Entry #31 – August 25, 1997 / Monday

Ugh, when is it going to end?

“Focus your mind and keep your body straight.”

My eyes were closed, but I could tell my teacher was walking among us. We were sitting on the floor with our legs crossed, hands on our knees, backs upright. I stretched my upper body even straighter as my teacher’s footsteps came near. Why are we doing this? I felt mildly irritated. Last week, out of nowhere, my baduk teacher began including a meditation session at the beginning of class every day. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand the purpose of this practice, and it felt like a waste of time. My mind was blank at first, then it slowly drifted to the memory of my conversation with Mina earlier.


Today was the first day after our six-week summer break. Ms. Song asked the class to take  turns and talk about our most memorable experiences during the summer. My training trip came into my mind. But as my classmates shared their experiences, I noticed almost all of them were talking about their family vacations. So, when it was my turn, I spoke about my family trip to the beach.

“Hajin, I expected you to talk about your baduk training.” Mina said at the end of the school.

“Yeah, I thought about that too.”

“And?”

“I don’t know, everyone else was talking about summer vacations. I thought the beach story made more sense.”

“What sense?”

“You know, what I did was not normal, and I wasn’t sure how to explain it anyway.”

“Well, I think your trip was super cool.”

As I recalled this moment, I wondered what I was feeling about my training trip. Did I want to hide it subconsciously?

“Okay, open your eyes.”

I immediately opened my eyes and stopped thinking about it.


The territorial balance seemed okay, but I had a weak group. It was difficult for Tom, my opponent, to attack, but it was still my burden to ensure it would live. Suddenly Tom raised his hand, and said, “Teacher, I have to go.”

“What? Already?” I asked.

“I’ve started taking piano lessons,” replied Tom. His reply shocked me. Tom didn’t join us in our training trip, and that told me that perhaps Tom was not as serious about baduk as I was. Still, Tom had been spending most of his days at baduk school like me, and I always assumed Tom was on the same path as Colin, Brad, and myself. Could he do this to us?

“I thought we were all going to try to become professional players!”

“Well, I do want to be a pro, but my mom also wants me to learn piano.” He didn’t seem sad or upset, though.

Mr. Kim, our baduk teacher came to us and looked at our game.

“We will have to say this game is draw. Too close to judge.”

The teacher said in a perfectly normal tone and voice, as if nothing unusual was going on. I felt confused but didn’t say anything more. I just started taking my stones from the board.


That night, I asked my mom.

“Did you ever want me to learn piano?”

“Why? Do you want to learn piano?”

“Maybe?”

Mom looked suspicious.

“What’s going on? Did something happen today?”

“Nothing, it’s just strange that Tom’s mother wants Tom to learn piano.”

“Why is that strange to you? You have many friends who are taking piano lessons.”

“You know, I thought Tom was fully committed to baduk. Plus, he didn’t sound like he wanted to learn piano.”

“I see. Your father and I want you and Jane to learn whatever you wish to learn.”

“Really? Anything I want?”

“Maybe not anything, but most anything? But you do want to learn baduk, right?”

“I think so.”

“Then don’t worry. We will support you in your path.”

“Okay.”

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

I didn’t feel like my questions were answered, but I couldn’t tell what my questions were either. So, I closed my eyes.

Entry #30 – August 21, 1997 / Thursday

It was supposed to be the house of my dreams. What I saw in front of me, though, didn’t quite look the way I imagined. The windows were too small and the roof was too plain. Maybe I should have sketched my design before actually building it.

“What do you think?”

I asked Jane. She was sitting next to me, observing my progress.

“I think it looks nice.”

“Would you like to live in a house like this?”

“No, I like our place better.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Our place was an apartment on the 11th floor. We had a spacious living room with a nice view of the neighborhood, a kitchen with a dining area, and four bedrooms. Jane and I shared two bedrooms as our bedroom and play/study room, my parents had one bedroom, and we used the last one as a family library. It was perfect for us.

“Should I do it over?”

I asked Jane. The last two hours of cutting and gluing went through my head. Starting all over again seemed tiring.

“Why? Is it important?”

“It’s one of the homework assignments. See, here is the list.”

