Entry #6 – March 3, 1997 / Monday

“Hajiiiiiin!”

I looked back, and found Mina running towards me. It was the first day of third grade after a long winter break, and we were almost at the school entrance. As she caught up with me, I said hi to her. Breathing fast from the short sprint, she asked, “which class?”

“Class One. You?” When I came back from Japan, mom showed me a mail from the school. It said I had “A”s in all subjects and that I was assigned to class one.   

“Me too!! I am so happy we are in the same class again!” Mina gave me an intense hug, and I hugged her back. I felt relieved and excited to learn that my best friend would be in the same class once again.

“How is Jane, Hajin? She is not coming to school yet?”

“Not yet. She will be entering next year! I can’t wait. It will be nice to come to school with her every morning.”

“Yeah. I wish I had a sister too. Or a brother.”

I felt Mina’s pain. I loved playing with Jane and couldn’t imagine a life without her. I liked taking her everywhere, whether I was meeting with friends or just going to a playground to play with her. Luckily Mina also liked having Jane around, so we often played together.

“Hajin, you have a new backpack!”

“Yep, we went shopping just a few days ago! My parents said I was getting a special gift because my teacher told them I did well in Japan.”

My old backpack was red and had a few 101 Dalmatians dogs printed in front. I liked that bag, but it was rather small. The new one I chose at the shopping mall had a dark blue body  with red zippers for one main and one front pocket. It was bigger and there were no animated characters – definitely more appropriate for a third grader.

“What about Japan? Did you go to Japan?”

As we were taking seats in the middle of the new classroom, I told her all about my trip, the people I met, the friendship matches (I finished with 2 wins and 4 losses), sightseeing, and the night out. Mina was totally fascinated. Then she told me that her family went on a ski trip for three days. I asked her about it, and she said, “it was really hard in the beginning, but I enjoyed more on the last day. I saw a man who got really injured though. That was scary.”

While we were talking, our classroom was fully occupied with students. I recognized some from either first or second grade, but some of them were new to me. Soon our new teacher, Ms. Song, walked in. She was smiling, but more in a formal way than friendly. She was in her forties and wearing a light brown skirt suit. A few hours later, we were dismissed early with a lot of new textbooks and notification sheets for parents.

“Are you going to your grandparents’ place again?” Mina asked, as we walked down the stairs. All third grade classrooms were located on the third floor of the school building. Next year, we will be on the first floor again, in the second building. 

“Yes. Jane should be there already. Do you want to come over?”

In the mornings, my family would leave home together. I would walk to school, and my parents would drop Jane at her kindergarten and go to work. My dad’s company produced ERP software for textile factories, and my mom was an in-house accountant and office manager at my dad’s company. When I finished school, I would go to my grandparents’ place, where Jane also got dropped by her kindergarten bus. Then I played with Jane until I needed to leave for the baduk school.

“I don’t have much time today because my mom wants to take me to this math academy.”

“The one downtown?”

“Yep.”

Mina didn’t mention the name of the academy, but we both knew which one she meant. There was a huge math academy in town with several big shuttle buses. It was easy to spot their buses because they were covered with advertisements, and drove throughout the city all afternoon. The academy was also famous for its entrance exam, because not all students were accepted.

“Math is so easy, though,” I said, thinking how I never thought about doing more math.

“My mom says it’s going to get more difficult in a few years and I should start preparing now. But honestly I don’t want to. I am already studying English and piano too. You are only doing baduk, right?”

“Right, I haven’t done anything else so far.”

Mina seemed envious, but I wasn’t sure if that was actually a good thing.

“Do you want to get ice cream? I can take that much time at least.”

Mina took out a 500 won coin from her pocket. In a stationery store nearby our school, we could buy a small popsicle for 100 won. I nodded, and we walked into the store together.

Entry #5 – February 24, 1997 / Monday

“Hajin, don’t eat too much at dinner. We’ll go out tonight.”

Sara whispered to me on the bus back to our hotel. I was feeling a bit tired from all the sightseeing today, walking around temples and gardens. On one hand I just wanted to enjoy my dinner presented on that beautiful tray (we’d been having breakfast and dinner at the same place, always presented nicely on a black tray) and go to bed. Tomorrow morning, we were going back home. On the other hand, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to explore. I didn’t get to try Japanese ramen yet. Sara noticed that I was hesitating, and said, “Colin will probably come, too.” So, I said, “Okay.”

