Fun gifts for quirky Korean holidays
If you want to be a savvy, in-the-know foreigner in Korea, there are some special days you should know about. These are not major holidays marked on the calendar but unofficial days that younger Koreans celebrate by exchanging unique gifts or practicing quirky customs. Here you will get a taste of some of these special days and learn what sorts of gifts are customary for showing your love and affection.
Have you finished your suneung shopping?
Every year, Korean high school students sit for the College Scholastic Ability Test, or suneung in Korean. This exam is often seen as a life or death matter and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it can determine a test-taker’s future. The test determines whether students will get into the university of their choice, an important factor in their future careers.
Given the importance of the test, it is no wonder that the nation comes to a standstill on the crucial exam day, which this year is scheduled for Nov. 10.
On D-Day, companies and public organizations push their workday back an hour to ease traffic congestion during the morning rush, while the government increases the frequency of public transportation. Meanwhile, police escorts assist test-takers who are running late to ensure they arrive at their test centers on time, while anxious moms gather at school gates, hands held tight in prayer. Test locations are locked down tighter than Fort Knox, with students in lower grades given the day off to make things slightly less frantic.
Needless to say, it’s the single most important day of a Korean student’s academic career, and the pressure to do well is enormous. So before the hustle and bustle of the exam itself, parents, friends and younger students give gifts to wish the test-takers luck. Traditionally, yut (a type of rice candy) and chapssaltteok (glutinous rice cake) have been the most popular choices. This symbolic gesture is derived from the belief that eating something sticky will help the test-taker “stick to” the college of their choice by getting high scores.
Yes, I hear you there - toilet paper? To understand why these items are given as gifts, you need a little bit of background knowledge about Korean vocabulary.
The word bo-da in Korean means “to see” or “to look at.” It also means “to write [a test well].” Items like a mirror, a pair of eyeglasses or an eye-exam chart are chosen as gifts because they are objects you need “to see” or “look” with.
Similarly, a fork, a dart pin or tweezers are also popular as gifts. You “jjik-da,” or “pick up,” something with a tool like these, and by giving these items you are showing that you hope the test-taker will pick the correct answers on the test.
So why toilet paper? The word “pul-da” in Korean means “to unreel” or “unwind” as well as “to solve.” Once you know this, it becomes clear why students are often given toilet paper, tape or a spool of thread. It is done so they can easily solve, or unwind, the exam questions.
In addition, a baseball bat, a tennis racket or a drum is another good gift for a student taking a test. These are objects you need in order to “hit” or “strike” something. The Korean equivalent is the verb “chi-da,” which also means ‘to take a test [well]” and it is similar in meaning to the English expression of knocking something out of the ballpark.
The word “gul-li-da,” meaning “to roll” an object like a die, represents not just a wish for good luck, it also means “to put one’s brain to work.” That’s why odd presents like miniature car tires, bowling balls and dice are given as gifts.
Another fun item is digestive medicine, which conveys your wish that a student digest exam questions, understand the questions thoroughly and get the right answers.
A gift of a baby bottle encourages a student to put in extra effort when writing the exam, like a baby straining to suck up every last drop of formula.
People give bubble gum to represent the hope that, like a kid trying to blow the biggest bubble, test-takers will make their scores as impressively large as possible.
In recent years, gifts that are rather more practical and health-oriented are also becoming popular, such as vitamin pills, aroma candles, portable hot packs, dark chocolate, blueberries, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts and red ginseng.
Whatever gift you choose will let test-takers know they are supported by their parents and friends and will work as an energy booster to cheer them up and help them do their best. Fighting!
It’s time to show your love
The most popular of these days, none of which are marked on a calendar, include White Day and the upcoming Pepero Day, which falls on Nov. 11. Pepero is actually the name of a thin, chocolate-dipped cookie produced by a Korean confectioner.
Pepero Day seems to have originated with middle and high school students giving presents to their crushes.
It is so named because the date of Nov. 11 looks like the cookie when four sticks are lined up together (11.11).
In advance of the day, large Pepero displays at places from fancy department stores to local convenience stores are packed with customers buying the cookie sticks for their loved ones.
This year is rather special - 11.11.11 - so don’t expect to be seeing much left on the morning of the 11th!
Pepero Day has spawned an interesting game for couples that is much like the famous spaghetti scene in the Disney movie “Lady and The Tramp.” Each half of a couple puts an end of the chocolate stick in their mouth and everyone starts to eat on the word “go.” The couple who leaves the shortest bit of Pepero without kissing wins the game. I imagine a lot of couples are not focused on winning.
Apart from Pepero Day, there are some other unofficial celebrations worth mentioning.
Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Korea, but with a small variation. Instead of a mutual exchange of gifts, women give their sweethearts chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Men take their turn giving candy to their girlfriends or wives on White Day, which falls on March 14.
So if you bump into a guy carrying a huge basket of flowers and sweets in March, don’t worry. It’s Valentine’s Day, Part 2.
And that’s not all.
The 14th day of several other months is also celebrated by happy lovebirds. There is Rose Day on May 14, Kiss Day on June 14 and Silver Day on July 14.
Given that there are so many special days devoted to happy couples, it seems only fair to set aside one day for lonely souls: Black Day on April 14. On this day, single people get together and shed a tear or two over jjajangmyeon (black bean paste noodles), hoping to meet someone to give sweets to when the next romantic day rolls around. In a more modern twist, other singles get together to celebrate their independence.
Special days don’t necessarily have to be romantic, and there are other types of celebrations.
Some people celebrate March 3 (3/3) by going out for samgyeopsal (pork belly), since “sam” is the number three in Korean.
Another day related to numbers is Cheonsa Day, which falls on Oct. 4 (10/04). “Cheonsa” in Korean is the number 1,004. It is also the word for “angel,” so people are encouraged to lend a helping hand doing volunteer work in their communities or making donations on that day.
Even Christmas, to the surprise of many Westerners, is more about young couples and newlyweds than it is a religious or family celebration.
Koreans may be relatively conservative when it comes to public displays of affection, but there is a deep romantic streak in the culture. How many other countries have a half-dozen versions of Valentine’s Day every year?
If you are a secret admirer, are in a relationship or have someone to whom you simply want to express your appreciation, pick one of these days and take the opportunity to make them feel special. Romance is alive and well in Korea!
By Michelle Kang Contributing writer [email@example.com]