“‘Read two books. Write ten diary entries. Do one art project. Write an essay about summer vacation. Do a science project’… that’s too much! Do you have to finish all these?”

“Actually, the homework is just to do two from that list. I wanted to do all of them though.”

“Why?”

“No special reason. It just seemed possible to do all of them.”

“How much have you done so far?”

“I’ve written more than ten diaries already, read three books, and wrote an essay about our trip to the beach. I guess I will skip the science project though, since there are only a few days left now.”

“You wrote about our beach trip? Why didn’t you write about your baduk training trip?”

“Well, it wasn’t a vacation.”

“Do you think you will go there again during winter vacation?”

Neither my parents nor my baduk teacher had discussed this with me, but I thought the answer must be yes. I’d seen how hard other students my age were training at Master Grimm’s dojang. Not going again during the one-and-a-half month winter break would be like giving up my hope to become a pro. But, I couldn’t admit this to Jane. She was young, and didn’t like being without me. In any case, the winter break was not until early December. Hopefully Jane will take the news better in a few months, when this summer is a distant memory.

“I haven’t talked about it with mom and dad yet.”

“I hope you don’t go,” said Jane.

“Hey, I have an idea about this house. Maybe you can help me with it.”

“Sure, what is it?”

“I am going to take the pieces apart, and we can paint on them with watercolors. It will look more fun when I put them back together.”

The materials I used were plain color cardboard sheets. They will certainly look more interesting with some patterns on them.

“Okay! Should I go get the paint?”

“Yes. I will bring the brushes and the water jar.”

“Are you sure I can paint on your house?”

“Of course. I think you will do great.”

I knew this way we both will have fun, and if it turned out bad, I could skip the art project and submit the rest of my work.

Entry #29 – August 17, 1997 / Sunday

“It’s so dark!”

Jane was puzzled how a restaurant could be so dark. I was surprised myself, too, but I didn’t say it out loud. Tables lit by candle light and well-dressed people talking quietly to each other seemed strangely natural. Mom said we were having dinner at the fanciest place in town. I pretended to look only mildly impressed. I didn’t want to reveal that I’d never been to such a nice place before.

“Welcome back, again, Hajin. We wanted to celebrate your return as soon as you were back, but we couldn’t get a reservation here.”

Said mom, once we were seated at a corner table. Jane was already flipping the big menu in front of her. It was rare for us to get our own menus in a restaurant – usually it would be printed on a wall for everyone to see, or only mom or dad would get a menu and order for all of us.

“It turned out to be great timing though. This way we can celebrate today’s tournament too!”

Dad added. He was referring to my qualification tournament earlier today. There was going to be a large women’s amateur baduk tournament in Seoul in a month, and today’s tournament was the regional qualifier. I participated in the ‘under 12 years old’ division, and won entry to the main tournament. I was excited to play in a big tournament in Seoul, but I wasn’t too elated. I was already confident I would make the cut.

“Congratulations, sister.”

“Aww, thanks! I hope one day we will go to these tournaments together.”

“I don’t know if I can get to your level.”

“Sure you can, it just takes time.”

Jane seemed unconvinced, but she didn’t argue.

“And, hard work.”

Dad joined our conversation.

“Speaking of which, Hajin, tell us more about your time at Master Grimm’s dojang. How was it?”

We’d talked about it on and off since I came back home, but often only mom and Jane were there. So I didn’t mind dad’s request.

“Mr. Park is by far the scariest teacher I’ve seen. He almost never smiles, and he can scold someone about one mistake for 10 minutes. But I haven’t seen anyone complaining about him. I think they just accept it. For me, I don’t have much to complain about in the first place because he was somewhat easier on me.”

Dad seemed really into my story, so I continued.

“I didn’t really make any new friends other than Sara. At the dojang, I only hung out with Colin and Brad, and at the end of the day went home with Sara. She has been really stressed about the League, and I felt sorry for her.”

“Do you feel like you are stronger now, after the training?”

I wished mom had asked my teacher that question, not me. If I did get stronger, would I notice? I wasn’t sure.

“Probably?”

“How was the tournament today? Was it any different from other tournaments before?”

I thought for a moment. First, about the tournament today, and then, about other tournaments I had attended in the past. Nothing really came to mind.

“I am not sure.”

