The hagwon director was the most successful woman we knew at the time… Her short hair was perfectly coiffed, her full lips painted red like a Western woman’s.
By Kim Sehee
Translated from the Korean by Paige Aniyah Morris
Set against the nostalgic backdrop of Mokpo, South Korea, in the early 2000s, Love at the Harbor is about the young women coming of age there, the K-pop idols they adored, the fanfiction they read and wrote in secret, and the powerful first loves they experienced with other girls. The novel follows Junhee and her attempts to reconcile her present identity with memories of her youth and her powerful, queer first love.
In this excerpt, drawn from the middle of the novel, a typhoon sweeps through Mokpo the summer Junhee and her best friend are taking classes at a language hagwon. In the present, Junhee recalls the many threads of speculation that had surrounded the hagwon’s director, an apparently confident, glamorous, and successful woman. Her memories evoke questions about gender, love, and ambition in Korean society.
— Paige Aniyah Morris
Gyuin and I enrolled in a language hagwon over the summer. There was a test prep class that met for three hours on Saturdays and covered every English grammar point that would be on the college entrance exam. The class went for 90 minutes, took a 10-minute break, then resumed for another hour and a half. I remember fighting back the drowsiness that always hit me in the half hour before the break. During the brief recess, Gyuin would drag me from where I was trying to nap out to the lounge area by the information desk. I would splay out on the long bench there and drink the coffee Gyuin made for me with two packets of instant mix.
One day in August, the weather forecast warned of an impending typhoon. A huge storm had originated in the tropics and was approaching Jeju, the island to our south. If it rained in Jeju, rain would follow in Mokpo within a few hours. When I opened my eyes on Saturday morning, I heard the piercing winds outside. Rain sprayed the windows as if being shot from a hose. The whistling wind, constantly shifting directions, would hush for a moment before another surge of rain hit. I’d always been a highly emotional person, but after I started liking Minseon, even the weather had begun to feel meaningful. The conditions outside seemed closely tied to my present situation, and I took the weather as a fateful sign that some new development would emerge between us. Back then, it felt like she was always watching me. I might run into her at any moment—at school, of course, but also on the street or at the store.
The language hagwon was a half-hour bus ride away. It was almost the last stop on that line. That day, the bus inched its way up the boulevard. Rain pelted the windshield and windows to the point where I couldn’t see outside at all. It was like we’d driven into a car wash. The rain beat down, unrelenting. Whether because of a traffic light or the wind, we had stopped for a moment at the entrance to Hadang. It was as though the bus stood in the middle of a vast, desolate wilderness that was being pummeled by rain.
The force of the typhoon was beyond anything I could have imagined. The whistling picked up again without warning, the wind rocking the entire bus. For a moment, I thought it would topple over. Then came the sigh of compressed air as the back door opened. People stalled for a minute before deciding to get off.
“An umbrella’s useless on a day like this,” someone said.
I tucked my bag under my arm and ran up onto the sidewalk. Right away, the wind knocked me back. The gusts were sweeping snapped-off branches into the road. Remnants of a flowerpot that had broken in half were scattered all over the sidewalk. There were people running and shouting everywhere. I tucked my chin into my chest and moved forward, head bowed. My hair and face were soaked from the rain, and my thighs stung.
“Did you walk here?”
The hagwon director’s husband came out from behind the information desk, looking startled. He went back behind the desk and found a towel for me.
“With the weather like this, the director’s worried a lot of students will be absent,” he said.
He drove the hagwon bus for the younger students and replaced the jugs of water on the water coolers. He restocked the instant coffee mixes and green tea bags. After I heard the rumors about him and the hagwon director, I started watching him more carefully. He gave off the vibe of a basketball player. Clean-cut, thick eyebrows, large hands. A strong but softhearted man who didn’t know how to do anything but play sports. He often wore athletic tees with short sleeves and bright orange necklines and trims. The rumor was that when he started seeing some other woman, the hagwon director slit her wrists. Gyuin had heard about it at church. Her mother was close with a woman in the choir who had taught Gyuin to play the piano when she was little. The choir lady and the hagwon director had both studied English literature at Jeonnam University and been in the same graduating class.
