Two days of great cultural importance jammed right up next to each other this year in Korea. On Thursday was Suneung (수능시험, the Korean College Scholastic Aptitude Test), a day-long testapalooza for high school seniors that essentially shuts down the entire country. It generates such a wide collective holding of breaths that the natural flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide across the planet is disrupted, and volcanoes on the other side of the earth erupt from the tension. Then Friday was Pepero Day, Korea’s approximate 87th couple holiday of the year, where everyone buys lots of chocolate sticks, sacrifices their firstborn on the altar of the Lotte Corporation, and enjoys a day of showing love and companionship through commerce, as God intended.
When I exit my building to walk to school, it is like a scene from a zombie apocalypse. The streets are quiet, and the sky is the kind of slate only described in books after the coming of great nuclear devastation. The cars are parked, and still. Stores are closed. I think if I turn around, I will see tumbleweed following my path. It is a quiet I have never experienced in Korea, even on the top of a mountain. I am alone as I walk. I am never alone.
The day of the Korean CSAT has the feeling of fate descending upon you. It is a day when futures are decided, when lives are made or broken. Nearly two decades of study lead up to this day, as teenagers at the cusp of their maturity take one day to show exactly what they know, and what they can do. Their lives have been leading up to this day. They have spent the last few years doing almost nothing but studying: waking up and reading, practicing, and cramming from 8 in the morning until, for many, midnight.
Destiny is in the air, liked charged ions or the emotions swelling over a crowd.
The test will determine where they can go to school, and that, in turn, determines everything. In a country where prestige has a lot of clout, the name of your university practically brands you for life.
Planes cannot fly overhead. Roads are cleared. The buses and trains run more frequently. The police hover at places where teens are likely to be, and rush them to the testing centres. Crowds gather, and chant and cheer and pray. They have noisemakers and synchronized rhythms, like pedagogical cheerleaders. If a proctor makes an undue amount of noise while the test is underway and the students feel it has distracted them, the students can sue them. I have a friend who worked for the education office, and had access to the suneung ahead of time. If he felt tempted to sell its contents, he could have made millions, and could have also been imprisoned forever.
Parents drive their children to the schools where they will determine the shape of their lives, and whisper words of encouragement, or stay silent, because the air must feel like it is on fire. The kids are… what? Exhausted? Exhilarated? Experiencing heart arrhythmias? A soul-excavating numbness? Do they even feel anything anymore? They have felt nothing but this for the last year, if not the last 18. Their brains must be dull to the pressure, like releasing air while scuba diving under the weight of the ocean.
I cannot imagine this kind of pressure. That I could change the very direction of my entire existence based on the outcome of one day of tests, that all that I know would be so succinctly measured and returned to me. I test well and don’t flag under pressure, and this test makes me queasy.
The streets are quiet on the second Thursday of November. It is a day when fates are decided. When the world is filled with promise, and with terror. The future is at the door.
Korean society finds its way to another grinding halt for an entirely different reason the day after educational D-Day.
For the last week, the majority of my hits have been directed at this, the post I made last year about Pepero Day. I guess I understand why: from the outside, on first exposure, it’s pretty weird. Korea already does Valentine’s Day, and White Day, and Black Day, so this is… another couple’s holiday? A traditional celebration for exchanging chocolates? What?
*Confidential to person who searched “how many pepero boxes do i give girlfriend”: the answer, apparently based on the actions of my well-to-do grade sixes, is “all the Pepero you can carry.” The talk of the school was the five-foot tall heart bouquet of Pepero gifted from one of the boys to one of the girls. Tween love. So adorable you could puke out your large intestines.
I imagine these people taking to the internet and trying to find deeper meanings, like aliens first exposed to modern, secular Easter and questioning what a giant rabbit that doles out chocolate has to do with Jesus or the spring equinox. What does it all mean, they ask. Why am I alternately being showered with candy, and then harassed to dole it back out, as though I am personally responsible for taxation and the provision of governmental services, in the form of plain cookie sticks dipped in chocolate?
From what I can discern, there is still no deeper meaning. It is just a weird holiday likely invented by the Lotte corporation to sell more candy (that they make most of their sales this day says that it kind of pretty much works). But it’s a day when I get candy, and also a lot of weird gifts, so I’m not going to complain.
I leave you with this, the text printed on the wrapping of the above gift: “I hope this special present makes your smile. Smile brings you happiness. and that’s just my jou.” Indeed, awkward anthropomorphic stick candies. Indeed.
Happy Pepero Day.