Entry #11 – April 24, 1997 / Thursday

Today’s lunch at our grandparents’ place wasn’t very good. The fish was cooked in a soy sauce-based seasoning. I like fish and soy sauce flavors, together or separately, but today’s fish was too salty. I didn’t like it at all, but I emptied my rice bowl and the large piece of fish assigned to me anyway. I knew my grandma would insist on making something else for me if I complained, and I didn’t want to cause trouble.

After lunch, I took the usual shuttle bus to my baduk school. No one at the school asked me why I didn’t come last Friday, and from Monday and on, everything was just as usual. As I was entering the baduk school, I was surprised to see Colin, not the teacher.

“Hi! You came early today.” I greeted Colin while setting up my life and death problem book on a board next to his. I love working on my life and death book, and this is my default choice when my teacher is not around to give me different tasks.

“Hey. Yeah, the teacher had some errand in our neighborhood, so he picked me up in his car. He went out for another errand though.”

“I see.”

“Do you come at this time everyday?”

“Kind of.”

“Do you like coming here everyday?”

It was odd that he asked me this question. I’ve been thinking about this since last Friday. Certainly there were days that I enjoyed going to the baduk school. But sometimes I didn’t want to go at all. Does this mean I don’t like going to the baduk school every day? Or is it normal that you do things even when you don’t necessarily want to do them? This reminded me of the salty fish earlier.

“I think it’s okay. I like solving these problems.”

I lifted my life and death book to show Colin.

“You said you wanted to be a professional player, right?”

“I think so… Although, I don’t really know what it’s like.”

“Well, at least you know that you will need to be stronger than most people that went to Japan with us.”

“I know they were strong, but they were also older than us.”

“But, you also saw how much they study. They spend more time studying baduk than us.”

“That’s true. So, does this mean you don’t want to be a professional player?”

“Actually, I do want to become a professional player.”

“Really? Why?”

“I think it’s cool that in baduk, it’s perfectly up to my skills. There is no luck, no politics, nor connections. I go up if I win, or I don’t if I lose.”

I realized this was true. The stronger I get in baduk, the further I can go with it. No one can stop me as long as I win.

Soon the teacher came back, and other students also arrived one by one. Today’s lecture was about creating more efficient shapes when invading the opponent’s territory. It was amazing to learn how to use the opponent’s stones by attaching to them or placing shoulder hits. After the lecture, the teacher paired me with Colin for a game. We always played even, but I won about two or three times out of ten. I got white in nigiri, and pursued a territorial style from the early beginning. I wanted to allow him to make a big moyo and invade to use the cool tactics we just learned. Colin seemed hesitant to make a moyo, probably because he also watched that lecture, but he didn’t have a better alternative. Eventually he started developing a large moyo on the upper side. I waited for a few moves, and when there were no more wide place to take, I made a knight’s-move reduction invasion on the fifth line. It was not the kind of move I played before, but it looked really effective in the lecture. The move worked out magically. Colin didn’t manage to gain much from attacking my invasion move, and with that I was safely ahead in territory. The game lasted longer than usual, more than an hour, and in the end I won by 3.5 points. I was delighted that I won against Colin, and also thrilled that my first adventure with the new move worked out so well.

At 5:30 pm, after all the other students had left, the teacher invited me and Colin to his office. He took out some doughnuts and bottled orange juice for us, and asked us to sit.

“I have good news for you, both.”

When we were settled with doughnuts in our hands, the teacher started up with a rather serious voice. We both looked at him, waiting for him to continue.

“Because you two behaved well and showed promise, you are both invited to study at Master Grimm’s dojang in coming Summer. How long you want to stay there is up to you. You can discuss this with your parents.”

“Are you sure? Will we be staying at the dorm?” Colin seemed genuinely excited.

“Only you can stay at the dorm, because they don’t have female students staying there. But, apparently Sara’s family is willing to host Hajin in their house for the duration. Hajin, are you interested?”

I didn’t know what to say. Summer vacations were about 6 weeks. I couldn’t imagine living 6 weeks without my family. But teacher said the duration was up to us. Maybe if it’s just a couple weeks, it would be okay. It was a scary idea, but I was excited too.

“I think so.”

“Colin?”

“Definitely yes!”

“Sounds good. Then, I will talk to your parents about it. You will probably need to have some conversations about it too. Now, enjoy your snack, and get ready for the evening class.”

“Okay!” Our answer came at almost the same time, and we felt excitement from each other.

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.

Entry #6 – March 3, 1997 / Monday

“Hajiiiiiin!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hajin, you have a new backpack!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The one downtown?”

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entry #5 – February 24, 1997 / Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entry #4 – February 22, 1997 / Saturday

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

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

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

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

The students were all silent.

“Have a good breakfast.”

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

“Hajin, did you sleep well?”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

Sara told my teacher, smiling at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entry #3 – February 21, 1997 / Friday

“Hajin, wake up!”

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

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

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

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

“Are we at the airport?”

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

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

“What is a baduk dojang?”

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

“Oh.”

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

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

I whispered to Colin.

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

Hearing my words, my teacher explained.

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

“Ah, you are here.”

A thin man with big eyeglasses greeted my teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, what is your name?”

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

“It’s Hajin.”

“Hajin. I am Sara. How old are you?”

“I am eight. How about you?”

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

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

“He is Colin. Nine years old.”

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

“No. First time going abroad.”

“Cool! Are you excited?”

“Yes.”

“What are you excited about?”

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

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

“Do you want to live at the dorm?”

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

“Do you not like going to bed?”

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

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

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

She smiled, and we ate the bars.

Entry #2 – February 10, 1997 / Monday

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

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

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

“What did you do during Seolnal, Hajin?”

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

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

“Fun! What else?”

“Oh, I played baduk with my uncle.”

“Did you win?”

“Yes.”

“How strong is your uncle?”

“I am not sure.”

“Hey, Hajin, hi teacher.”

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

“Hi Colin.”

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

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

Teacher left us to start his lecture.

“Did you get some good money?”

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

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

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

“Cool.”

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

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

“You saw it already I guess.”

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

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

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

“Our Japan trip is coming soon now!”

Colin whispered. He seemed genuinely excited.

“Yeah…”

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