We met at the hotel lobby at 7:30 PM. There were five Korean students (Colin, me, Sara, and two other boys), two Japanese girls (one of them was my opponent from the first day, and her name was Miko), and the translator from the match, whose name was Haru. It turned out Miko and Sara became friends over the two days of friendship matches, and asked Haru if he would be interested in joining their night out.

The first place we went was a Seven Eleven. According to Miko, that’s where we can get almost anything. What surprised me the most was a children’s cookie called Chocobi. I’ve only seen this cookie in a Japanese TV animation that I watched several times, and it looked exactly like I saw on TV. I didn’t buy it though, because as a cookie it didn’t look tasty after all.

Then we all went to a ramen restaurant. Sara and I were super excited to finally taste Japanese ramen, but the other Korean boys were rather doubtful that it would be better than Korean instant ramen. Apparently they were big fans of Shin-ra-myon, a popular Korean instant noodle. Haru recommended that we all try the classic style with shoyu (soy sauce) broth and chashu (roast pork). When the food came out, it smelled incredibly good and I liked how the noodles seemed so different from Korean noodles. When I tasted it though, it was a bit strange and very salty. I wanted to be polite to Haru and Miko, so I said I liked it. Colin seemed to genuinely like it, though. He emptied the entire bowl. Sara said she liked it, but couldn’t finish because the food was a lot more than she usually ate. It was easy for me to agree.

It was Monday night and the streets of Tokyo were busy. There were so many people around, and bright neon lights everywhere. I must have looked awed, as Haru asked, “Is this very different from Korea?” I nodded and looked at Sara. She said it was similar to certain parts of Seoul. Then she explained that I wasn’t from Seoul so it’s probably different from where I was from.

“Hajin, is your town far from Seoul?” Haru asked.

“I think so, I am not sure how far, though,” I answered.

“It’s about 200 km away,” Colin said. I admired that he knew these things.

“Colin, do you want to become a professional baduk player, too?” Haru asked.

“I am not sure. How about you Hajin?” Colin asked me. It was first time anyone had asked me this question. I didn’t know much about being a professional player, except that they were extremely strong in baduk. So, I said confidently, “Yes, I want to be a professional player.” After all, it must be a good thing to be a strong player, right? But, somehow Miko was impressed that I wanted to be a pro player. She asked me how much I was studying baduk. When I told her five days a week, three and half hours each day, Miko was like, “Wow, that’s a lot!” Now, Sara was surprised that Miko was impressed.

“I spend almost all my time outside school at the baduk dojang,” Sara told Miko.

“REALLY???” I couldn’t tell whether Miko was genuinely shocked or she liked to overreact to many things.

“Yes, my goal is to be a professional player in three years.” Then, she added, “but I am not sure if I can make it. There are other students who live in the dorm and only study baduk all day, every day.” At this remark, not only Miko but her friend Yumi and Haru also seemed surprised. They said they had heard about such intense practice in Japan too, but hadn’t met anyone doing it for real.

“Are there baduk dojangs in your town?” asked Haru.

“No, our baduk school is the strongest one in town. There is no professional baduk dojang in Daejeon,” Colin explained. I didn’t know that either. I learned that any dojang needs to have two requirements: one or more in-house professional masters, and students who are studying baduk all day to become professional players. Later, Miko said she and Yumi were in the same baduk study group, and they met with the professional master only three times a week, for two hours at a time. Miko said she did study a bit more at home, but not much. At the end of this conversation, Miko said, “No wonder Korean kids are so strong!” and somehow that made me feel proud.

During the walk along the busy streets, I saw behind a glass display a white cat decorated with pink and golden paws, holding and swinging a magic wand. I stopped walking and stared at it. It was so cute. Sara asked me if I wanted to go inside the store to see it more closely. I said yes, and we all walked in. The store had many kinds of Japanese souvenirs and traditional cookies. I walked straight to the cat and picked it up. It was cold but not heavy. The inside felt empty. I was surprised to see that the cat had two identical sides, except that one side was smiling and the other was frowning. This quality instantly spoke to me in that I play baduk almost every day, and I am bound to be one or the other. Haru came to me and asked if I wanted to buy it. I had a big smile on my face, and said yes.

