airplane symbolThe young woman appears before me, her movements elegant and precise like an exotic bird flitting nervously from branch to branch. She presses a folded piece of paper into the palm of my hand, and with a desperate whisper implores me in familiar Korean, “This is for you, Oppa. Please do the right thing.” And just like that she flies into a thicket of squealing young Japanese girls and boys clustered around the security barricades for departing First Class passengers in the vast Departures Hall of Narita’s Terminal One.

I stand there, wheelie bag at my side, confused, annoyed.

The impertinence of this distraught young woman approaching me – a significantly older man obviously in a hurry. I don’t like to meet strangers in airports because it’s so . . . random. I don’t like surprises, and airports are full of them. I have habits, my routines, my schedule, and I find comfort in their predictability. Every Monday I fly to Tokyo, and every Friday I fly home to Seoul. Tonight I am looking forward to sharing my eldest sister’s duck stew with her husband and two daughters. Then tomorrow the theater with my younger sister, a visit with my father on Sunday, and then back here on Monday. I have a plane to catch.

Yet here I stand.

Now a young man approaches and addresses me in formal Korean: “Uncle, what did she say to you? Did she give you anything?” I blink at the man with his hat and sunglasses, no older than the woman, but carrying himself with the jauntiness of a predator. His clothes are baggy and colorful – the latest trend, I suppose. Who is he?

“She called me Oppa,” I say guardedly, still disbelieving it myself. “As though I were her age. I should be flattered, but . . .”

“Yes sir, she’s a friendly girl, and very popular here in Japan. Last night she and her group sold out the Budokan – that’s quite a feat.” He leans in closer and bends down to whisper in my ear. “Tell me, uncle, did she give you something? If she gave you anything by mistake you know I have to ask for it back.”

I recall the desperation in her voice, those watery eyes, and her plea that I do the right thing. Before I realize it, my hand moves to grab my suitcase handle, palming the note, concealing it from this stranger. “No,” I say, surprised at the lie. “She mistook me for someone else. A very polite young lady. Does she work for you?”

He straightens up and beams. “I manage her group for KPL Entertainment. It’s my job to make sure that our pop stars don’t do anything inappropriate.” He leans in again. “She didn’t do anything inappropriate, did she?”

“How did she know I was Korean?”

“You look very Korean, sir,” he says, making me frown. “And that’s a good thing!” he adds, cheerfully.

I straighten my tie, keenly aware that I represent my company and my country. “Is it my glasses, my hair?”

“Your suit is not in the Japanese style. They’re wearing their lapels . . . differently this year, sir. And your shoes . . .” Now I can tell he’s getting flustered. “Well, okay then . . . Oppa.” He smiles. “You have a safe flight now, and be sure to tell your children who you met.”

As he leaves me to accompany his charges through security, I remember the note in my hand and quickly hide it in my pocket so I can read it later in private. I start again towards the airline check-in counter, but am interrupted this time by a few teenagers who signal that they would like to have their photo taken with me, as if I were some sort of celebrity instead of a middle-aged salary man. As the cameras start to click I think I remember to smile.

I wish I knew her name.

At the Korean Air priority counter I’m still rattled.

“Sir?”

I look up at the petite agent in her powder blue suit and hat, cheerfully pointing to my passport and boarding pass on the counter between us. “Your bag is checked to Seoul. Can I assist you with anything else?”

I set my hand on the ticket and passport and pause. I wonder if I shouldn’t just wait to ask my niece later tonight, but I’m too curious. “I just saw one of those Korean girl groups. Over there. Do you know who they are?”

The agent jumps off her stool to tug at my bag, stuck on the conveyor belt. “Flower Power, sir,” she calls back at me. “I just checked them in,” stressing the word ‘in’ as the bag jerks free and she stutter-steps to keep herself from falling.

“I met one of them. She looked miserable,” I say.

“Miserable? Pah! They’re pop idols, flying to China – first class, no less,” she says, readjusting her hat as she re-takes her seat. “You must have children. At that age they’re all miserable.”

I stiffen and pull back, almost knocking into the passenger behind me. “No children. I never married.” I’m uneasy, aware now of the other passengers waiting for me to move on.

“Oh, I am sorry, sir. Can I assist you with anything else?”

I thank the agent, pocket my boarding pass and passport, and run to the security line. At passport control when I retrieve my documents the folded note flutters out of my pocket. It slides across the floor, and I have to step out of the queue to retrieve it. It has come unfolded and as I pick it up I can’t help but notice the large swooping swirls of girlish handwriting, all in pink ink on hotel letterhead. I feel the lurid thrill of clandestine discovery as I read:

Dear Fan –

Please do the right thing and pass the following message to my fans.

