Entry #21 – June 24, 1997 / Tuesday

The classroom felt uncomfortably warm today. Maybe it was the sunlight shining directly on my seat through the window. Our homeroom teacher was explaining the main characters from our reading assignment before we went through the exercise problems. Reading the passage was homework, but when the teacher asked who had read it, only half the students raised their hands. Time seemed to be moving too slowly, and I decided to do something I would never think of doing – I tore off a corner of my notebook paper and wrote, ‘this class is boring, isn’t it?’ and passed it discreetly to Mina, whose seat was right behind me. Soon, I got the note back with Mina’s writing on the other side. ‘Yeah, I am so tired.’ The thrill from exchanging a secret memo gave me some energy to sit through the class.

“I really need cold water on my face. Wanna come with me?”

I asked Mina as soon as the class was dismissed.

“Sorry, I didn’t finish my homework yet.”

“What homework?”

“It’s for the math academy.”

“They give you homework?”

“Yeah… I am so tired with everything these days.”

“Ugh. Can I help you with the homework?”

“Really? You would? Wait, can you do fifth grade math?”

“No…”

“Then never mind.”

“Sorry. I will be back soon. It’s too hot here today.”

I left Mina to walk to the restroom. I felt bad that I couldn’t help her. Then I thought it was fortunate that I never received homework from my baduk school. On the way back to the classroom, I checked my pocket to see how much money I had.
“Mina, let me get you ice cream to cheer you up after school.”

I told her as soon as I came back to my seat, and Mina gave me a happy okay.

“At least summer vacation is starting soon. Will you have more free time then?”

Mina and I were sitting on a park bench with our ice cream in our hands. I liked ice cream all year round, but it was especially good when I felt hot.

“I don’t think so. My mom said I will be going to an English academy in the morning. It will be just like going to the school.”

Mina sighed.

“Oh, that’s tough.”

I wanted to say something to make Mina feel better, but wasn’t sure what.

“What about you, Hajin? Are you doing anything special in the summer?”

“Actually, I am going to Seoul for three weeks.”
“That’s so cool! Are you visiting relatives?”

“No, I will be studying baduk at a dojang for the whole three weeks.”

“What is dojang?”

“That’s where you study baduk if you want to become a professional baduk player.”

“Do you want to be a pro?”

“I think so. I like playing baduk, and I could play it for living if I become a professional player.”

“I see. Then what will your family be doing in Seoul?”

“They are not coming. I will be staying at this girl’s house for three weeks. Her name is Sara, and she also studies baduk at the dojang.”
“What? Wait, you will be leaving your family for three weeks and stay at some stranger’s house?”
Mina looked really surprised.

“Sara is not a stranger. I met her on my trip to Japan. She is nice, although I have no idea what her parents are like.”

“That’s so terrifying! Will you be okay?”

“Um… is it?”

“Isn’t it? I can’t imagine not seeing my parents for more than a couple days.”

“Well, I am not worried about the three weeks actually. I might need to do something like this for years to become a professional player.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah…”

Now Mina was looking at me with sadness in her eyes.

“Wow… I guess I can’t complain about my math homework.”

Discussing it out loud, I felt scared about this unknown path to become a pro, but on the other hand, I was proud that I made Mina feel better.

Entry #20 – June 21, 1997 / Saturday

The room was already bright. I reached for the alarm clock and held it close to my eyes. I couldn’t see clearly without my glasses. Eight… thirty. What? Oh… No school today. Wait, it’s my birthday too! Sometimes I like to stay in bed until mom comes to wake us up, but today I quickly got out of the bed. It was my day today!

Mom and dad were already in the kitchen, setting up the table for breakfast. The comforting smell of seaweed soup wafted all around the house.

“Good morning!” I said as I entered the kitchen.

“Oh, Hajin you are up. Can you wake up Jane? Breakfast is almost ready.”

When I came back to the kitchen with Jane, there was a whipped cream cake with berries in the center of the table. As soon as Jane and I both sat at our seats, mom and dad began lighting the candles. My parents and Jane all sang “Happy Birthday,” and I was so excited and happy that I forgot to make a wish before blowing out the candles.

While dad put away the cake so that we could have breakfast first, mom brought out two huge gift boxes.

“Wow, your gifts are so big!”

Jane exclaimed, maybe half jealous.

I opened the smaller of the two. It was a soft and cushy plush rabbit. He had curly dark chocolate fur, and was wearing an ivory sweater and mint overalls. I instantly fell in love with him! I let Jane investigate the rabbit and opened the second box. It was a soft blue suitcase. Oh

“What is that?” asked Jane.

“It’s a bag for long-term traveling. I guess it’s for my Summer baduk study trip.”

I told Jane, and my parents nodded.

“Do you like your gifts?” asked mom.

I loved both of them. The luggage just made it feel so real that I was about to leave home for three weeks.

“Yes!” I didn’t want to get into that discussion, though, so I just said a big yes.

“Where are we going today? The EXPO park?”

Jane asked with visible excitement. In fact, I was also wondering what we were doing today. I doubted we would just stay home all day on my birthday.

“Hajin has to go to her baduk school today.”

“Really?”

“What?”

Jane and I were both surprised by the unexpected answer.

“Yeah, her teacher said there was special training today. Didn’t you hear about it, Hajin?”

I couldn’t believe this. I was already studying baduk from right after school to late in the evening. Why did I need to study even on my birthday?

“Do I really have to go?”

I knew asking this question wouldn’t really help, but I had to ask anyway.

“Yes, you should.”

Mom answered simply.

When I opened the baduk school door, I saw Colin, Brad, and Tom already sitting around a board. They were working on a life and death problem together.

“Hi!”

“Hey, you came too.”

Tom welcomed me with his usual friendliness.