A tall man in a black and white uniform came to our table with plates of soup.

“It’s our soup of the day, classic cream of mushroom. Champignon mushroom, onion, butter, and house-made cream. Would you like some pepper on it?”

“Ugh, I don’t like mushroom and I don’t like onion.”

Jane complained.

“Jane, it’s not polite to say that. Plus, you shouldn’t decide you don’t like it before even giving it a try.”

Mom looked serious. I secretly agreed with Jane, but it looked kinda nice, and smelled nice too. Maybe I will like it.

“Hajin, don’t grab your spoon until everyone is served, and wait for the adults to start eating first.”

Mom gave me a stern look. I quietly put the spoon back in its place.

“Okay, ladies.” Mom looked at us as soon as the waiter left our table.

“Let me show you how to eat soup properly. Hold your spoon like this, carefully take a spoonful of soup, moving the spoon away from yourself, and try not to touch the bowl with your spoon. Then, don’t bend down to the spoon, but lift it slowly to your mouth. When you eat the soup, use your lips, and don’t let your teeth touch the spoon. Okay?”

Jane and I both did our best to follow mom’s instructions, and we looked at each other as soon as we tasted it. The soup was heavenly.

Entry #28 – August 13, 1997 / Wednesday

I was staring at a life and death problem on the baduk board, but my mind kept flying to the idea of pretending to go to the toilet so I could take a peek in the next room. To my surprise, Jane had begun learning baduk while I was away. Now, Jane was at the baduk school with me, and sat in the beginner class in the next room. I welcomed this change with excitement – I no longer had to leave Jane to go to baduk school, and I could even help her learn. One downside, which I failed to anticipate, was that it was difficult for me to focus on my studies, knowing Jane was in the next room. I wanted to go see her, play with her, and maybe answer some questions if she had any. Of course she had her own teacher in the beginner class, but Jane always understood better when I explained things to her.

“Hajin, why don’t you play a game with Brad?”

Perhaps my teacher noticed that I wasn’t making much progress with my life and death problems.

“Can I use the restroom before starting?”

“Of course.”

On the way out, I looked at the next room through a small window on the door. The teacher was giving a lesson, and Jane was sitting in the first row. Then, remembering my excuse, I went to the restroom, washed my hands, and came back to the window. Jane was still watching the lecture. I was tempted to walk in and sit next to her, but instead I went back to my classroom and started a game with Brad.

That night, Jane and I were in our bed together as usual. We shared a queen size bed in our bedroom and had a separate room for studying. When my parents asked me if wanted my own room just before we moved to our current house, I told them I preferred sharing both rooms – we would sleep together, play together, and one day study together, too.

“Do you like learning baduk?” I asked Jane.

“Well, it’s not very fun.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Umm, I don’t know. Is it fun for you?”

I suddenly understood what Jane meant – actually, it hasn’t been really fun for me either, especially since it became more serious.

“Yeah, I guess it’s not always fun. But it’s fun when I win.”

“Oh, that’s true. It’s fun when I capture the opponent’s stones from the board.”

“When I lose, or feel stuck with a certain problem, it’s certainly not fun for me either. It makes me sad and frustrated. And that makes me want to get better.”

“What if you didn’t play baduk at all? Then you don’t need to get better.”

“Well, I can’t win if I don’t play.”

“We can do something else for fun.”

I imagined us doing the things we enjoyed together everyday, instead of spending hours at baduk school. We could read, ride our bicycles, do coloring books, and so on. It sounded more fun than studying baduk. But, it also felt a bit wrong – a life without any baduk in it.

“Or, we can study baduk together. I am sure you will like it more over time.”

“Okay.”

Entry #27 – August 8, 1997 / Friday

As Colin, Brad and I entered our classroom after lunch, the first thing that came to our attention was the stack of three problem books on a table. We instantly knew these were the problem books Master Grimm had asked us to submit yesterday. I ran over to the stack and dug mine out from the bottom.

Ugh, how did I get so many problems wrong?”

I couldn’t believe it – red marks covered almost half my answers. I had been so confident. I glanced at Colin and Brad who were busy looking at their own books. They were also in disbelief that they did so poorly.

“Should we review some of the problems together?”

