"I was told this class had talent. Why am I not seeing it?"
Grace had been warned that her first day of K-Pop training would be an unusual one. That proved an understatement. By mid-morning, word had spread that the trainees were to prepare for a surprise guest. Dongpang Chul, the legendary main singer of first-generation boy band, J.em, was paying a visit to Seoul's 37-G Entertainment. The news sent the agency into a tizzy. Rehearsals were canceled, and schedules shifted. Four-dozen members of the premier class of girl trainees gathered in the 3rd Floor Assembly Room promptly at noon. Without fuss, they arranged themselves into a tidy set of four lines to greet their visitor. The jocularity Grace had witnessed during morning introductions was replaced by a nervous intensity.
Chul's visits were intended to expose trainees to the experiences of a seonbae who could provide mentorship. While valuable in this regard, his sessions had also become famous in industry circles for an unrelated, yet more compelling reason. What initially launched as a mere diversion had, in recent years, evolved into a tense competition. After each session, Chul offered his students what he called the Three Bowl Challenge. Rumors said the series of tests was his method of identifying exceptional talent. Its exact purpose, however, remained a mystery as no idol had ever won. Several came close, but the skill required to pass all three trials remained elusive.
The girls knew winning the competition would bring considerable esteem to 37-G. Despite recent gains, the company still ranked as one of the lesser entertainment companies in K-Pop. While renown was undoubtedly a motivating factor, the girls' immediate thoughts were preoccupied with a more primal desire, food. You see, Dongpang Chul's family also happened to own one of the most renowned galbi restaurants in all of Korea. His longstanding offer was an all-expenses-paid dinner for the winning agency's entire class. To girls who had, at times, subsisted on little more than raw cucumbers as they observed mandatory weight limits, the prize was more desirable than the Golden Fleece.
The rules of the game were simple. Three colored bowls sat on a table, ranged in order of difficulty from red to green to blue. In each container were wooden chits imprinted with numbers corresponding to designated tasks. Contestants would pick a chit from the first bowl, address the challenge, and continue down the line until they won all three. The game would end on a single failed attempt.
Regardless of their motivations for playing, the girls of 37-G were failing miserably. Ten trainees agreed to try. Merely two passed the first Red Bowl Challenge. None had made it beyond that stage. The last contestant, Yoon-suh, resumed a spot amongst her peers, head hanging low in disappointment for having failed the Green Bowl Challenge.
"Is this all?" Chul asked. "Is this the best you can do?"
The two oldest members, the unnies, exchanged wordless glances. Class leader Da-som stood and faced Chul. "No, Teacher, there is another."
As if on cue, a figure approached.
The sound of footsteps in the tiled corridor heralded her arrival. Without hesitation, the trainees stood and parted like a sea divinely making way for a prophet. Grace followed their example, unsure of what was happening. The room's atmosphere crackled with energy.
She strained to get a glimpse of the newcomer without being obvious about it. The figure came closer, passing through pools of illumination as she navigated the unevenly lit hallway. Light, dark, light, dark. The measured, clacking cadence of her shoes increased in volume. Grace wondered if this was the missing trainee she had been told about earlier that morning.
Upon reaching the threshold, the girl stepped into the open space. Trimmed by straight, black, shoulder-length hair, her face was angelic. Elegant. Classic. Even in a setting where above average beauty was the bare minimum expectation, hers stood apart. Grace imagined she would have inspired poems and legends had she lived in ancient times.
"Teacher, it is my pleasure to introduce to you our classmate, Heather Moon," Da-Som announced. "We'd be honored if you consider her for the challenge."
Heather stood silently, eyes cast forward, hands clasped together, arms down. Her baby blue, sleeveless, square-necked, sheath dress with two thin white stripes under the bustline, and another accenting the hem above the knees, was exquisitely tailored. She basked in the attention. Standing poised, no more than five feet tall, by Grace's estimation, her presence was commanding. The expression on her face suggested all was going to plan.
