Monday, November 22, 2010

Cute stationary will be the death of me

Korean students have an obsession with stationary.



My thoughts exactly.

For the first two months of being here I didn’t understand the fascination or appeal. I recalled picking out school supplies at the beginning of the school year and being excited for school to start, but I would not have been ecstatic about getting a new pencil case for my birthday, especially at the age of thirteen. Also, at the age of thirteen, I wouldn’t have let losing my favorite pencil bum me out.

Here’s an actual conversation from Friday.

Me, “How are you?”

Student, “I’m bad.”


“I lost my favorite pencil.”

Me, perplexed and thinking maybe it was really fancy pencil but saying anyway, “Can’t you get a new pencil?”

How insensitive of me, I know.

Student shaking his head, “No, it’s my favorite pencil … It’s blue with penguins. We have a long history together …”

No. I did not start laughing.

Through his tone of voice and demeanor, he had actually convinced me that there could be nothing worse in the world. Luckily, about five minutes later, he found his favorite pencil, and there was much rejoicing. Oh, and it wasn’t fancy, it was a wooden pencil with a colored wrapping.

Another scenario, prior to me finding out part of the reason why Korean students love school supplies.

Me, “How are you?”

Student, “I’m Great!”


“I got a new pencil case. It’s very cute. It has Rilakkuma on it.”

These are not isolated incidences. In fact, often, students will write about getting a new white out pen for their birthday or giving a pencil case as a gift.

Monday I discovered the reason for this.

Previously, I had been inside a store that sells stationary, but I was distracted by the variety of socks and pillows or the plethora of cutsie barrettes with Hello Kitty and the like. I ignored the stationary section because I didn’t expect anything of it. I didn’t need any of it. It’s stationary for crying out loud.

Monday was different. I looked at the stationary. Not only did I look, I delved. I got excited. I wished for all these things when I was a kid. I wished I was going to school so I had an excuse to have these things. Monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly planners with the most adorable pictures that encourage students to keep track of their various academies, homework, and tests. Scented highlighters. Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma notebooks. Mechanical pencils which were so darn cute, I couldn’t help but touching them. Pencil cases of every shape and size with the most adorable characters on them.

Suddenly it hit me.

In the midst of near euphoria, it hit me.

For a teenager in Korea, life is school and school is life. Cute stationary encourages this. It assists students to overcome the stress level that builds from waking up early, going to school, going to academy, doing homework, studying for tests and having no time to be children and get in trouble. Cute stationary attempts to make up for the lack of sleep these children get and the pressure society puts on them to achieve. Cute stationary encourages them (and me) to be good consumers. Cute stationary, parents, and teachers, with the occasional reprieve of a PC bong (internet café for gamers) or sport, make up a Korean child’s life.

Korean students have an obsession with cute stationary, and so do I.


  1. I remember loving my "cute stationery" as a child - even as a teenager - heck - even as young adult! I don't think it was because of the pressures of academia though. I did a lot more letter writing back then. Once email became the mode of long distance communication, my letter writing ebbed and pretty much became extinct!
    Maybe that's what we need here in the states - more cute stationery for kids. Do you think more "cute stationery" will improve the test scores?!!! I doubt it! Ah, but that's another soap box of mine ;)

  2. Not sure how old your students are, but I wonder if obsessing about a pencil is anything like obsessing about the car with the cool wheels and a sub-woofer in the back that a boy in the U.S. might find important. The pencil is certainly safer, cheaper and will get him further in his academics.

  3. My little sister has always been this way too. I always found it very odd. She is actually a huge japanese fan (it's her best subject in college) and has really taken an interest in the culture. I know there is a different between japanese and korean, but I just find it interesting that my little sister had these same tendencies all growing up and later latched on to that type of culture.

  4. When I was in school we were all obsessed about pen boxes! If you didn't have a cool one you were not considered to be a human being :)

    It looked something like this:

    And the "level of coolness" was graded by the picture outside.

    Also each of us had a great collection of pens of all colors to write every heading with different one :) I remember there were even ones with sparkles and the coolest ones were silver and gold ;D


  5. Lisa, thank you for reminding me that this was something that was popular among my teenage students in Moscow as well, but there was a huge different - that being the level of obsession. Some teenage girls in Moscow and in the States are excited about pens that smell like grape or cool pencil cases, but here, I think ALL students are obsessed.

  6. Hi! I just came across this site today and I wanted to comment how this is really true: my best friend is Korean and when she visits it every summer, she always brings back the *cutest* pencils and scented pens for me. I'm totally in love with them too!