“Why do we have special training today?”

I asked the group, wondering if I had missed something.

“No clue.”

Colin’s answer suggested that everyone was as puzzled as I was.

“Where is the teacher?”

“He gave us these problems and said he will be back soon.”

Colin showed me the problem sheets. There were two pages, and each page had 20 questions.

“Cool, everyone’s here!”

Teacher showed up with a boxed cake in his hand. I realized that we were here for my birthday.

“So, I brought you here today because it’s Hajin’s birthday today, and tomorrow is Brad’s birthday. We will have a joint birthday party!”

Brad and I looked at each other.

“Is it really your birthday today?”

“Yes. Now that I think about it, didn’t we talk about this before?”

“Maybe.”

“Anyway, I win! I am nine years old, and you are still eight!”

“Haha, true. That makes Brad the youngest here.”

Teacher laughed and agreed with me.

“Then, are we here for the birthday party?”

Tom asked. I could tell that he was asking if there really was going to be any training today.

“Yep, we will enjoy the cake, and you can go home as soon as you solve all the problems there. But since it’s a birthday party, I will let you guys work on them together.”

Oh well, we shrugged and turned our attention to the cake.

Entry #19 – June 17, 1997 / Tuesday / Part II

“Hajin, we are here!”

Oh, I fell asleep again. Somehow I always fall asleep whenever I sit in a car for a while. I opened my eyes, and saw we were in a small parking lot in a strange-looking neighborhood.

“Wanna get some ice cream to wake up before the game?”

“Yes!”

Getting out of the car, I noticed a big black sign hung on the gray building right in front of us: “Korean Baduk Association.” It looked rather drab, but I was still excited to be at the most important place in the country for baduk players. My teacher walked across the street into a tiny corner store. I followed him and picked out a watermelon popsicle from the ice container. My teacher grabbed several more ice creams from the container, explaining that we should share with other people at the TV studio.

Inside the building it was cooler and darker. The walls were painted a worn-out pink. It was not far from the entrance to the Baduk TV studio room. I was curious to see the rest of the building, but the game was to start at any time now.

The first person we encountered at the studio was Jeremy. He was drinking water in the short hallway.

“Hey Jeremy, long time no see. Wanna have ice cream?”

My teacher showed him the plastic bag of different ice cream treats, and he picked one out with a quiet thank you.

“This is Hajin, your opponent today.”

Jeremy nodded while unpacking the ice cream and I studied him. He was wearing a striped t-shirt and jeans. I felt a bit self-conscious about my dress, wondering if I was overdressed. Teacher went to visit the broadcast crew in their office to offer ice cream, and we stood right there eating our ice cream quietly. I didn’t know what to say, and he wasn’t saying anything either.

Soon, a tall adult man came out of nowhere with a rolled paper in one hand, and started telling us about the rules. We can leave the playing room quietly if we want to use the restroom. We shouldn’t touch the board or move the chair. Act normal, and don’t mind the people and the cameras while we play. We did nigiri on a table by the side of the room, and I got black.

I knew it was extremely unlikely for me to win. He was much stronger than me. Still, I wanted to put up a good challenge. My parents will be recording it on our VCR later when it airs. Plus, a professional player was commentating this game, though I didn’t get to meet him yet, because he was already filming the intro when I arrived. I took a deep breath, and played my first move on the upper right corner star point.

My plan was to make the opening as simple as I can, and to avoid unnecessary fights. If I could somehow stay even with my opponent until mid-game, then maybe I would find a chance to win. Thus I took another star point, and white grabbed two 4-3 points. At this point, I couldn’t help approaching one of the corners. I made a high approach to the corner that was facing my side. In almost no time, Jeremy made two space high pincer as if he was waiting for me to play there. I know this joseki, it’s the “Magic Sword,” I thought to myself, as I placed the large knight’s move. I was happy because I knew this area would be pretty much settled after the joseki. The joseki sequence continued – white attaches, I hane, and white extends. I was playing rather quickly at this point as well. And when I played on the star point, I was expecting white to jump. But, Jeremy extended. I vaguely remembered this was also possible, and haned in the corner, hoping white would make a bamboo joint. Instead, white haned back. I froze at that moment. I sat there not knowing what to do. My time was ticking. I felt an enormous pressure from all the lights and cameras. I imagined the commentator saying he doesn’t understand why I am spending so much time in the middle of a joseki. Or maybe he already figured that I had no clue about this variation.

Only when I was almost at the countdown, I mustered enough courage to push and cut. I thought there must be a reason why white usually makes the bamboo joint instead of hane. White ataried my cut from the second line, and when I connected pushed in the center. Now I was completely lost, and the countdown already began. I wanted to cry. I continued to play but the situation got worse and worse, and I lost a big group in that corner. Even before I had a chance to go to any other corners. Now I really wanted to cry. I wanted to resign but didn’t even know how. Eventually I just didn’t play in countdown, and lost on time.

Coming out of the playing room, I was feeling guilty and ashamed for the horrible game. My teacher lightly patted my head and said it was okay. Nothing was okay in my mind. If I could, I just wanted to walk away from that place and teleport to home.

“You didn’t know the joseki, young lady?”

An old man in a suit asked me in a warm voice. He must have been the commentator. I nodded.

“You showed some good reading there, though. It would be hard for anyone to navigate that without knowing the joseki. Don’t be too disappointed. You can come back next year.”

“Okay.”

“Cheer up! You wanna see the other floors of the building?” Teacher asked. I thought about it and shook my head. I still just wanted to go home, and I wanted to come back to this place when I get stronger. Right now, I was feeling too sad to do this important tour.

“Haha, okay. Let’s go home then. I am sure you will be coming back here again and again.”

Like that, we headed to the teacher’s car in the parking lot.