Gyuin told me every detail the choir lady had told her.
She put on a total show.
You mean she wasn’t actually trying to kill herself? Gyuin had asked.
No way. She put on a show to hold onto him. You think it’s that easy to die from a little cut on the wrist?
Gyuin must have looked like she had doubts about the story’s credibility, because the church choir lady insisted the incident was infamous among their university cohort. “She planned the whole scenario. Ever since we were in school, she’s been like that—a conniving bitch.”
Her man had come running to the hospital to see her. He had a change of heart and swore he’d never leave her again. Every Sunday, when Gyuin saw the choir lady garbed in white, singing with her mouth open in a reverent O, she thought of our hagwon director wearing a patient gown as she lay on a hospital bed with the room dividers drawn.
Gyuin liked the director’s husband. She liked the director, too. She suspected the choir lady, an English tutor for friends of friends, was jealous of the director, who owned the largest language hagwon in Mokpo. Gyuin admired strong and capable women. She was already one in the making. I believed, in the future, she would be the most powerful woman in the world. She was the girl who’d stood before our terrifying P.E. teacher in our first year and given him a piece of her mind. The hagwon director was the most successful woman we knew at the time. She teemed with confidence and poise. Her short hair was perfectly coiffed, her full lips painted red like a Western woman’s. She always wore a blazer and skirt with pencil-thin heels. Gyuin figured she must have bought her clothes in Gwangju.
“Isn’t she so cool?”
“She is,” I said. “But she’s kind of scary.”
“Nah, I’m sure she’s different with her hubby.”
The director’s face was on the sides of the local buses with advertisements for her language hagwon. The school even had a native English-speaking teacher—an Australian guy with a stomach so big he looked as if he’d get stuck between the walls as he walked down the hallways. He’d worked as a copywriter in his home country, and he said he was writing a play now, but no one believed him. Had he not known about Seoul, or at least Gwangju? How had he ended up in our little town? Once, Jeffrey told us he’d lived in England for a year or two in his twenties. When Gyuin mentioned that she wanted to live there one day, he just gave a sad shake of his head and said, “Bad weather. Bad weather.”
Right on time, the director opened the door and stepped inside the lecture hall. With all the windows closed, the noise from the wind vanished, and we could hear just the faint sound of cars speeding along the wet road. The director glanced briefly at the whiteboard her husband had cleaned, then turned to look around the room. There were many empty seats, but she didn’t comment on them. She picked up her marker and began the class as usual. She was the type to cover the whiteboard with notes, erase them, then fill the board up again. She walked backwards across the raised platform, scrawling lists of word families on the board with one hand, until she came to the edge. If she took another step back, she’d fall. She liked wearing her slingbacks as slippers, the heel straps under her feet. My eyes were always drawn to her shoes, which looked like they were barely hanging onto her toes. Sometimes, her impossibly thin heels would hang over the edge of the platform, and I wouldn’t be able to focus on the lesson because I was so scared her next step would send her backward onto nothing, and she’d fall through the air. But she always took a step forward from that spot in the end, beaming. Like this was a performance she’d rehearsed and put on several hundred times before.
Was she happy? In my sleep-addled state, this thought came hazily to mind. She’d gotten the man she wanted—she had to have been happy then. But now? Was she happy still? Her husband refilled the water coolers, roaming obediently within her line of sight like cattle. At least, it seemed that way to us. This was what she had to show for her once-in-a-lifetime act of insanity: a docile man one might mistake for livestock. A man who drove the kids home, who cleaned the board for her when her class was done for the day.
Excerpts from 항구의 사랑(LOVE AT THE HARBOR) by 김세희(Kim Sehee),
copyright © Kim Sehee 2019. All rights reserved. First published in Korea by Minumsa Publishing Co., Ltd. Used by permission of Kim Sehee c/o Minumsa Publishing Co., Ltd. English translation © Paige Aniyah Morris 2020.