Colin suggested, and we sat around a nearby table.

 

“Wait, I have the same answer for this one, why am I wrong and you are right? Maybe Master Grimm mis-read the number I wrote here?”

Clearly, I had the same answer as Brad. But his was marked correct and mine wrong.

“Yeah, what was your answer, Colin?”

“I got that right, I had the same answer as you guys.” Colin showed us his problem.

“Oh, you and Brad have exactly the same answer to the end.”

It was a black-to-live problem, and I was confident that black could live with my first move. Did Master Grimm really make a mistake?

“Ah, I know why,” Colin said. Brad perked up too – they must have discovered something.

“Is that really it?” They shared a glance, looking surprised.

“What?” I couldn’t tell what was going on in their heads, so I begged them to explain.

Colin spoke up. “In your answer, white took only two stones. In ours, white got four stones. So it’s better for white to play like this.”

“Whaaaat?”

I felt it was unfair. The problem was for black to live, not for black to live and white to keep the most points.

“Yeah, I think that’s it. We get it wrong if the opponent doesn’t play the best sequence. I guess that means we need to find the best moves for both players, or else we don’t get credit.” Brad agreed.

“Do you think Master Grimm will ask us to submit the book again?”

I asked. In our baduk school at home, we always had to re-do the problems we got wrong.

“I don’t think so. Maybe we were supposed to take it home and work on it by ourselves.”

“I guess we can take it to Mr. Kim?”

“Now that you mention him, I kinda miss him.” I said. It had been almost three weeks since he dropped us off at the dojang. Tomorrow, he was coming back to bring us back to our families.

“I think I will miss this place.”

Brad spoke as if he were talking to himself, and Colin and I just nodded. We shared a brief silence, staring at the problem book, but I knew we were all thinking about the last three weeks we spent here.

 

“What do you think you will miss the most?” I asked.

“Surprisingly, I enjoyed living in the dorm. Watching the other guys reviewing their games together before going to bed.” Colin said.

“Seriously? They study again after they go back to the dorm?”

Sara and I never studied more baduk when we went back home. We were both tired, and we usually went straight to bed.

“I think I will miss the simple life here. Here, there is only baduk. When we go back, there will be school, family, and all that other stuff.”

“Yeah, I think I will miss this too” Colin agreed.

I wasn’t too sure, but I didn’t say so out loud. On one hand, I liked the simple routine here, and living with Sara. She was just recovering from the disappointment of being eliminated from the league. She said the next qualification tournament would be in a month. On the other hand, I felt relieved that we were going back home tomorrow. I missed being with my family, reading my books – the ones not about baduk! – and so on. Then I wondered if Colin and Brad were also missing their families. I didn’t ask them though, because the question felt a bit silly, and also because Mr. Park just came in. The lunch break was over.

Entry #26 – July 26, 1997 / Saturday

“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?”

Sara had made it clear at breakfast that she didn’t need her mother to drive us to the KBA, but Sara’s mother asked again as we were about to leave home.

“Yeah, don’t worry.”

“What about Hajin? Will she be okay?”

“Me? I am sure I will be fine.” I quickly responded. I had never used a subway before, but I trusted Sara and wanted to be on her side.

“It’s so nice you are coming with me today.”

Sara said on our walk to the subway station.

“I am excited too!”

“Have you been to the KBA before?” asked Sara.

“Once. But I only saw the Baduk TV studio.”

“Then maybe I can show you around today. By the way, how did the conversation go with Master Grimm?”

“I asked him if I could go with you on Saturday. He asked why. I told him I wanted to see the league, and he said okay. It was pretty short.”

“Cool. Honestly I was a little concerned that he would say no. Master Grimm is very strict about studying at the dojang unless you have a tournament or medical emergency.”

This remark reminded me of the day I feigned a headache because I didn’t feel like going to the baduk school.

“Did you ever pretend you were sick to skip the dojang for a day?”

“No, I prefer to be at the dojang over home. You saw my parents, right? I know they love me, but sometimes I just wish they would leave me alone.” I understood her point, but this conversation made me miss my parents.

