I’d been in Korea nearly a year the first time Pepero Day rolled around and suddenly the hagwon I worked in was inundated with box after box of chocolate dipped cookie sticks. For those of you who think pepero looks a LOT like pocky are correct. South Korea doesn’t have copyright laws so when the Lotte corporation saw the success of pocky the were ‘inspired’ to create something similar for South Korea. (More skeptical readers might use ‘blatantly stole’ instead of ‘inspired’.) But let’s pretend that it was just ‘inspired’.
November 11 is South Korea’s Pepero Day, so westerners might know it better as Remembrance Day. The official reason is because a thin pepero stick looks like the number 1, so celebrating Pepero Day on the eleventh day of the eleventh month makes perfect sense; 11/11. It’s a day to give gifts to your friends, and if you’re lucky, your teachers. In my poor school this year I did not score much of a pepero (this link is to the official Korean pepero site) haul, which is fine because I’m not really a fan of pepero for some reason.
Last year, back at the hagwon the existence of Pepero (Friendship) Day caused me a great deal of befuddlement. I’d seen the store displays around Yeongtong (and indeed all of South Korea) at the various convenience stores; Family Mart, GS25, Buy the Way, 7-11 – but I never paid the displays much heed. South Korea loves to splash out colour for various reasons and they love their neon.
Enter November 11, 2009 and suddenly boxes of the cookie sticks were flying around classrooms and the students were quickly unteachable as their blood sugar spiked to dangerous levels. Luckily I taught the smartest and most fluent students that afternoon. As we sat around the classroom and I’d given up on teaching them anything on this day I asked a question that led to one of my favourite conversations in my first year as a teacher.
Me (in a perplexed voice): “Ok, I understand that today is Pepero Day but can someone tell me WHY this day exists? How was it created?”
My students looked at each other, they were used to me asking them to think independent thoughts. (As an aside: Koreans are extremely studious but asking them to do some free thinking often results in blank stares. Ask them to memorize something… done. Ask them something without a definite answer… zombie faces.) Finally, Charlie cleared his throat, I’d been teaching Charlie for over half a year and he knew me better than probably anyone in the class and he responded with this, which is, the best explanation I’ve ever heard.
Charlie: “Uh… teacher… I think… Pepero Day… was created by… the Pepero Companies.”
Me: “You win Charlie. Have some pepero.”
(South Korea – superior marketing skills.)