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A girl learns strategies for life by playing a traditional Korean game with her grandfather.

In traditional Korea, there is a game that requires both sharp wit and quick, nimble fingers. Called alkkagi and translated literally as “shooting eggs,” it is a game that is generally played by the older generation and enjoyed by the elderly, along with a glass of beer to wash the euphoria down. The gist of it is:

  • A checkerboard
  • Black and white “eggs”
  • Sharp, strong fingers
  • A voice to holler with

The goal of this game is to knock the other players’ eggs out by flicking your eggs into the other players’, forcing them to skid off the checkerboard and become “eliminated.” The most slight miscalculations or awry positions can end a game; in the same way, a minuscule change of style can win it. To explain it broadly, it’s “a game of simultaneously keeping away and drawing to each other,” as my grandfather put it.

“You can’t win by running away.” His eyes smiled gently at me, glasses nestled on a hawkish nose. “But you can’t win by running forward, either.”

I straightened, my stubby legs curving with childish fat as I tucked them beneath me, the cushion shoved under my knees rubbing scratchily as I did so. “So, how do you win?” I demanded, glittering eyes fixed on the checkerboard. “How?”

His lips were pale, and his teeth shaded beneath them. His face looked sketched-in and wavering. “You wait,” he said, his nose curving as he smiled, “and endure, and you take your chances as you get them.” He scooped the eggs from the board and separated them into a black pile and a white pile. “Because the goal is not to win as fast as you can,” he explained in his quivering, confused English. “It is just to have at least one chance left.”

“Dad!” my mother complained, the left corner of her mouth curling up as she entered the dim, wooden room, “not now! Don’t lecture her, she’s just a little kid. She doesn’t need to hear all your lessons.”

I kept to the fringes and hoped that my defense could be my attack as well

She piled the papers into a stack and pushed them against the desk, slipping pens and pencils into a wooden drawer. Her eyes laughed brightly, devoid of unhappiness except for a lingering trace on her left palm, the tiny little crescent mark of fingernails biting angrily into her skin.

“When else will she hear this? When she has already forsaken it?” he asked, plucking one black egg from the white pile and moving it to the black pile. “She will never listen to this except for when her ears are still open. Imagine if they are closed! My words will pound against them and only close them further. Now is the only time when my words can enter unattacked.”

My mother shook her head with her mouth pressed and ironed into a smile, her arms curling around to grab for my hand and reaching for my hair, stroking the bouncy curl that stuck up on my head. Her hand engulfed mine as she herded me away, her voice whisking back to my grandfather, “Be ready for dinner at seven!”

I reluctantly left, whipping my head back, my pigtails bouncing and battering the air, to see my grandfather’s humbling smile. He had some secret that allowed him sure victory; I had no idea what it was, but I never won, and he never lost.

And so I grew up under the gentle governance of wisdom from my grandfather, the bright and colorful play of my grandmother, the complete and total, overwhelming love pouring from my mother, and the insistent kindness of my father. I grew without complaint and did so well; I was never reprimanded, and in turn, I refused to be.

I loved the game of alkkagi even when it became obsolete; I stayed in the dining room and watched, fascinated, as my parents shrieked and hollered delightedly, roaring with fury and jumping up with glee. I’d join in too, feeling the human desire to be involved, included, and do whatever it took not to be outside the circle. I’d scream with delight, mock my father as he groaned, insist on having a few more eggs, and take all my opportunities.

Then I grew to secondary school, and I changed my tactics—from that of a bumbling primary schooler who resorted to flicking eggs this way and that and only killing oneself—to keeping away. Running away, as my grandfather put it. I kept to the fringes and hoped that my defense could be my attack as well, and I rejected my chances as they laid themselves out on the board.

I suppose I hoped that someone would be reckless, taking chances not meant to be taken, and fall on their own swords, flicking their eggs the wrong way and losing while attempting to win. And that was well and all, but when I met with someone strategic and talented and someone who could hit me out, I stood no chance. I stood at the edges, hoping they’d knock themselves out along the way, only to be disappointed.

So neither way was the path to success. So then, what was it?

Practice, perhaps. And the right opportunities. Seizing the moment, as my father would say. And so I practiced—at what, I don’t particularly know. I tried making the right decisions, choosing which battles to fight and which to accept. I sharpened my mind and sat down every week for a match of alkkagi with my parents.

