Entry #10 – April 18, 1997 / Friday

My eyes were staring at the blackboard – our homeroom teacher was writing examples of different types of literary metaphors – but my mind was on the game I played yesterday. I was behind in territory, but Brad had a weak group that he would eventually need to take care of. I waited and waited for the perfect time to attack, to use his weakness to catch up in territory. Yet, it never seemed like a good time, and at some point it became too late for me to gain anything from merely attacking. I had to capture the whole thing. And of course this attempt failed completely and I had to resign. Was there a better way I could have played? I kept reviewing the game in my head again and again.

“Ugh, I really don’t want to go to math academy today. The weather is so beautiful!” Mina said. She had come up to my desk at the end of the class.

“Yeah, I really don’t feel like going to the baduk school today either.”

I wasn’t just saying it to agree with Mina. For some reason, I was dreading the idea of going to the baduk school today.

“We are studying fifth grade math, and it’s boring. And most likely I will be doing this again when I do get to the fifth grade! Are you doing fifth grade baduk, too?”

It was a funny question. There was no third grade baduk or fifth grade baduk. However, it was true that there were some unspoken expectations about how strong one should be at each age to be considered competitive. No one told me about this, but I could sense it when people asked me about my age in baduk events.

“It’s not very clear, but I guess I do try to advance faster than other people.”

“I see.”

“What if you just don’t go to the math academy today? Then what happens?”

“My mom will insist that I can’t skip it… And if I don’t show up at the academy, I suspect they will call Mom.”

“Well, makes sense.” We looked at each other and exchanged a little sigh.

“Do you study anything else?” Mina asked.

“No, just baduk. I have no time for anything else.”

“That must be easier, no? I wish I did only one thing too.”

“But I do it for like five hours every day, plus sometimes on weekends too.”

“Oh, you are right. Maybe it is not easier after all…”

On the way to my grandparents’ place, I couldn’t stop thinking how I didn’t want to go to the baduk school today. But what could I do? I would probably go anyway and have the same day as yesterday or the day before yesterday.

“Hajin, did you have a good day at school? Our lunch is almost ready.”

My grandma greeted me happily as she opened the door for me. Jane was already sitting at the dining table.

“What about grandpa?”

“He will be having lunch outside with his friends.”

I had a peek at the kitchen and noticed some bulgogi on the stove. It looked really good. I dropped my backpack in the living room, washed my hands, and took my seat next to Jane.

“Jane, how was kindergarten?”

“It was alright. How was your day?”

“I guess it was alright.” I couldn’t think of any reason to be sad or upset. In fact, seeing the bulgogi coming to the table, I felt like the day was getting better.

After lunch, Jane and I went to our playroom as usual. It was the smallest bedroom in our grandparents’ place. We kept our books and toys there. Jane suggested that we put together a 200-piece jigsaw puzzle, and I gladly agreed. We both like puzzles, and we have many different types of puzzles here and at home. My favorite one is a 20-piece slide puzzle, which I can solve in three minutes. We had all the edges of the jigsaw puzzle done, and several clusters of center pieces assembled, but it was about time for me to leave home for the baduk school. Once again, I was feeling a strong resistance to the idea of going to the baduk school today.

“Jane, maybe I won’t go to the baduk school today. What do you think?”

“Really? That would be awesome!” Jane seemed genuinely excited by the idea. After a few minutes of hesitation, I went out to the living room and picked up the phone.

“Hello?” Mom’s familiar voice made me a bit nervous.

“Mom? It’s Hajin.”

“Oh, what’s up?”

“I am not feeling well today. Can I miss the baduk school?”

“Are you sick? Do you need to see a doctor?”

“Not really… Just a little headache. Can I stay here with Jane today?

“Yeah, that’s okay. I will call your baduk teacher then.”

Once I finished the phone call with mom, I felt a huge relief. Going to the baduk school was something I thought I couldn’t avoid, but both mom and grandma seemed to think it wasn’t a big deal. In the meantime, I was extremely happy, realizing that the whole afternoon was open to me. I first wanted to finish the puzzle with Jane, then maybe read the short story book again about the farmer who ran into a ghost. At some point I could even go out with Jane and get a small box of chocolate cookies to share between us. We had plenty of time until Mom and Dad would be back! Then, I wondered. Will I be happy like this everyday if I just stop going to the baduk school completely? I don’t know. For now, I just want to enjoy my freedom.

Entry #9 – April 8, 1997 / Tuesday

“Hello teacher!”

I happily greeted my baduk teacher, who was drinking instant coffee in his office as usual. I was having an especially good day – I solved an algebra problem in front of the whole class, and my grandfather brought surprise ice cream cones for Jane and me after lunch at our grandparents’ place.

“Good afternoon!”

My baduk teacher also seemed to be in a good mood.