Chul assessed Heather solemnly. It was unclear whether he was annoyed by her sudden arrival or intrigued by it. Perhaps both. Without saying a word, he encouraged her to step forward. "How old are you?" he asked, as she stood near the keyboard stand in the center of the room.
"Eighteen," she responded.
"Your accent. The States?"
When he unexpectedly switched to English, the trainees expressed dismay at being deprived of their exchange. All except one. Neither Dongpang Chul nor Heather Moon had any idea that Grace, the first-day newbie in their midst, was also an Angeleno and understood every word they said.
"Why would an American come to Korea to be an idol?"
"I wouldn't be the first."
"I could reject you straight away, you know?"
"Then, you'd be missing the best."
"How does tardiness make you the best?"
"Being number one necessitates being odd, does it not?"
Chul pondered her answers. His expression revealed no emotion. "Do you take pride in being different?"
"I exist. If that makes me different, so be it."
He took a sip of water from the glass on his table. "Heather." He said, pondering her name. "That is a lucky flower. Do you consider yourself lucky?"
"If I were to name myself, I'd choose otherwise."
"Why is that?"
"Luck runs out when you push it."
He rubbed his chin in thought. "Are you here to impress me?"
"The girls have worked hard. I wish to reward them."
A sly grin betrayed his amusement over the curious conversation. "Let's begin," he said in Korean, much to assembly's relief.
As a measure of courtesy, Chul reviewed the rules, despite his audience knowing them by heart. With formalities over, Heather stepped forward. She reached into the red bowl, extracted a chit, and read its number aloud. "Twelve," she stated, presenting it for all to see.
Chul consulted a predetermined chart and explained the challenge. "I will play brief excerpts of ten different songs. Afterward, you'll have one minute in total to name the ten artists and titles in the order you heard them. Proceed."
The edited audio clips, separated by brief intervals of silence, lasted a couple of seconds each. Grace had difficulty identifying more than two of them, let alone ten. As soon as the last clip had played, Chul started the countdown clock at the edge of his table. Its red digits loomed large in the minds of the assembly as they watched the time rapidly slip away. The trainees soon grew concerned. Ten seconds had passed, and Heather had yet to name a single song. Grace heard the girls sucking in their breath, pondering the possibility their ringer could fail them.
Finally, the answers came forth in a torrent.
"'Rum Pum Pum Pum' by f(x)."
"'Very Nice' by Seventeen."
"'Drawing the Line' by Royal Pirates."
The anticipation kept building. As Heather delivered her answers, younger trainees spontaneously applauded. Without hesitation, she continued naming songs.
"'Don't Be Shy,' Primary."
"'Don't Believe' by Berry Good."
"'Move' by Taemin."
"'Awoo' by Lim Kim."
"'Hola Hola' KARD."
Abruptly, she stopped with 15 seconds left to go. Heather had named nine songs, but the clock kept ticking down. Grace looked at her peers, whose faces were strained with worry. Had Heather lost count? Five. Four. Three. The seconds melted away.
And then, "'Just Leave' by Wax."
The timer buzzed. Attention turned to Chul, who smiled and said, "Correct."
The applause was generous and enthusiastic. Heather had passed the first hurdle, the third trainee, to have done so that day. Could the class' last great hope progress further?
Chul presented the green bowl. She extracted a chit with the number three on it.
"Turn away from me," he instructed. Heather at first looked confused but complied without resistance. "I will play for you three musical notes. Without the benefit of a reference tone, I want you to identify the notes within 15 seconds."
Several trainees whistled in disbelief. "Perfect pitch. That's so unfair," Grace whispered to the girl next to her, who nodded in agreement.
Chul played three notes on his miniature keyboard and restarted the timer. The digits on the clock ticked down.