My grandfather would say I practiced at life.

And then came a day when I didn’t feel ready at all, when my bones were tired and my muscles felt stiff and my eyes were dry and aching; my eyelids were sandpaper. My mouth tasted parched, like sand and desert lingering in the air, that awful feeling of having woken up after sleeping with the mouth open and breathing. That, incidentally, was the day my grandfather decided to pay a visit, his alkkagi board in one hand and a wooden chest with both eggs mixed up in another. “My girl,” he said, his form shining like a mirage. Wavering, as if I was a starving, thirsty wanderer lost in the desert and dreaming of survival, of life, so desperately that I dreamed his existence. “Have you learned?” he asked. “Are you ready?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said.

He nodded. “I was worried that you were.” Quietly, as if telling a secret, he said, “Nothing ever happens when you’re ready.” He slipped past me and shut the door softly behind him, gesturing to the dining room and setting down the board, leaving me blinking and watching from the door.

“If one day you are to win at life,” he asked, “don’t you have to force certain days to be ‘that day’? Won’t you have to triumph over other strugglers? I have lived my life the way I have wanted to; my regrets are heavy, but they are not burdens. Now it is time for my descent, my downward spiral. My torch must be held by you. I am not ready for your triumph, but I have done all I can to ready you for it.”

I laughed awkwardly, walking towards the dining room and flicking the lights on. “Grandpa, you make it sound like a huge battle or something,” I teased, sitting down and casting my eyes about for my mother.

My grandfather watched impassively from the other side of the table. “You wanted to win. Do you still want this?”

I smiled. “Of course I do,” I said. “But later, maybe, when I’m done with my homework. I have a lot of tests this week, see, and—”

“There will always be mountains, and you must always climb them. Do hikers never rest because there is still a mountain to climb?” My grandfather’s voice was sharp and insistent, and I wanted to use my hollering voice to shout that he was wrong and old and decrepit and I knew better than he, but I pursed my lips and nodded instead.

“So why have you come?” I asked as I unfolded the checkerboard. “Did Grandma send you?”

My grandfather smiled, the first hint of emotion during this visit. “Yes, she did. She sent a bag of goguma. Sweet potato.” He lifted a white-blue plastic bag from under the table, and I inhaled the flavor of the goguma through my nose, holding it there and savoring it.

“Thank you,” I said, setting my pieces on the table. “Mom will love it.”

“Of course she will. That is why your grandmother sent them. But let us delay no further. We must start eventually, and I will make that inevitable start to be now.”

Ten minutes does not take particularly long, a blink of an eye to time, which has seen so much that is not interested in alkkagi matches between a girl and her masterful grandfather. But to the girl, it is everything. It is the moment she has waited for, what she has practiced for. This moment where she emerges victorious, where she triumphs over the past generation, proves herself worthy.

*          *          *

A little boy sits on the floor, moving around a toy car silently. His eyes flicker towards a huddle of shrieking, laughing boys playing soccer, and he casts his eyes downward desolately. He picks up his toy and moves towards them, but seems to think better of it and snaps the other way. His eyes are confused; he does not understand when this divide cracked between him and them.

His face is sour, cinched. It resembles a citrus fruit.

A woman with long hair and dark eyes reaches a hand towards the boy. “My boy,” she says, “do you want to play soccer with them?”

“Not really.” The boy swallows, and his eyes flicker again. “Not really.”

Three Dragon Fish

There’s a knowing look in the woman’s eyes; a mother knows all. “Let me tell you a secret,” she whispers, her arms curling around the boy and her chin resting on his shoulder. “In order to win—win life, or anything else of the sort, but life most of all—don’t run away. You’ll never win by running away. But then again,” her eyes are yearning, nostalgic, “you’ll never win by running forward, either.”

The boy kicks out his feet and lashes his arms. “Then how?” he demands. “How do you win?”

“You wait,” she says, her nose curving as she smiles, “and endure, and you take your chances as you get them.”

She smiles as she remembers a hawkish nose, nestled glasses, a humbling smile; her grandfather, hunched over the checkerboard patiently—kind, patient eyes, a sketched face.

She smiles as she draws her son all the closer to her.

*          *          *

Generations fall, and new ones rise. Each is unique and flavorful and diverse, and each has a different strategy. Some hope famines and plagues will pass them by, others leap at wars and tumble with riots, and others wait and endure and take their chances as they get them.