Dear Flower Power Fans –

Yes, it is true that I have started to date Leo Hwang of the boy’s band Symphony, and we have met on three occasions, as you have probably learned on Twitter. This is permissible by KPL management, without whom I would have no career, and for whose guidance I am eternally grateful. 

My mistake is to allow the relationship to become public before we could properly prepare you for the possibility that I would spend some of my time with Leo. I am sorry to let this happen without regard to you, without whom I would be nothing. I am excited and humbled at the prospect of a serious relationship with a man – I am only 22 – and I want you, my fans, to understand that my relationship with Leo Hwang in no way changes the way I feel about you, nor will it take away from the time and energy I devote to you and to my sisters in Flower Power. All of them support me and they wish the deepest happiness for me and for Leo.

 I love you all, my dear fans, and I pledge to you that I will now work harder than ever to deserve your love and support.

Yours always,

Park Sunhee

Flower Power

I am flummoxed. I read it again, and a third time, and yet I do not understand why it was written, or why it was given to me. A modern entertainer has many ways to reach her fans. Why did Miss Park not tweet, or blog, or Instagram this to a thousand, a million people? Why would she give this to me?

And where am I?

I should be in my lounge now, relaxing, instead of standing in front of this magazine shop in a concourse far from my gate. I must have been wandering all over searching for Miss Park or her manager so I could return this bothersome note. I feel lightheaded and brace myself on one of the magazine racks. Everywhere across the display I notice the young Korean entertainers. All young, slender, smiling – as indistinguishable as origami swans. I suppose young people need role models, but how could anyone hope to emulate these super-humans, molded to perfection?

And Sunhee Park: she doesn’t quite look Korean. Her eyes have no folds, her skin is too light, and her nose, chin, and ears were probably the result of surgery. And I don’t even want to think about what she had scraped and added to other parts of her body to get that elusive S-curve they all desire.

I spot a fan magazine featuring Flower Power, and make sure no one is looking at me as I pick it up, glancing at my watch as I do. I blink. No, it can’t be that late. In a panic I start running towards my gate. What a picture I must be with my jacket flapping all around. I can feel the collar of my shirt stick to my neck, and my knee starts to twinge. I’m not twenty-two any more, that much I know.

What was I doing at her age? Hoping to meet someone who looked like Sunhee, of course. Hah! I mean, we all did. My friends (all male) and I spent a lot of time together discussing the women we hoped someday to meet. And, of course, we were all too shy and inexperienced to ever hope to meet anyone, anyone at all. Sunhee’s life at twenty-two is very different than mine was: hers a continuous stream of concerts, photo shoots, interviews, interesting travel, and adoring fans. I suppose I envy her.

I’ll bet she never needs to run for a flight.

I arrive at the gate too late: I see my plane pushing back from the jetway, and the next flight already displayed on the monitors above the empty agent desk. Catching my breath I bend over, my hands on my knees, when I realize that I’m still clutching the fan magazine. Oh, no. I quickly hide it in my briefcase.

So now I’m a thief, too, and all because of that stupid note!

I slink back the few gates toward my lounge, where another woman in a powder blue hat helps me arrange a flight home. I feel ashamed, somehow no longer worthy of making my flight, of holding my job, or of ever finding someone to love. Life is a tightrope, isn’t it? Stop and look down just once, and there goes your balance and down you fall. Hard.

I pour myself a whiskey from the bar and sink into a leather chair, the chair and I both exhaling a long slow sigh. I stare at the chunks of ice as they swirl round and round in my glass. Absently I take Sunhee’s note from my pocket again and turn it over in my hand. The stilted language, the melodramatic gestures. It’s all so fake. What if it’s just a publicity stunt? And what if her wily manager is in on it – wasn’t he a little too eager? And why else would Sunhee approach me? I have no business in their world. She’s half my age – why, I’d be made a laughingstock from pole to pole. Oppa indeed.

I resolve to do nothing.

I remember when I was a child and once found a baby bird lying on the stones in our garden. I could see the nest from where it had fallen, and it was obviously in pain. Oh, how it touched my heart – I had to help it. I found a small box, and inside I put some straw and grass. I carefully lifted the injured chick into the box. One of its legs dangled from my splayed fingers, and I could see its guts spilling out. I ran inside to look for my mother or father to ask them what to do, but no one was home. So I wetted a towel with some milk and held it to the chick’s beak, and it tried to peck at the towel as I squeezed a little milk into its gullet. I didn’t know what else to do. It cheeped for hours, and it made me sick to think that I could not ease its pain.

