Entry #25 – July 23, 1997 / Wednesday

My heart was beating fast. Mr. Park’s words were passing through my head as if they were music – I wasn’t thinking much about their meaning.

“Even a tenuki would be better than this move!”

Mr. Park had been scolding Tim for the last few minutes about his last move. Mr. Park was reviewing the game Tim and I just played, and the whole class was watching us. When Mr. Park spotted bad moves, he often raised his voice and repeated his explanations until he had felt enough. Sometimes he also asked questions, but without expecting us to reply.

“What were you thinking, huh? This move is way below your current level. What were you thinking? Tell me.”

The reason I was feeling nervous was because I knew my next move was bad. I let Tim get away with his mistake. The longer Mr. Park explained why it was such a terrible move, the more I felt worried about showing my next move. I was even thinking about pretending not to remember where I played, but I was pretty sure Tim would remember.

“Continue,” said Mr. Park at last.

“Um…” I hesitated.

“What, don’t you remember your move?”

Slowly, I placed my move. I could sense that the whole class was shocked by my bad move.

“What?”

I looked down. I wondered if Mr. Park would hit my head with his Japanese fan, just as he often did when other kids made big mistakes. Brad said it didn’t hurt at all.

“Where should you have played?”

Mr. Park’s voice was calmer than I expected. I picked up my last move and placed it on the spot Mr. Park pointed out earlier. Of course everyone in the room knew the answer since Mr. Park repeatedly explained how this situation would be horrible for Tim.

“Okay. Continue.”

I was puzzled. On one hand I was relieved that I avoided Mr. Park’s scolding, but on the other hand it didn’t seem fair. I was also worried about what other kids would think of me.

Tim placed his move, Mr. Park nodded in approval, and we continued with our moves.

“Let’s have a lunch break. Come back by one o’clock.”

Our lunch was supposed to be from noon to one, but it was already 12:20 because Mr. Park wouldn’t stop in the middle of a review. He also never offered to start the next lesson late, even if our class ran long. A few kids went to the student lounge with their lunch boxes, some went home, and Colin, Brad, and I headed towards Homemade Daily, our usual lunch and dinner spot, two floors down in the same building.

Homemade Daily was a small restaurant specialized in delivering food to nearby offices. They had no menu, and everyday the meal included some kind of rice, soup, a meat dish, an egg dish, and several other side dishes. The dojang had an arrangement with this place so that all students living in the dorm could have lunch and dinner here. Then, the restaurant owner would keep track of the meals, and send an invoice once a week. Some of the other students outside the dorm, like Sara, also joined this system optionally. When we arrived at the restaurant, some students were just leaving after their lunch, and some were busy still chatting and eating. We sat around an empty table, and one of the two ladies working there began bringing us dishes in her wide round tray.

“Nice that you beat Tim today,” said Colin.

“You beat him too, yesterday.”

“I know. But I thought he was good. Maybe I was wrong.”

His remark made Brad and me laugh. We both knew Colin was joking, because he was too nice to say something like this.

“Do you think Mr. Park’s easy on me because I am a girl?”

“I think he is usually easy on you when you won.”

Brad pointed out.

“Really? You think so?”

“That’s true, but I think he is a bit easy on Hajin.”

Colin said. Then, he added, “Well, lucky you.”

After lunch, Mr. Park gave a lecture on the Kobayashi opening, then we played more games, and got more reviews until dinner. There were no official classes after dinner, so I worked on the life and death problems from Master Grimm until Sara came to our classroom to pick me up.

“Can you help me with this problem?”

I pointed to the problem on my baduk board. I had been staring at it for more than 15 minutes.

“You have to exchange the push before you hane. Otherwise it becomes ko.”

Sara glanced at it and said.

“What if white plays here?”

“Then attach over there in the center.”

I was amazed how she solved it instantly.
“Oh… How did you solve it so quickly?”

“I just remembered the answer. You know, I did that book like three times.”