Entry #4 – February 22, 1997 / Saturday

Our baduk school was empty. I went home. No one was there. I began feeling worried. Maybe I will call mom. I picked up the phone, and I remembered that there were some extra numbers I had to add to call Korea. Wait, where am I?

As I half opened my eyes, I saw the other girls were already up. There were four girls in our room including Sara and me. The rest of the group was all boys, and they were split among three rooms. The room was clean, and the tatami floor was smooth and gentle. There was no kitchen, but we had a mini fridge and a baduk set. I waited under my blanket until the bathroom was available, trying not to fall asleep again.

The breakfast was at the dining hall downstairs, with the other students and masters. I said hello to Colin, who was busy talking with other boys. When everyone was there, we were served with a beautiful dark wooden tray. Inside the tray were a small plate of fruit, a small bread roll, a small plate of pickled vegetables, and a bowl of white rice porridge with some sesame and dried seaweed on top. Master Grimm waited until everyone was served, then called for attention.

“Today and tomorrow, you will be playing six rounds, three games each day. I expect you to be stronger than most Japanese students you will be playing this weekend. But, don’t ever underestimate your opponent. Always be polite. Display any unacceptable manners, and you will have to find your own way back to Korea. Find the best move each time until the game is actually over. Learn as much as you can.”

The students were all silent.

“Have a good breakfast.”

With that I had my first spoonful of porridge. It was warm and tasty.

“Hajin, did you sleep well?”

My baduk teacher came over to me as we were finishing up the breakfast.

“Yes.”

I gave him a short answer with a small nod. I knew he was asking if I was okay without my family. I did feel a bit strange last night, but didn’t want to admit that.

“She was totally fine! We are friends now.”

Sara told my teacher, smiling at me.

The venue for this friendship match was a conference room inside an office building. The building was gray and nondescript. Looking around the building, I reminded myself that I should never go anywhere alone.

My first opponent was a boy who looked like one of the characters from a Japanese TV animation. He also seemed a few years older than me. I wasn’t afraid, though, because there were many older boys in my baduk school whom I could easily defeat. The color was already decided by the match system, and I was black. This luck made me feel good because I prefer to play black in general, and I could use my favorite opening.

The game seemed to be going well in the beginning. My opponent was being rather predictable, and I felt like I was getting everything I wanted. I got to build a nice moyo in the lower side, and the territory in the upper right corner wasn’t bad either. In the meantime, white just had two corners on the right side and neither of them was as big as mine. My confidence grew over time, and I got excited by the idea of winning the first game. Maybe I can even win all three games today and call my parents tonight. Sara mentioned that she knew how to do that. It seemed like my opponent was feeling anxious. He was playing several probing moves, asking if I wanted to fight. Feeling ahead, I had no interest in making the game complicated. I would respond safely to his moves, and the game was getting into the endgame. When the borders were all settled, I counted again to make sure I was still winning. Surprisingly, however, the game was very close. Plus, it was not even my turn. He began making endgame moves in a way that I would always need to respond, and he managed to take most of the big points. When it was finally my turn to do something, I had a cold feeling that I had already lost. There was nothing I could do.

After the first game, all students were directed to the next conference room, where there were stacks of nice lunch boxes and canned drinks. There, I learned that we were twenty students, and only two of us lost, including me. Colin and Sara both won their first game. I felt terrible. How did I lose my game? I thought I was going to win. The lunch box was tasty, though.

My second opponent was a boy again, still a few years older than me. I was white this time, and I didn’t like how the opening worked out, because his area got too big too quickly. I invaded his moyo and managed to live dramatically. I got excited when I found a way to live, but soon realized that I was still behind because his influence was so strong all over the board, and I didn’t have much territory at all.

In the second round, Colin and I were the only ones that lost in our group. Colin told me to cheer up, and he said we will both win the next round.