I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember, my parents were home, the box was gone, and my mother told me that the bird had died. I asked her why the bird died, and I will never forget her reply. “Tragedy will someday come to us all. Be thankful for the beautiful moments in your life. And this is a beautiful moment.”

I remember that strange statement because at the time I couldn’t think of anything less beautiful than that poor mangled baby bird. But thinking about it now, I realize that the beautiful moment she was talking about was not mine; it was hers.

Knowing her six-year-old son had cared for an injured bird.

Later, on the plane after we level off, I open my laptop and connect. At once an instant message window pops open. It is my eldest niece, Hana.

“Greetings to my famous Uncle! Are you on your plane?”

“Hello, darling Hana. I am sorry I missed our dinner tonight. Your mother makes the best oritang.”

“It was delicious, famous Uncle.”

“What is this ‘famous Uncle’ nonsense?”

“Your picture is all over the Flower Power fan-site, Uncle. You and Sunhee Park at the airport.”

Photos of me all over the Internet. Now I know I’ve made the right decision. “Oh really?”

“What did she give you? Everyone’s dying to know.”

“How did they know it was me?”

“Only I know for now. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it was you.”

I squirm in my seat. I feel exposed, and slightly queasy discussing with my niece an encounter with a stranger who’s almost her age. It feels somehow obscene.

“She gave you something, didn’t she, Uncle? Everyone thinks it was a note.”

“Really?”

“Uncle! Please tell me.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, no. It’s more serious than I thought, dear Uncle. Was it a love note? Are you running off with Sunhee? :-)”

Now I’m getting a headache. I try to flag down a flight attendant for an aspirin, or, no, better yet, make that a whiskey. Thank you, miss.

“Is she with you now? Are you flying to Shanghai together? Be sure to say ‘hi’ from me.”

“Ha, ha, very funny, Hana. Stop it, please. She must have her own boyfriend.”

“That’s all anyone is talking about, Uncle. Poor Sunhee! She’s been a mess ever since this Leo thing.”

“What Leo thing?”

“Many of her fans think that Sunhee has abandoned them for her new boyfriend, Leo. They’re very upset.”

“What about you, Hana? Are you upset, too?”

It takes Hana a while to respond to this question. I imagine her upstairs in my sister’s house, surrounded by the totems of her girlhood, poised over her laptop, maybe even asking a friend or two for their advice. I wonder how deeply she identifies with the crises of her idols. Finally her reply:

“No. I think she should be allowed to live her own life.”

“I agree, Hana.” After a few minutes of no reply I decide to type, “What would you do if Sunhee asked you to do something for her?”

“I’d faint.” And after that Hana types, “But I would do it.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes, Uncle. Just like that.”

During the in-flight dinner I remember the magazine in my briefcase, and carefully hide it inside one of my trade journals before taking it out to read. There she is: there’s my Sunhee.

I catch myself. When did she become my Sunhee? Well, never, that’s when. Ha! An early twenty-something with a late-forty-something? It’s indecent to even think about. She likes puppy dogs and lollypops, no doubt, and I’m as old as her father! Still, she called me Oppa, and not Uncle, or Grandpa. Maybe that counts for something.

I read that every aspect of the Flower Power members’ lives is controlled: where they live (all together in a dorm), how often they rehearse, what they eat, when they eat, when they sleep, when they wake, and, I suppose, who they are allowed to date. It dawns on me that Sunhee’s interaction with her fans must be controlled just like everything else. She is probably not even the author of her own online life. I let this sad idea roll around in my head for a while as I finish my whiskey.

Perhaps Sunhee’s note represents a small rebellion against her management, a tiny ripple that would be redoubled through the strength of her fans. This appeals to me, a middle-aged salary man, fully aware of my own rigid duties and obligations, my own ties to my employer and to my family. What does my sister call me – a hopeless bachelor? What does that mean – a feckless failure? I realize now that this note represents more than just a request. It’s a challenge. A challenge to me, delivered personally, and if I choose to ignore this opportunity, why, maybe I do deserve to be called hopeless. After all, when was the last time I stood up and dared to let the world hear my voice?

I cannot remember.

I set aside my food tray and open my laptop. Fortified with whiskey I decide to step out of the shadows and stride boldly into the bright light of Sunhee’s celebrity. I type up her entire message, prefacing it with an introduction of myself as the man who had received her note at the airport. I figure out how to post it on Flower Power’s fan-site. A quick spellcheck and then I take a deep breath.

Enter.

I count the seconds with the throbs in my temple.

And then, a bite. Within a few seconds I see a comment, another entry, and another, and I watch in amazement as the tweets, postings and repostings grow and spread. I discover entire continents of followers eagerly digesting and re-digesting the news. I can barely keep up. Every word, every phrase, everything said and unsaid in the note seems over-ripe with meaning, and theories fly all over the world in real time as her fans try to understand what that simple note implies about their collective lives.