The subway station was not fancy, but it was a nice change from the hot summer temperature to cooler underground air. Sara bought tickets for both of us, and told me we were both getting 50% discounts because we were under 12 years old. Our subway car was half-empty. We sat in one corner on a long bench seat. It was strange that the seats were facing inward, unlike on trains. Sara took out a silver cassette player and offered me one earbud of her earphones. Familiar pop songs were played and Sara lightly tapped her feet.

“Hello Mr. Kang!”

Sara happily greeted a janitor who was sitting by the main entrance of the KBA. He seemed to know Sara and said hello too. Now that I was visiting the KBA for the second time, I could observe the place in more detail. The gray building looked rather dull from the outside, but inside I could sense a subtle thrill and tension in the air.

“Is the second floor open?” asked Sara.

“No. Why?”

“Hajin hasn’t seen this place before. So, I wanted to show her.”

“Sure, Follow me.”

We walked up the stairs, and Mr. Kang opened a large gray metal door blocking the whole floor. When he opened the door, the first thing that caught my eyes was a huge white sheet on the wall – it was a preliminary tournament for a major professional title. There were numerous tournament brackets and the names of pro players. On the left side of each level of brackets were dates written in Chinese characters. I was surprised that the pro tournament games were so spread out, with only one game every two or three days. The tournaments I played in were often finished in one or two days, so we had to play several games each day. Then, Mr. Kang opened the first door for us. It was a large hall packed with tables, chairs, and baduk sets. I loved how the most of the outside walls were windows and gentle sunlight streamed in all over the place.

“Isn’t this nice? This place is mostly for professional preliminary tournaments, but sometimes there are amateur tournaments too. The qualification tournament for the league is often held here as well.”

I nodded. I couldn’t tell how soon I would be playing in the qualification, but I was already thrilled by the idea. I knew it was only a matter of time, and I had no doubt it would happen.

“Do you want see the main tournament room and the special match room too?”

“Of course!!”

Sara excitedly replied to Mr. Kang’s question, and we began to climb more stairs.

“What’s here?”

I asked, looking at the dark glass door on the third floor.

“It’s the administration office for the KBA. They only work on weekdays.”

Sara explained.

Soon, we arrived on the fourth floor. This floor was different; it had an open space like a lounge, instead of narrow hallways and doors. In the center of the lounge, there was a black leather couch, a low, wooden table, and an antique standing clock. Mr. Kang walked around the couch and opened a door for us. Sara waved at me to come in, and said, “This is where pro players play their main round games.” This room was smaller, and had only four baduk sets. But instead of normal upright chairs, this room had very comfortable looking armchairs for each seat.

“I don’t think there is ever an amateur tournament here. So you gotta be a pro, and advance to the main round to play here.”

Sara’s voice carried a great deal of admiration for this room. Then, we continued to another room, which was located in the far corner of the floor.

“Now, this is a really special place. Only the title matches and the final rounds are played here.”

The room had only one baduk set – a beautiful board and slate-and-shell stones. There were expensive looking leather armchairs for the players, and the room was decorated with an eight-panel folding screen art and a few frames of calligraphy.

“It would be a dream come true to play an official match here one day,” said Sara.

“Good luck with your games today. I will go back to my office now.” We walked out of the room, and Mr. Kang locked the door again.

“Come, I will show you where we play the league.”

Sara grabbed my hand and led me to the stairs again.

The league room was on the fifth floor, which was more of a rooftop space than a proper floor. Sara opened the door, and I saw dozens of thick-legged baduk boards on the floor. There were several people there already, mostly meditating or quietly making tea. We took off our shoes and entered.

“From this main entrance door, the first row is for the first division. I am at the opposite end, because I am in the tenth division. Do you see this border here?” Sara pointed at the sliding door frame, but the doors were wide open.

“This border separates the first five divisions and the second five divisions. The first five, from the first to fifth, is referred as the first section, and the rest is the second section. It’s like your bigger-picture status in the league, since your division may be changing every month.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, let’s go back to that couch. I will sit with you until the league starts. Maybe I can even help you with your problemes a bit.”

We went back to the fourth floor and I took out my problem book. I knew I was not allowed to be in the league room while they play, so I brought it to look at while Sara’s playing.

“Hey, do you like McDonald’s?”

“Sure, why?”

“There is one not far from here. Let’s go there for lunch after my first game.”