I was sitting at my seat, the last table located in a corner. I was the youngest and weakest in our group of Korean students. We all had our own seats, while Japanese students seemed to be assigned to different tables each time. There were 3 or 4 times more Japanese students than our group in this event. A few minutes before the last game was to begin, a girl sat in front of me. She said something in Japanese, and offered me a small bag. In the bag was a key holder with a cute and shiny hello kitty charm. I looked around for help, and the translator – a young man in his 20’s – came to us. I said, “She gave it to me. Is this a gift?” After some conversation with the girl, he said, “Yes, she brought some gifts for all her opponents today. She is also asking how old you are.” I told him my age. Turned out the girl was three years older than me, and has played baduk for three years, same as me.

We soon began our game. Seeing her moves in the opening, I got a feeling that she was not as strong as the other boys I played earlier. This time, I carefully balanced my moves so that my opponent didn’t get a huge territory. Her moves were somewhat careful too, and we ended up playing a very peaceful game. As the game entered the endgame, I sensed that it was close. I spent a lot of time calculating the value of each endgame spot over and over again to find a way to maximize gains. I had a feeling that I was ahead, but I didn’t know I won until we actually finished the game. I won by a half point.

On the way back to our hotel, Sara told me how she couldn’t believe she lost her last game. She said she must have had at least five chances to win. Then at some point she asked me if I wanted to call my parents. She said she was planning to call her family after dinner. I thought about it, and said no. When Sara asked me why, I just said, “Maybe I will call them tomorrow.” In fact, I wasn’t proud of my one win and two losses, and thinking maybe I will manage to win two games tomorrow and tell them I had 3 wins and 3 losses. Of course, I had no idea that my baduk teacher was already reporting to my parents.

Entry #3 – February 21, 1997 / Friday

“Hajin, wake up!”

Dad was softly shaking me, speaking in a low voice. He was probably trying not to wake up Jane in the next bed, but she was already making a noise that suggested she had awoken. I quickly got out of bed, remembering that I was going to Japan. Coming out of the bedroom, I noticed a suitcase and my school backpack already placed by the shoe closet.

“There are some chocolate granola bars in your bag. Share them with the teacher and Colin on the way,” Mom told me as she handed me a cup of orange juice and a small strawberry jam sandwich in the kitchen.

Half an hour later, at 7 am, my parents and I were standing by our apartment entrance. Soon, my baduk teacher’s white Hyundai appeared. He was driving and Colin was in the back seat. While my parents talked with the teacher, I took a seat next to Colin. He seemed sleepy too. The car began moving, and I fell asleep.

When I got up again at my teacher’s voice, the car was being parked.

“Are we at the airport?”

I asked as I was looking around. I saw buildings and people outside the window. It was clearly not an airport.

“No. We came to Master Grimm’s baduk dojang. We are going to the airport in their car, and I am leaving my car here while we are in Japan.”

“What is a baduk dojang?”

“A dojang is where you study if you want to be a professional player.”

“Oh.”

“Master Grimm’s dojang is one the three strongest ones in Korea. We are going to Japan with their students. Exciting, right?”

“Maybe.”

I wasn’t actually sure why I would be excited. I was rarely excited to meet strangers unless they had some presents or something for me.

Master Grimm’s dojang was much bigger than our baduk school, and there were many people studying baduk in different classrooms. The whole place felt somewhat calm and heavy. In our baduk school, we would ask questions, complain, chat with other kids, and so on. Here, no one was saying anything. Whether they were playing with someone or studying alone, they were quietly focused on the board.

“Seems like they start even before lunch time here.”

I whispered to Colin.

“Here, students study all day. That’s what you need to do to become pro.”

Hearing my words, my teacher explained.

At the end of the hallway was the main room, and there were about 15 students sitting around in a few groups around Go boards. They were discussing some variations. I could see that they all had big bags like mine. The students looked older than me or even Colin, who is one year older than me.

“Ah, you are here.”

A thin man with big eyeglasses greeted my teacher.

“Long time no see. Here are the kids I mentioned. This is Colin and this is Hajin. Kids, this is Master Grimm, the headmaster of this dojang. He is also a good friend of mine.”

