Beyond Borders

The business of love in Korea

2011-02-25 08:15
Lebogang Mogashoa is currently living in South Korea.

Lebogang Mogashoa is currently living in South Korea.

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Lebogang Mogashoa

There is a lot of money to be made from the business of love. For most dealers of romance, Valentine’s Day delivered the biggest profits. And unless someone bought you a prostitute covered in chocolate or you woke up to the harsh reality of a lifetime of loneliness, you’ve probably forgotten about the day.

The fact that it comes but once a year is a relief for most people who want to get on with the business of loving without inviting the colour red into everything. But with the cash it generates, romance merchants would probably prefer it if they could repeat the big day a couples of times a year. Korea would be a good place for them.

Here the mass day of love doesn’t happen just once a year, it happens twice or thrice, if you count the singles day. Last week on regular Valentine’s Day girls bought gifts for their boyfriends. The way I see it, it’s a golden opportunity for an enterprising girl. By buying an expensive chocolate present for her boyfriend she sets a standard for the next day of mass romance. Come March 14th, the men’s “reply-day”, properly referred to as White Day, the same round of February 14th fanfare will resume. And that’s when an attentive boyfriend might offer an even pricier gift.

However, Japanese confectionary companies are the real winners here. In the late 70s a marshmallow company hoping for repeat Valentine’s Day sales decided to name March 14th Marshmallow Day. But the day didn’t quite take until other candy companies got in it, named it White Day and created a new custom. Now it’s a regular thing not only in Japan but also in Korea and Singapore as well.

Chinese restaurants in Korea profit from the misery of singles on April 14th, Black Day. It’s my favourite of all the days of romance. One, because it peddles my favourite dish, black bean noodles. Two, because I pretend it’s a celebration of the social contributions of the few black people who constantly amuse old school Koreans by their very existence.

In reality, it’s a post-post Valentine’s Day kick in the face for the single person who gives a damn. The shameless unloved are supposed to flock to Chinese restaurants, cry into their bowls of black bean noodles and wonder where they went wrong. That’s what I’m doing this year. The activity is also meant to be a singles mixer of sorts. Go out and weep into your noodles (with white sauce if you didn’t even receive a platonic White Day gift) and you just might meet the love of your life.

Unfortunately April 15th doesn’t signal the end to consumer driven romantic madness. Love and clever marketers hold hands for the rest of the year in the form of couple t-shirts. Couples in matching t-shirts (or entire outfits in severe cases) are as much a part of the Korean landscape as high rise apartment buildings.

Step outside and two red plaid shirts are holding hands. Turn the corner and two stick people are speaking on a tin wire telephone stretched across the fronts of two t-shirts. It’s an enduring trend that has now become a regular part of romantic relationships. This is not your ironic “I’m With Stupid” t-shirt fad of the early-2000s or even earlier; it’s the real thing, sincere and amusing. Especially when you meet an oblivious couple wearing t-shirts that read, “He loves the cock”.

These “holidays” and trends might be too much but they’re some of my favourite things about life in Korea. It can be such an austere country in many ways but when things lighten up they really get cute and expensive when you add it all up.

Take; Kiss Day, Rose Day, Silver Day (getting your friends to pay for your date), Movie and Orange Day and Pepero Day (on November 11th you buy your loved ones chocolate covered cookie sticks because the company that makes them, Pepero, says you should).

The frivolity of these days is amusing but living here I embrace them when I can, especially when I realise there’s no way anyone could convince South Africans to buy each other chocolate cookie sticks on 11/11 just because the biscuits resemble the number one in shape.

- Read Lebogang's blog Ramen Ranch.

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