Once more, Heather waited until seconds remained before attempting an answer. She repeated the three notes by singing them. Her bright and powerful voice filled the room as if amplified. Then she stated, "E-G-C, the first inversion of a C Major triad."
The timer buzzed, and trainees looked to Chul for a response.
"Once again, correct." This resulted in more applause. Nobody from 37-G had ever reached this point in the competition. The moment they'd been waiting for arrived, the Blue Bowl Challenge. By then, a handful of agency managers had sensed the building momentum and gathered at the door to watch the remainder of the proceedings.
The sound of wooden chits rattling around the plastic bowl was prolonged and thunderous. Heather grabbed one. Four was its number.
Chul referred to his chart once more. The look on his face indicated disappointment. "You have poor luck today, I'm afraid."
The trainees grew impatient and demanded details. Chul milked their enthusiasm for as long as he dared before relenting. "I will play for you the third movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Listen carefully. Once it’s over, you will need to answer one question regarding what you heard. Let me know when you're ready."
The open-ended description did not satisfy the trainees, but they had little time to protest. Heather cleared her mind. The room respectfully fell silent. When she indicated her readiness, Chul played the audio track.
Three groups of instruments, violins, violas, and cellos, began their cheerful, energetic race through the music. While only a few minutes long, the Allegro movement sounded complex. Quick notes cascaded through each of the instrument groups. Grace imagined the danceable rhythm being the embodiment of popular music in its day. At its conclusion, the trainees mumbled in nervous anticipation of the last question.
Chul waited for the room to resettle before describing the challenge. "Play for me the first cello's notes from the 12th measure."
The initial reaction was complete shock expressed as total silence. A beat later, general revolt followed. The girls abandoned decorum and openly expressed their opinions of the contest.
"Teacher, you must let her pull another."
"No wonder nobody wins."
Chul calmly absorbed the criticism, having anticipated their reaction. Heather, for her part, said nothing as she waited patiently for the furor to subside. With the countdown clock off, she closed her eyes and ruminated on the music. The room became eerily silent. Grace tried to recall the elaborate composition's details, but there was too much.
Several long minutes passed before Heather opened her eyes again. She reached for the keyboard. "The three cello parts are identical at this point," she said, then played six notes.
Something was off-kilter to Grace, yet also vaguely familiar.
Chul grimaced, saying, "That's incorrect."
Gasps of disappointment rumbled through the room as the class realized how close they'd come to achieving their goal. Before the discord ceased, however, Grace interrupted. "Excuse me, Teacher," she said in perfect English. The assembly hushed in surprise, especially the two who had assumed their prior exchange was relatively private. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but if you play her response backward, you'll find the answer to your question."
Heather smirked and shot a glance from the corner of her eye at the source of the comment, acknowledging Grace for the first time.
Chul plucked at his miniature keyboard without expression, testing Grace's theory. When the correct passage revealed itself, a smile crept over his face.
"Explain yourself," he demanded in Korean.
Heather responded with a mischievous grin. "You didn't specify what order I should play them in."
This answer caused Chul to laugh profoundly. "Fair enough. Congratulations. You have won the contest."
The room erupted into howls of ecstasy once the girls realized what had happened. Heather's classmates showered her with endless gratitude. She became an instant legend. Soon, the other K-Pop agencies would hear the news as well. Heather had single-handedly enhanced 37-G's reputation.
Eventually, the celebration waned as the managers urged their charges to bid farewell to their guest and return to rehearsals. Later, as they waited for the elevator, Heather introduced herself to Grace. "I was hoping to drag that along a little further, but you spoiled it." She delivered her words in English with a coy smile and no trace of malice.
"Those who cannot trust themselves, trust in luck." Grace mused.
Heather wrinkled her nose. "Let's talk tonight at the dorms." The way she delivered her invitation suggested the matter was not open to debate.
Grace was unaware of it at the time, but she'd later come to mark her life in two distinct phases: that which came before meeting Heather Moon, and that which came after.