Colin and I both bowed to the Master. The Master seemed to be in a good mood, but it made me nervous to see him. It was my first time to see a professional player in person. I had seen them only in lecture videos, newspapers, and magazines before.

“Let’s go! Everyone, move to the parking lot. Our bus should be there.”

At Master Grimm’s command, people began moving out, and we followed them.

The ride to the airport wasn’t very long. I sat with Colin in the middle of the bus, and we both just stared out the window, sometimes listening to other students talk about a new restaurant by the dojang or how they lost certain games that they were totally winning.

It was about 10:30 am when we arrived at the airport. It was spacious, bright, and clean. I followed the group quietly through checking in, customs, and immigration, focusing on Colin and the teacher. I knew they were paying attention to me too, but I was feeling a bit nervous about not having my parents with me. What would happen if I got behind the group and couldn’t find them? I have my parents’ phone numbers and enough money to call them, I reminded myself. What if it happens in Japan and I can’t manage to call them? I had no answer to this situation yet, and thought I should better not let it happen.

“Hi, what is your name?”

I was sitting by the boarding gate when a girl started talking to me. She was one of the students from Master Grimm’s group.    

“It’s Hajin.”

“Hajin. I am Sara. How old are you?”

“I am eight. How about you?”

“Eight! You are really young. I am twelve. What’s your friend’s name?”

Colin wasn’t there at the moment, browsing the stores or something.

“He is Colin. Nine years old.”

“I see. Have you been to Japan before?”

“No. First time going abroad.”

“Cool! Are you excited?”

“Yes.”

“What are you excited about?”

“Mom told me that Japanese ramen is good. She also said there are cat dolls that swing their hands.”

“Yeah, I heard about them too. I hope we get to see them all. I am mostly excited to leave home for a few days. Some of the guys you see here live at the dorm. But, my family place is close enough for me to walk to the dojang, so I can’t really do that.”

“Do you want to live at the dorm?”

“I kind of do. I was there a few times to have dinner. It’s a large apartment with four bedrooms. There are baduk sets and books everywhere, and the fridge has lots of food. I heard no one tells you to go to bed there. Although, you do have to get up with everyone else and have breakfast with them.”

“Do you not like going to bed?”

“I like to stay up until late. You know, doing what’s fun for me. Also, I feel like the people at the dorm improve faster. They are always studying baduk. I hate to fall behind.”

Suddenly Sara seemed stressed. I took out two chocolate granola bars from the bag and offered one to her.

“Thank you. I was feeling hungry. It will be at least an hour till we get the airplane lunch.”

She smiled, and we ate the bars.

Entry #2 – February 10, 1997 / Monday

The boy was being annoying. He must see that there is no hope of turning this game around. How much longer does he want to play? He has been just staring at the board for some time now.

“This game is over. You should think before things get bad. You tend to play too fast in important situations and think too much when it’s already late.”

I didn’t realize the teacher was there. The boy made a disappointed face and started removing his stones from the board as a gesture of resignation.

“What did you do during Seolnal, Hajin?”

My baduk teacher, Mister Kim, asked. He is in mid-thirties, tall and lean.

“We went to grandparents’ place and had lots of food.”

“Fun! What else?”

“Oh, I played baduk with my uncle.”

“Did you win?”

“Yes.”

“How strong is your uncle?”

“I am not sure.”

“Hey, Hajin, hi teacher.”

Colin, who just arrived at the baduk school, sat next to me.

“Hi Colin.”

I greeted him happily. Colin is my closest friend here. He and I have been learning baduk together as far as I remember.

“Colin’s here, it must be the lecture time again.”

Teacher left us to start his lecture.

“Did you get some good money?”

Colin asked. He meant the new year’s gift money that grandparents and relatives offer to children.

“It was okay. I got some extra from playing baduk with my uncle. What about you?”

“I got more than usual because we had some far relatives joining us this year.”

“Cool.”

“Everyone takes a board and sit. We are going to talk about star point josekis today.”

The teacher was already standing next to the big demo board, directing students to empty boards. It was 3:30 pm, when the second batch of students arrive. Colin and I took two boards at the very back of the classroom.

“You saw it already I guess.”

Colin said as we were getting ready to follow the lecture.

“Yep, but I am used to watching same lectures now.”

