Kumbayah and Human Sacrifice

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I love Host Mom dearly, but spending time with her always leaves me hopelessly confused.

I have seen little of my host family for the past few months, so I’ve been spending a lot of time by myself or traveling with friends. After spending the previous weekend out of town, I decided to stay around Gimhae for this weekend and catch up on some reading. Apparently, Host Mom had other plans.

On Friday evening, Host Mom told me that the students at her hagwon were going on a retreat for the weekend on Geoje Island. Geoje is the second-largest island in Korea, and it is located about an hour south of Busan. When she realized I didn’t have any plans for the weekend, she asked me to come with her. She told me to meet her at the hagwon on Saturday afternoon, and we would go to Geoje together.

I arrived at the hagwon at noon, and we left for Geoje at 1:30. It was strange that my host sisters weren’t coming too, but I guess my host parents wanted me to feel included because we rarely see each other now. After picking up a few groceries, we started the drive to Geoje. Passing over bridges, winding around the mountains, and taking a few wrong turns along the way, we arrived at the site around 4:00 PM.

The twenty hagwon students were playing soccer while we unpacked the car. Host Aunt was also there with my host nephews, and she introduced me to some of the students, most of whom were the same age as my own students at Gimhae Jeil. The hagwon teachers also introduced themselves and asked me about my time in Korea. They were all friendly and enjoyed speaking with me, which lessened the awkwardness considerably. One teacher in particular, Cookie, seemed to go out of her way to make me feel welcome.

After a quick dinner, we went inside the main building and the students performed songs and dances they had been practicing. Toward the end of their performances, I glanced at my watch and realized it was getting late. The sun had set by the time the students finished their routines, and I thought it was the end of the evening.

Turns out I was wrong.

After the performances, the students sat down in front of the hagwon teachers, who took turns reading from large pieces of paper. Sentimental music played in the background, while a man’s picture was displayed on the projector. There was so much crying that at first I thought the teachers were delivering a eulogy. I soon figured out that the teachers were reading letters that the parents had sent to their children at the retreat. I realized that this was going to take a while, so not so surreptitiously, I scooted to the corner, took out my Kindle, and read a few pages of my book. I figured that after such an emotional evening, the students would be ready for bed.

Nope. Barbecue time!

We went back outside, where plates of samgyeopsal and bowls of steaming ramen filled the picnic tables (and, unfortunately, attracted the flies and mosquitoes). It was past 10:00 PM at this point, so I wondered if we would be spending the night on Geoje–though I thought it strange that Host Mom didn’t mention that.

Okay, I thought as we cleared away the remainder of the food. It was lovely meeting the students. I guess it’s time to go home now.

But when is it ever that easy?

Host Mom and Host Aunt led everyone back to the soccer field, where I saw a large pile of wood and leaves. When I saw a torch next to the kindling, I realized we were having a bonfire.

“Janine is tired,” Cookie observed, though I’m sure the look on my face was more like confusion than tiredness.

The oldest teacher, a man in his sixties, harrumphed, “I don’t care. It’s the Korean way.”

As the male teacher lit the fire, Host Mom, Host Aunt, the students and the teachers joined hands. We started running around in a circle around the bonfire, and the students were chanting something in Korean. I heard the word “saranghae,” which means “love,” but I didn’t understand much else. I’ve never been camping or been anywhere near a bonfire, but this felt like something out of Woodstock.

Yaseot myeong!” Cookie yelled in the middle of the chant.

“Yaseot myeong?” I repeated to myself, as I felt the two hands holding mine drop suddenly.

The students huddled together in groups, and I heard a few of them call out, “Sorry, Janine!”

Yaseot myeong. Six people. Get into groups of six. Uh oh…

“You’re out!” Cookie said in English, putting her arm around my shoulder. Then she started leading me toward the bonfire. Woodstock was turning into a scene from Lord of the Flies.

As we got uncomfortably close to the flames, I looked at her and asked, “You’re not sacrificing me, are you?!”

Cookie laughed and translated my sentence into Korean so everyone else could laugh at me, too.

“No, no sacrifice! You just have to dance!”

Oh, just sacrifice me.

At Cookie’s insistence (read: I had no choice), I busted out my signature moves from the middle school dance floor, much to my embarrassment but to the delight of the students. I looked around for Host Mom, but she had disappeared from the circle. Thanks, Host Mom.

My punishment over, I rejoined the circle, and we joined hands again. This time, Cookie led (what sounded like) a spiritual song in Korean. I didn’t understand this one either, but I’m pretty sure it said “saranghae,” too. No matter what the actual lyrics were, it was the closest I’ve ever been to singing “Kumbayah” around a campfire.

This has to be the end, I thought, realizing it was almost midnight. This can’t go on much longer.

When the song ended, Cookie handed her microphone to the student next to her, who spoke briefly and then passed it to the student next to him. On and on it went down the line, until the microphone finally reached me. I tried to pass it on to the next student, as the hagwon teachers had done, but the older male teacher held the microphone firmly in front of my face and refused to let me pass.

“Say something,” the teacher demanded.

“Say what?” What I’m thankful for? A wish? What’s my prompt, here?

“Anything.”

Saranghae!” I said, prompting more student laughter and an eyeroll from the male teacher as I passed the microphone to the next student.

I felt a small tug at my shirt. I looked down, and one of my host nephews was beckoning me to come with him. We were going back to Gimhae.

Thankful for the escape, I backed away from the circle, bowing goodbye to the teachers and students. Host Dad, Host Mom, Host Aunt, the nephews and I piled into the car for the two-hour drive back home. Behind us, the teachers were extinguishing the rest of the bonfire, and the students returned to their rooms for the night.

Jaime isso?” Host Mom asked as we pulled out of the parking lot. Did you have fun?

“Yes.” But please, I added silently, give me a little more information about what I’m getting myself into before taking me on another “adventure.”

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