“But!”

“I know my mom said we should go to a Korean restaurant. But, you are not going to tell my mother, right?”

“Okay!”

I thought of all the pro rooms and the league room I saw today. It was exciting to picture myself playing in these places one day. But for now, I was just as excited to get a chocolate ice cream cone at McDonald’s in a few hours.

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.

Entry #22 – July 12, 1997 / Saturday

The sunlight on my face felt warm despite the pleasantly cool temperature inside the air-conditioned car. I was looking at the busy street outside, filled with people dressed up for the beach. We were driving around slowly, looking for a parking lot. Jane was still asleep next to me. Mom and dad were occasionally discussing directions in a low voice, probably thinking Jane and I were both asleep. Luckily we found a spot soon, and my family joined other people with large bags, boxes of food, and swimming toys in our hands.

The beach was only modestly crowded. Mom rented one of the large beach umbrellas already set up right by the sea, and was visibly happy about getting one. She said there will be a lot more people here in a couple of hours, and we wouldn’t have gotten the parking or the umbrella if we hadn’t left home as early as we did. I thought I hid my complaints about having to wake up early, but I guess my mom read them anyway. As soon as we arrived at our umbrella, Jane and I dropped the boxes we were carrying, took off our sandals, and ran to the water. The sand under my feet was smooth, but a little too hot to stand in one spot for long. Then, our feet were in the water, cold and refreshing.

While we were getting used to the cold sea water by stepping in and out with our feet, dad joined us with two tube floats. Jane’s was smaller and shaped like a turtle with a hollow shell, and mine had a perfect doughnut shape with Lion King characters printed on it.

“Dad, where is your tube?” Asked Jane.

“I don’t need one, because I can swim.”

“Can all adults swim?”

“You don’t need to be adults to learn to swim. In fact, I learned it when I was about your age, Jane. My family lived in a house very close to a beach, and my brothers and I went swimming every day.”

“Then can I learn to swim?” Jane seemed excited.

“Maybe not today. The sea is not the best place to start because of the big waves. Maybe at a swimming pool is better.”

“Okay.”

Riding our tube floats, dad led us into deeper water. We didn’t go further than where I could touch the bottom with my foot, but dad would leave us once in a while to swim and come back. Mom told us not to, but when dad was not with us, we would taste the seawater and giggle. It was salty and funny. Some time later, I began feeling dizzy and tired.

“Jane, I am feeling tired. Do you wanna go back?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s wait for dad, then”

“Okay! What do you want to do when we go back?”

“Maybe I will read the book I brought. Let’s see.”

“Welcome back! How was it?”

“It was fun! Why didn’t you join us mom?” Jane replied cheerfully.

“I like here better, not getting tanned. Wanna have some fruit?”

“Yes!”

“Hajin, should we play baduk while having fruit?” Dad asked.

“Do we have a baduk set?” I was surprised.

“Of course, I packed this travel set.” Dad took out a portable magnetic set from one of the bags we brought.

“Oh, we do have a set…” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t mind playing a game with dad anytime, but I wanted to do something other than playing baduk since we were on a vacation. But, it didn’t feel right to say no.

“Dad, Hajin said she wanted to read a book.” Jane said, seeing me not responding right away.

“Hajin, do you want to read a book instead of playing?” Dad asked.

I nodded.

“It’s okay. Annie, should we play?” Dad turned to mom.

“Yeah, I guess I can play,” Mom agreed.

That night back at home, mom took some cucumbers out from the freezer.

“All three of you, lay down in the living room. I will put some cucumber slices on your face to cool down the sun burn.”

“Okay!”

Dad and Jane had laid down already, and I went to the kitchen to see mom slicing the cold cucumbers.

“Mom, I want to take swimming lessons.”

“Swimming lessons?”

“Yes, I want to swim like dad.”

“Learning to swim is good, but I am not sure when you will have the time. This summer, you will be in Seoul for three weeks, and you spend most of your time after school at the baduk school.”

I thought about suggesting to reduce my time at baduk school, but then it didn’t sound like something an aspiring pro would say.

“You are right, never mind.”

I went to the living room and lay down next to Jane. Now that I thought about it, my face did feel a bit itchy. Cold cucumbers will be nice.