“Should I do life and death?” I asked my teacher, hoping he agrees. Solving life and death problems is my favorite part of studying baduk. Often times my teacher let me work on these problems, but once in a while he would give me some professional games to review instead. Studying these game records is my least favorite because it’s not fun. I look for the numbered moves in order, I read the explanations in the book, and I play it out on the board. There is nothing challenging about it.

“Sure, you can do some problems. You will have a game soon, though. There is a new kid starting today.”

“A new kid?”

There were always students joining and quitting in our baduk school. Yet, I didn’t remember playing with anyone new, because new students were mostly beginners.

“His name is Brad. I think he is about your level.”

“I see. When is he coming?”

“Soon. I asked him to come by two, so that he can play a game with you first, and with Colin later.”

When I was working on a third or fourth problem of the day, Brad walked into our baduk school with his mother. He had a round face, and was wearing a green polo shirt and jeans. My teacher welcomed them both, then asked Brad to have a game with me – an even game – and invited his mother into his office.

Brad sat in front of me, and I cleared the board and put my life and death book away.

“I have that book, too,” Brad said, looking at my book. I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I just nodded.

“How old are you?” I asked, wondering if I should give him white or black to do the nigiri.

“I am eight.”

“Me, too. When is your birthday?”

“June 22.”

“Oh.” I was kind of surprised, because his birthday was just one day after mine. In any case, I was older than him. So, I gave him the bowl with black stones.

“When is your birthday?” Brad asked.

“June 21.”

“Really?” He seemed surprised too. I nodded, and took out a handful of white stones on the board, waiting for him to place one or two black stones.

I got white. Brad chose a rather slow opening, peacefully taking wide empty places in turn. I was tempted to try a complicated joseki or an early, overplay invasion to test how he handles it, but I resisted because my teacher could come out to watch our game at any moment. He always told me not to play those moves. I followed black’s lead in taking wide places and the game seemed well-balanced by the end of opening. When there was no obvious place to go, Brad pressed my side and jumped to the center to build a moyo. Then I invaded deep inside his territory. His attacking moves were textbook-like, just like his opening moves. I thought he was good, but somewhat predictable. I managed to take this group out to the center, and instead of continuing to chase it, Brad invaded my territory on another side. I wanted to attack his stone, but it was difficult with my weak group floating in the center. Eventually his group got out as well, and I felt he was not an easy opponent.

Other students began arriving when the game was heading for the endgame. They surrounded our board, with curious eyes on Brad. At this point, my teacher was also looking at the game. I knew it was time for the teacher to give a lecture, but it seemed like they were all going to watch my game instead. I felt great pressure to do extra well in the endgame.

The game was very close. When I counted during the endgame, sometimes I was ahead and sometimes I wasn’t so sure. We finished all the endgame, filled in all dame, and counted up the territories. The result was my win, by a half point. I quietly sat there, not moving. I didn’t necessarily feel happy, but more relieved that I didn’t lose. I also felt satisfied that I had played a good game. Everyone was quiet. Brad checked the result a few times, adding up the territories again and again. He seemed sad.

“Okay, everyone, take your seat. It’s time for the lecture.” The teacher didn’t say anything about our game, and we began putting the stones back into the bowls.

Entry #8 – March 30, 1997 / Sunday

“Mom, am I still getting that globe if I win today?” I asked mom in a low voice, thinking I didn’t want any second opinion from Dad or Jane. Not that I thought they would be against it, but I didn’t want to risk it anyway.

“The one from the bookstore? Sure.” Mom was busy scrambling eggs and toasting bread for our breakfast, but fortunately she didn’t seem to mind my interruption.

About a week ago, Mom and I stopped by the neighborhood mall on the way home after my baduk school. Mom needed to pick up some dry-cleaned clothes. In that mall, there is a small bookstore, which we happened to walk by that day. There, I saw a large globe surrounded by newly published picture books. The way the globe was hanging on the golden stand looked so beautiful and graceful. I stopped walking as I spotted it, and mom looked at me. At the moment, I knew exactly what was about to happen: mom would say we should keep going. I could rarely persuade her to buy something that we hadn’t planned on or agreed to buy in advance. So, I said, “Would you buy me this globe if I win the tournament next week?” She must have thought that was a reasonable request. She said, “That globe? Hmmm. Okay.”

After breakfast, we all got in the car and headed to the convention hall at a local university campus. At the main gate of the university, we could already see banners announcing the Daejeon Mayor’s Cup annual baduk tournament. In the car, Jane was excited that we were going somewhere other than the usual church. Although we arrived a bit early, the convention hall was already crowded with contestants and families like us.