I quickly wrote down the answer in the book, gathered the stones from the board, and put them back into their bowls. It was 9:35 p.m., and I was glad Sara didn’t stay until ten o’clock like yesterday.

Entry #24 – July 20, 1997 / Sunday

“Did you sleep well?”

Sara’s mother asked me. I was sitting on a big leather couch in the living room, reading one of the books I brought from Daejeon.

“Yes.”

Before I replied, I quickly closed the book and stood up from the couch. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to answer her while I was sitting and she was standing.

“It’s okay, you can continue with your book. What do you usually have for breakfast?”

“We often have cereal or strawberry jelly sandwiches.”

“Oh. We always have a more traditional breakfast here. Is that okay with you? We think it’s important to start a day with lots of nutrition, especially for Sara.”

“Yes, I am okay with it.”

“Does your mother work?”

“Yes, she has an office job.”

“I see. I do some work at the temple, but I don’t go there until the afternoon. So I have more time at home.”

Now that she mentioned, I could tell there were lots of drawings and sculptures around the house related to Buddhism.

As Sara told me last night, the breakfast began after a short prayer. I didn’t understand some of the words her mother said, but I thought the overall structure was similar to the prayers I had heard at our church. On the table were a bowl of rice and a bowl of seaweed soup for each person, and a dozen side dishes to share – vegetables, eggs, and some meat.

“What’s your score so far?”

Sara’s father asked.

“Two and two.”

“You might stay with two more wins, but do try to have at least three more wins.”

“I will.”

“How many games do you have today?”

“Two.”

“Then bring Hajin home before dinner. You should sometimes take an evening off.”

“But other people will be still studying at the dojang. Master Grimm might say something.”

“Tell your Master that your parents asked you to come home early today for a family dinner. He will understand.”

“Okay.”

An evening off sounded nice to me, but Sara didn’t seem very happy.

There were even fewer people at the dojang. Colin and Brad said they were sharing a room with Aiden. They said Aiden was also in the league competition, playing in the 10th league. I wondered if he had already played Sara. I told them that I was staying in Sara’s room with her. I told them about my breakfast too, and surprisingly they said their breakfast was similar. Their kitchen had a big rice cooker and a fridge, and the fridge always had a big pot of soup and many different side dishes. Apparently there is a lady who comes in the afternoon to tidy the place and make sure there is enough food for everyone.

About five o’clock, Sara and other students returned to the dojang. I saw Aiden and Jeremy in the group too. Most of them seemed to be in a good mood, but Sara wasn’t. She came straight to me and said, “Hajin, let’s go.”

I followed her and noticed she wasn’t walking towards her house.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Just walking around. Maybe I can show you the park I like. It’s not far from here.”

“Did you not do well today?”

“Yeah… I lost both games.”

“But you will have three more games, right?”

“But I will probably have to win all of them to avoid being pushed out again. I am not sure if I can make it.”

She seemed stressed.

“Ah, I wish my dad didn’t ask us to have dinner at home today. It would be so much better to eat with other kids and go home late.”

I didn’t know what to say. So I just followed her to the park.

Entry #23 – July 19, 1997 / Saturday

As our car entered the parking lot, I recognized the place. I looked at Colin sitting on the passenger seat. He didn’t say anything, but I imagined he was also thinking about the time we were here for the trip to Japan.

“This is the parking lot for Master Grimm’s dojang,” I told Brad, who had not been here before.

“I see.”

“Alright kids, let’s leave your luggage in the car for now.”

We all got out of the car and stretched our legs.

 

“Oh, you are here already.”

We ran into Master Grimm in the hallway, right outside the entrance to his dojang.

“Yeah, the highway was not very busy. How are you doing?”

“Very well. So, I met Hajin and Colin before, and this boy must be Brad?”

“Yes. He and Hajin are about the same level.”

“Sounds good. Sara and many other students are at the KBA today playing in the league. So, Hajin can wait here until she comes back, and maybe you can take Colin and Brad to the dorm to put away their bags and come back here?”

“Sure.”

“Then, let me call Pete. He will show you the way to the dorm.”