In our baduk school, there are three one-hour time slots: starting at 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm, and 4:30 pm. Most students do one of these three slots. I don’t remember how long it has been this way, but I come at about 2, and leave at 5:30. Colin comes at 3:30 and leaves at 5:30. Teacher is usually alone when I arrive 30 minutes before everyone else, and he gives me some tasks for the day – life and death problems or joseki variations to memorize. Then, I watch three same lectures a day, about 15 minutes each. Sometimes I just did my exercise book during lectures, and teacher didn’t mind that either. Once the lecture is over, teacher would pair us to play a game. My favorite opponent was Colin, who was somewhat stronger than me, but teacher made sure that we play with different people.

“Our Japan trip is coming soon now!”

Colin whispered. He seemed genuinely excited.

“Yeah…”

I am somewhat excited too, but also scared. I still can’t believe I will be going to Japan without my family. The teacher and Colin will be there, though. Well, it’s just five days of baduk camp. It can’t be hard, right?

Entry #1 – February 8, 1997 / Saturday 

“Mom, where is my book?”

“I am busy, can you ask dad? Where is your sister?”

Mom seemed busy indeed, washing a huge pile of green leafy vegetables. She was working in the kitchen with my grandma, who was chopping radishes on the other side. I knew they were preparing for the big family dinner tonight. In some previous holidays, my two aunts would be working with them as well, but today the big aunt was working at her restaurant and the small uncle’s family was arriving only sometime before the dinner.

“Jane is watching TV in the small room with the cousins.”

Unlike our house, where there is only one TV in the living room, our grandparents’ place has two TVs, one in the living room, and another in the small room. In holidays like today, adults  – mostly men – would gather around the living room and we kids would hang out in the small room. On TV in the small room was a comedy movie that was popular a few years ago. My cousins were already watching it, when Jane and I joined the small room as usual. I figured the movie was about some gangs, and it was boring. You see why I need to carry a book on my own.

My book I brought here had fascinating folktales from various cultures. The story I was at had a prince who fell in love with a beautiful woman he ran into on a market street. The prince confessed his love to this girl, and she asked him to bring her the famous necklace from the other side of the world as a proof of his love. The prince soon set out the voyage, and the girl secretly disguised to be a crew member and joined the prince’s ship.   

Dad was with the grandpa and the big uncle in the living room, talking about politics. My grandpa, who studied law in one of the top universities in the country, had personal interactions with some people who have become major politicians. He never actually kept in touch with any of them, but he followed politics with great interest. As I approached, dad looked at me and gave me the look that he was listening to me.

“Have you seen the book I brought from home?”

“Which book are you looking for?”

My uncle asked. Big uncle, my dad’s older brother, was also a physically big guy. His face was somewhat red and his voice was loud. I much preferred my dad’s gentle voice.

“Oh, I found it!”

As I was about to explain the book, I saw it under my dad’s jacket in the corner of the couch.

“You are going to read a book on a holiday? Why don’t we play baduk, instead? You are learning baduk, right?”

I didn’t know big uncle played baduk too. Right now, I just wanted to read my book. I looked at my dad, not knowing what to do.

“Great idea! I’ll bring the board.”

Dad got up to bring a baduk set from the dusty storage. I never saw my grandparents play baduk, but for some reason they had this old set in their storage. Maybe the set was my dad’s. As my dad was setting up the set, I knew there was no way out now. I just kept my book around my arms and thought I will have time after a game.

“How many handicaps?”

Big uncle asked dad. I didn’t say anything, but I was surprised already when my uncle took white.

“Hm.. I don’t think she actually needs any.”

“Really? You must underestimate me. I know you are stronger than me, but I play with my friends sometime, you know.”

“I am serious. Hajin’s quite good too. She’s been playing since she was five.”

“How old is she now? Eight? How about two, then?”

“You can try.”

Seeing my dad agree, I placed two stones on the board.

“If you win, I will give you 5,000 won.”

I nodded, and thought about all the things I could do with 5,000 won. The chocolate cookie I loved to share with Jane was 300 won. If I had one per day, every weekday, the money would last a bit longer than three weeks. I wanted to win, and I felt confident.