I follow, fascinated, until the crew calls for laptops shut as we approach Seoul. I settle back into my seat exhausted, exhilarated. I did it. I accepted the challenge and I met it. I realize that I feel as young as Sunhee told me I was. I expect I will be congratulated. I expect to meet new people, and perhaps cultivate a new circle of friends through my noble action. I expect fame.

As the welcoming lights of my hometown come into view I see reflected in the window my own face, smiling.

I did become famous in the fans’ little universe for a day or two, and although no one made fun of me, nor did anyone reach out to me. Then, just as quickly, the collective community moved on to the next crisis and forgot that I had ever existed. I had hoped that at the very least I would hear from Sunhee (not a thank you, just a nod), or from her management, but no word ever came. Perhaps it was the embarrassment, the momentary lapse in KPL’s carefully constructed reality that held them back, and over time the matter must have become less and less important.

A week after the event I finally make it over to my sister’s to eat dinner with her family. I am not surprised that it is my sister who brings up my brush with fame, even as she greets me at the door.

“Ah, look at you – if it isn’t the oldest Flower Power fanboy in Korea!”

I can’t help but grin as I hand her the bag of gifts I brought back from Tokyo. “And greetings to you, my much, much older sister.”

She shouts upstairs, “Hana, come see what your Uncle Fanboy brought us from Japan – I think he bought himself a sense of humor!” She decides it would be a good time to hug me. I love my sister: she kids me mercilessly, but always seems to pull back just before I get upset. Maybe it was already on my face.

Hana lopes down the stairs, shouting, “My famous Uncle!”

Before she reaches me I say, “Dearest Hana, I have a special gift for you.” Out of my jacket pocket I produce Sunhee’s note. “This is how she gave it to me,” I say as I press the folded paper into her hands. “‘This is for you,’ she said. ‘Do the right thing.’”

Hana’s eyes grow wide as she realizes what I have given her. She hugs me tightly, twisting me back and forth. “Oh, thank you, thank you, dearest Uncle. I will treasure this forever!”

“I’m glad it makes you happy, eldest niece. Now where is your sister? I have something for her, too.”

Still hugging me, she continues, “Oh, Uncle, I am so proud of you for what you did for Sunhee. It was epic!”

My sister rolls her eyes, and dramatically mouths the word “fanboy” to me over the back of her daughter’s head, bobbing her arms and shoulders in a mocking dance as she heads back toward the kitchen.

Hana lets me go and unfolds the note. She buries her face in it and inhales deeply before studying the handwriting and tracing it with her finger. I watch her in silence. Still staring at the paper she says, “Because of my famous Uncle, I’m famous, too – among my friends.” She looks up. “Tell me, Uncle, what is she like?”

I wish I knew. Sunhee remains an enigma to me. I wish I could ask her about this note, about her life, about her sorrow, but the idea of contacting her seems more and more ridiculous with each passing day.

I shake my head. “Come, Hana. Let’s eat some of your mother’s delicious cooking.”

In my dream Sunhee is coming to me. She is dressed much more provocatively than before, and we are very much alone in a meadow, on a picnic blanket under a tree, my head on her lap as lovers sometimes do. As I look up at her I hear chirping finches. Way up in the tree above I see a happy family of them rollicking in their nest. All is bucolic.

“Sunhee?”

“And how is my Oppa?”

“I’m so happy to see you again, Sunhee. I thought you were gone forever.”

She cradles me like a wounded bird, my limpid body splayed across the blanket. With her fingers she gently smoothes my hair. “Oppa, I am here for you. You did the right thing.”

“Oh, Sunhee. You are so, so beautiful.”

“Here, Oppa, have some grapes. You look very hungry. And very tired.”

I feel the dream fading. “Stay with me, Sunhee,” I plead. Loose strands of hair fall to obscure her face.

“My darling Oppa,” she says.

And as I reach for Sunhee’s cheek those words always ring through my rising consciousness like an expanding halo of warmth, waking me as gently as a feather falls.

————–

gary_alan_mcbrideGary Alan McBride is a writer and musician from Denver, Colorado, born during the Kennedy administration. He has had many adventures, racking up millions of miles and visiting over seventy countries to date. He has worked all over the world and has lived in Europe and Southeast Asia and has somehow survived to tell the tale. Well, many tales. Gary does love a good yarn, in whatever form it may take. He has written a number of essays, plays, musicals, songs, tone poems, and choral works. Gary can be found @garyalanmcbride on Twitter and on the web at www.garyalanmcbride.com.