 

My teacher left with Colin, Brad, and Pete, and I walked into the dojang. It looked the same as before, except that there were only about a third as many students compared to the last day we were here.

 

“Hajin, can I talk to you in my office?”

Master Grimm saw me walking around, and called me into his office. I nodded and followed him.

“Please, take a seat.”

I sat in front of his desk.

“It’s been a few months since Japan. Have you been training hard at baduk?”

“Yes.”

“I know you will be here just for three weeks and you are still quite young, but I expect you to be as serious as all the other students here. As you probably know, they are here to become professional players. It’s extremely competitive and they can’t afford being distracted. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Today and tomorrow, you will be studying in division C, but from Monday you will be assigned to D. That’s your class, but division D doesn’t meet on weekends. Your teacher, Mr. Park, is a strong amateur player with decades of teaching experience. I know some students find him difficult, but in his heart he wants you all to get stronger. Do your best to follow his instructions.”

“Okay.”

“Here is your homework.”

He handed me a thin book, its printed pages bound with plastic rings and a laminated cover.

“It’s about a thousand life and death problems, without answers. You can finish this book before you leave if you solve about fifty problems a day. But you have to do all the things Mr. Park tells you to do first, okay?”

“Okay.”

“You can leave now.”

Outside, I found a classroom with a sign ‘C’. There were about 10 students quietly studying inside. I didn’t see any adults around, but the atmosphere was still tense. I sat at a corner table and opened the problem book.

 

“Hajin, Sara’s here. Let’s go for dinner.”

I looked back and found my teacher and Sara. Behind I also found Brad and Colin, each holding the a problem book like mine.

“Hi Hajin! So great to see you again!”

Sara gave me a warm hug.

“Sara, what do you recommend for dinner around here?”

Teacher asked.

“The place we usually eat is really good, but we eat there pretty much every day, every meal. How about some Chinese food?”

“Sounds good to me, kids?”

Teacher looked at us, and no one objected.

 

At dinner I sat next to the teacher and Sara. I wasn’t very hungry, but I had so many questions already.

“KBA is the place we went for my game?”

I asked my teacher, remembering his conversation with Master Grimm.

“Yes.”

“Sara, what is the league? You play in a league at the KBA?”

“Yeah, it’s officially Yeonguseng League, but we just call it the league. There are 10 divisions, and number 1 is the highest. Each division has 10 people. In every league competition, you play everyone else in the same division, so nine games, and we have about one competition each month. After it’s over, the top 4 players go up a division and the bottom 4 players go down.”

“Oh… What is your division?”

“I am in 10. I was higher a few times, but kept falling again. I am not sure if I can survive this time either.”

Sara sighed.

“How do you get into 10?”

“There is a qualification tournament every three months. The top 12 players are guaranteed a spot, and usually a few more get in because people leave the league, either because they became pro, or they got too old. The age limit is 18.”

“I see. Master Grimm said I will be in division D here. Which division are you in?”

“I am in B. In A, we have young pros and players who are either 1 or 2 in the league. When you are somewhere between 3 and 10, you are in B. In C, there are students who are getting close to entering the league, and D is a level below that.”

“Is Mr. Park scary?”

“Oh, yeah. He yells at students a lot. But you will be fine. He is usually nicer to girls.”

Somehow that didn’t make me feel more comfortable.

“Where is your luggage?”

Sara asked, and I looked at my teacher.

“It’s in my car. I can give you a ride after dinner.”

“That’s okay, we can walk. It’s really close.”

“You sure? Then you and Hajin can take the luggage from the car after dinner, and I will drop the boys at the dorm and head for Daejeon.”

This decision bothered me a bit, as I expected my teacher to be there when I first go to Sara’s house. I wanted to say something about it, but when I thought about what to say, I realized I had no reason to object. My teacher had a long way to go back tonight, and I didn’t think there was any chance I would change my mind about staying here for three weeks. Maybe it was best I went there alone with Sara, to ask her more questions on the way.