This was my fourth Daejeon Mayor’s Cup tournament. The first time I played here was when I was five years old. It was my first tournament, and I won first place in the preschoolers division. The following year I won the first-graders division, and again last year the second-graders division. This year, however, my teacher recommended that I play in the girls division rather than the third-graders division. He said I might not win the tournament, since any girl enrolled in an elementary school could enter. This meant some girls in the tournament could be more than 3 years older than me. He explained that it was more important to challenge myself than to win the tournament, and I agreed to follow his recommendation. I really wanted to get the big golden trophy that this tournament usually offered for the first place winners, but I didn’t want to look like I cared about it too much.

While my dad confirmed my registration and collected my name tag, Mom talked on the phone with my baduk teacher, who showed up with Colin soon after the phone call.

“Thank you, teacher, for taking care of Hajin. Call us when she is done,” Mom said with a smile. I was a bit jealous that my parents and Jane were going to have fun without me around the campus, but on the other hand I couldn’t wait to play my games.

In the preliminary round, all contestants were assigned to groups of three or four players. Inside each group, the players played each other, and the top two players would advance to the main round. Soon, the MC of the tournament began asking everyone to find their seats. I was already sitting at my place at this point, hoping the opening ceremony would be brief. I had been to several tournaments, and they all had the same opening ceremony. Distinguished guests would be introduced, and they would give a speech, already printed out in the tournament handbook. Then, the chief referee would come out to the stage to announce tournament rules, also already printed in the tournament handbook. While all this was happening as I expected, I thought about which corner positions I wanted to take if I got black or white.

“Are you Lee Hajin?”

As soon as the opening ceremony was over, a girl who had been sitting in front of me inquired. I thought it was obvious since my name was marked on the table and on my name tag, but I nodded without showing any annoyance.

“How old are you?”

“Eight. What about you?”

“I am ten,” the girl replied, as she was grabbing the bowl with white stones. We did the nigiri – the odd/even guessing game for choosing color – and I got black.

The game ended quickly, in less than 30 minutes. My opponent played fast, and died carelessly in several places. The next game was not too hard either. I didn’t need to play the third game because another player in my group also had two wins, and we were both going to the main round. While waiting for the main round to begin, I went to the boys division to see how Colin was doing. He had one win and one loss, and was playing the last round. I got nervous at some point because Colin seemed behind, but he managed to destroy his opponent’s large territory by stubbornly poking on its weaknesses. When Colin was done, we congratulated each other, and our teacher playfully said, “I would have been surprised if either of you didn’t make it.”

The main tournament was single elimination of the top 16 players. When I started the first round, I was feeling a bit hungry. The lunch break was after this round. Earlier I had seen some food trucks selling gimbap and tteok-bokki just outside the tournament venue. Seeing the black and white stones on the board, I thought it looked like an exploded gimbap. As we played on, the game became quite complicated with several battles, and a gigantic capturing race appeared out of this chaotic situation. I was totally immersed in the game, rather enjoying the thrill of the situation, but then I noticed that my opponent’s hand was shaking visibly as she was making her moves. For some reason, seeing this made me take a deep breath, and calmly I found a way to win the capturing race. The game was over.

Once I had gimbap and tteok-bokki for lunch with the teacher and Colin, I felt invincible. Sadly, Colin lost in the next round, the quarter-final, but I won round after round, and advanced to the final match.

Judging from her height, my opponent was a few years older than me. She was somewhat pale and wearing a pair of purple glasses. I was feeling quite satisfied with all the wins I already earned, and confidently played out memorized moves against my opponent’s low Chinese opening. As we entered the midgame, I suddenly noticed my dad was watching us play. I could also see Mom and Jane sitting on a bench nearby. They waved at me when I turned my head towards them. The game seemed to be going okay for me. I started thinking about what my parents would say if I won this tournament. What would Jane say? She would like the trophy too. I could also read the different country names with her on our new beautiful globe. I also wanted to make sure to show my globe and trophy to Mina. When would she be available to come to our place? In the meantime, my opponent was thinking for a long time. What was she thinking? My teacher often told me not to look at my opponent. He said it was not a good manner. But sometimes I was really curious what my opponent was thinking and I would look at their face to find a clue. This moment was like that. I looked up, and saw she was moving her head rhythmically as if she was counting points. Then she shook her head lightly as if she thought things were bad for her.

In a minute or so, she played an aggressive move, attacking my group. This group was not completely alive yet, but it had a good eye shape. I would have tenukied in a casual game. Thinking I was ahead, however, that felt too risky now. So, I responded. My opponent played another attacking move towards this group, and I responded again. The group looked fairly safe now, although my opponent got two moves that were enlarging her moyo from the other side. The game moved on, and when it approached the endgame, I decided to take some time to count as accurately as I could. Then, I realized that I was behind, beyond the point where I could hope to turn the game around. My heart was sinking inside me. Everything was gone. The large trophy, the new globe, the feeling of achievement from winning the tournament. I felt sad and I could feel my eyes were tearing up.

