. It was a tough decision, but after coming here and being confronted with everything she would have to give up just for a second shot at fame, she knew it was the right choice.
They were silent.
“What?” asked Chaewon.
“It’s because Hyerinnie’s a secret billionaire. She doesn’t even need Second Chances,” Nayoung joked.
“I don’t even own a television,” Hyerin laughed. “No, I just don’t think I can survive this industry anymore.”
“That’s fair,” Yuju said quietly.
After they all hugged goodbye, Nayoung insisted on walking Hyerin to the bus station.
“Where do you even live now?” Nayoung asked.
“Far away,” Hyerin replied.
Nayoung looked at her. Once upon a time, she had been a huge part of Hyerin’s life. But things were different now.
Would Hana be proud of Hyerin’s decision? Well, maybe there was a reason why Hyerin was the only one who had a stage name in the first place. Hana was long gone, but Yuju, Chaewon, and Nayoung were still here.
Nayoung nodded with a small smile. “Take care of yourself, alright?”
“You, too,” said Hyerin, smiling back. “And good luck on that audition. I’ll buy a television so I can watch.”
“Weirdo,” Nayoung laughed, waving goodbye.
Back in Cheongsando, Hyerin immediately breathed easier. She knew she no longer belonged in Seoul, to that life. Inside the restaurant, Dasom greeted her with a hug. A piping hot bowl of yukgaejang was waiting for her, extra spicy just the way she liked it. The rich aroma made her feel instantly at home. She took a sip and knew she made the right choice.
“How was it?” Dasom asked, sitting across from her.
“I’m not going,” Hyerin said.
“Why not?” Dasom asked, concerned. “What about your dreams?”
Hyerin looked around at the small restaurant, where the familiar customers sat. In a while, she would be asked to sing one of their favorite songs, then she would be greeted by their genuine applause. In front of her, Dasom looked concerned but also relieved. A hot bowl of her favorite meal and the soft smile of her lover--perhaps this was all she needed. She reached for Dasom’s hand. Maybe she would never get to sing for crowds of thousands again, but at least she gets to have this.
She shrugged. "Dreams change."