I’ve been a negligent little blogger. Today, I offer culture:
Pepito? Pepapo? No, Teacha…Pepero!
Two weeks ago, I began to notice massive displays of red-boxed candy and cute stuffed animals everywhere. I wondered if Koreans prepared for Valentine’s Day much like Americans prepare for Christmas: no less than four months in advance. Turns out, last Tuesday was Pepero (pay-pay-ro) Day—a uniquely Korean holiday. Took me all day to remember what this holiday was actually called. I kept saying “Pepito” and “Pepe le Pue”, but trust me, this was no skunk of an idea. You think Wal-Mart has power? Well, the high-end-shop juggernaut of South Korea is Lotte Department Store, and in 1983, it created it’s own holiday, simply to (gasp!) make a won or two off sugar-stick lovin’ Koreans. In 2006, Lotte made the equivalent of $47 million dollars off pepero sticks, alone. They deny premeditation, of course. And would we expect them to do otherwise?
The designated day is November 11th—11/11—and the month-day configuration symbolizes friendship and love and all that jazz. Get it? The ones—they’re like little people standing side-by-side. So Lotte manufactures, boxes, and sells long sticks of cookie candy that represent the ones, that represent the people, that represent—ahem—the love of the Korean people for one another. I’m telling you, for a country practically drowning in everything that is cute, this is a fabulous marketing idea.
The candy is fabulous. Tasty. Cheap. And the think tanks at Lotte solved that de facto profit-inhibiting factor of Valentine’s Day: pepero sticks are not just a between-lover exchange, but for friends, or family, or—lucky me—teachas! So the kids brought us teachas boxes and boxes of pepero. Crunchy pepero. Chocolate smothered pepero. Blueberry yogurt pepero (my favorite). Pepero dipped in nuts and sprinkles, and pepero with columns of fudge running through the center (they call this “nude” pepero). And for one day, the whole country was happy. Or, at least, our office was.
An article if you’re interested: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06314/737326-82.stm
What else? My Korean skills are coming along. Skipped class Thursday due to a little head bug. The man who owns the corner store where I buy my eggs and Dr. You health bars teaches me a little each day. Learned how to say “diahhrea” the other day (the direct translation from Korean is basically “water-poop”) and threw it out there on the bus the other day, just to see what the Korean high school boys would do. They remained very serious. Perhaps saying “poop” ceases to be funny at a certain age? I know the elementary kids think it’s but-gusting hilarious.
Thursday was the national university exam test day. According to a couple of my coworkers, one of the highest suicide days in Korea. The other is the day the kids get their test results back. Clearly, this is an important test.
Everything academic or intellectual here is done by rank. Chloe, one of my fabulous co-workers, has a cousin who consistently scores #1 in the country on the annual MD boards (and she’s a woman). Similarly, the kids are ranked in class according to monthly or quarterly tests. Kind of like ranking by chair in band class, right? Well, the result is serious self-esteem deficits. Brains are everything here. Imagine if kids in the United States were each given an ordinal number ranking how beautiful or handsome they were in relation to the other kids in class, and if this number was posted on the wall for all to see? Anxiety. (I harbor a bit of disdain for the state of the American education system. Could ya’ tell?)
But the point is, is the eyes of Koreans, one’s entire future is determined by this one day of testing, and the number spit out by the grading machine. The goal is to score high enough to gain admission in a Seoul university—they are the best. Going anywhere else is humiliating and seriously debilitating to chasing one’s true ambition. Sad!
So on national testing day, business and government workers are required to go to work one hour later than usual, to avoid traffic jams that might prevent kids from reaching testing sites. People are asked to avoid honking their horns at all costs (hard, in this horn-happy country) to cut down on noise. And the kids are locked up all day, scribbling, filling in bubbles, possibly contemplating, “Rope?” or “Subway jump?” I repeat: sad! At least we’re allowed to take those big assessment exams eight times over, if we really want to. And go to school in some obscure state like Missouri and not feel like your life is over.
What else? I’m going to Seoul next weekend. Sooooo excited. I promise a little blurb about the city this time.