I managed not to cry, played on, and lost by 6.5 points. When the tournament staff confirmed the result and took the winner’s name, my dad came to me and asked, “Hajin, why were you playing so safe when you were behind?” This question made me feel even sadder.

“I thought I was winning.” I said in a low voice.

“Well, you were playing too quickly, too.” My dad seemed very disappointed. My teacher came to me from the other side, and tapped my shoulder comfortingly.

“You did well. She is 11 years old, and actually stronger than you.” Maybe my teacher was telling the truth. But I was sad and upset at myself. Why didn’t I think harder in the midgame when I still had a chance? I tried to swallow the emotions, but soon burst into tears. In front of my teacher, dad, mom, Jane, and everyone else. I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t control myself, but somehow I couldn’t stop. Jane quietly approached me and gave me a hug. Then I could finally calm down again.

Entry #7 – March 10, 1997 / Monday

Mondays always felt longer. Perhaps it’s the weekends that felt short and Mondays were just too close to them. Yesterday, my family went to my favorite park in the afternoon. This park has a lot of birds and several street food carts. I love the roasted chestnuts from the old lady we often see there. Anyway, I felt like time was going very slow this morning at school, and now again here at the baduk school. I just want to go home and play Lego with Jane after dinner.

“Hajin, where are you going?” my baduk teacher asked. I looked at the clock on the wall again. It was 5:30, the usual time to leave for home.

“Home?”

“You are staying longer starting from today. Didn’t you hear it from your mother?”

“No… What about the shuttle bus?”

I knew that the last shuttle bus left at 5:40.

“Your mother will be coming at about 7:30 to pick you up.”

Two more hours! I couldn’t believe what was happening. I wondered if this was how Mina felt when she was accepted to the math academy, the one she didn’t really want to attend.

“Come, I will buy you some ice cream. You can have a break. The other guys will come at about 6, anyway.”

“The other guys?”

“Yes. I teach a group of older and stronger students in the evening. This is a private group. They are much stronger than you.”

“What about Colin?” I looked at Colin, who was working on a life and death problem book.

“I am staying longer from now on, too,” Colin said calmly. He must have known about this for some time. I felt somewhat better, knowing that I was going to get ice cream and Colin would be here too.

Once all the other students had left, the teacher took me and Colin to a nearby supermarket and let us choose ice cream. Luckily the market had my favorite chocolate ice cream cones. Colin picked out vanilla ice cream in a cup. The teacher didn’t get anything, saying he just wanted a cup of coffee at the baduk school. He often drank instant coffee from a packet.

“I will put you both in the league in the evening class. Hajin, don’t worry even if you keep losing for a while. You will be the weakest in the group.”

It was intimidating and exciting at the same time. During my trip to Japan, I saw how strong the other students were. Will I be able to win? I sometimes managed to beat Colin. Maybe I should focus on getting some wins from him.

A little after 6, a tall boy showed up. His name was Tom. He was bigger than Colin, but it turned out they were the same age. Our teacher asked Colin to play Tom, in an even game. Soon, three other boys showed up one by one. Taylor and Jackson were thirteen years old, and Aiden was twelve. When everyone had arrived, the teacher introduced Colin and me to the group, and paired me with Aiden for a game. Aiden was short and skinny, and wearing a thick pair of glasses. I wanted to put up a good fight, even if I didn’t manage to win, but I lost horribly.

After the game, my teacher asked us to replay the game for a post-game analysis. We never did this in the afternoon classes – we would play, and then play again. Sometimes the teacher would come around and point out some key areas before we took the stones away from the board. After the stones were put away, we couldn’t remember the games very well. Although I felt embarrassed by my terrible moves, I kind of enjoyed my first review. It was fun to see that Aiden had also made mistakes, not only me, and to learn where I should have played instead.

As my teacher had promised, my mom showed up at about 7:30. I was feeling okay with the ice cream and the fun review, but I remembered that I was upset with my mom. She didn’t tell me that I was going to start staying longer at the baduk school. So, although I was happy to see her, I didn’t run to her or give her a big smile.

“How was your new class?” Mom asked in the car on the way home.

“It was okay. They are all stronger than me. Teacher says I won’t win for a while.”

“Are you okay with that?”

“I guess. I will try to win against Colin.”

“Is everything okay?”

Mom noticed that I was a bit standoffish and not speaking much. I hesitated for a bit, and asked, “why didn’t you tell me about it?”

“About what?”

“That I am staying until 7:30 from today.”

“Oh, didn’t I? I thought I did. Don’t you like studying baduk longer?”

“No, you didn’t. But it’s okay. It was fun today.”

Now that I had talked about it with mom, I felt better about the whole thing.

“What’s for dinner today?” I asked mom.

“I was thinking about making kimchi jjigae. How does that sound?”

“That sounds perfect!” I said with a big smile.