A friend of mine destined for the Spring intake recently wrote to me about the trials and tribulations of packing. It got me thinking about the things I'm glad I did/wish I'd done before coming to Korea, so I thought I'd share a few tips. Keep in mind that these things VARY GREATLY based on where you're placed. Those in Seoul, for example, will have a much easier time finding some of the things that I absolutely can't. This post is timed for the Spring 2013 intakes, who, if they are anything like me, are currently scouring the internet in search of advice on what to do to prepare for Korea.
Before you go:
1) Invest in an e-reader of some kind. I have a kindle touch and its the best thing ever. Books are expensive, and take up a lot of weight/space in your suitcase. But they're also really important to have because they can provide a little escapism and make you feel like you're at home.
2) Buy a Korea travel guide. This is the one exception to the "no books" rule above. I had the "Rough Guide" for Korea...before I left it in a Love Motel by accident. I'm replacing it with the slightly newer Lonely Planet, which also has good reviews. Things in Korea change quickly, so get the most recently published. You may think "I'm going to be living there, what do I need a guide for?" But you will travel around a lot, and it's good to have English information about tourist attractions, bus schedules, restaurants, and accommodation. The internet just can't give you that. And an e-reader version is useless - you need to be able to fold pages, take notes, etc. A small phrasebook isn't a bad idea either. I have one and I use it about once a month when the phone search is too slow/inaccurate.
4) Pack a towel. Koreans dry off using a tiny little hand-towel that just doesn't live up to western standards for drying oneself. Bring one of your own. It'll take up a little extra space, but its worth it.
|This is as good as it gets, folks.|
Also, if you're on meds like perscription Birth Control, bring enough for the whole year. There are Korean equivalents but it can be difficult to know what you're really getting when you take foreign drugs. I only brought 3 months of BC, so I tried the Korean kind. Its a higher dose (which I don't like and Dr.'s in Canada don't recommend) and it annihilated my sex drive (sorry you had to read that, family).
6) Pack some Hand Sanitizer. It's expensive and hard to find here. And this country is filled with people who don't cover their mouths when they sneeze, and many public surfaces that you will be touching. Also, many bathrooms do not come with soap - or even a sink. Also, Pack deodorant. It's expensive and hard to find here, although you can get it online. I brought 6 sticks and it's not going to be enough.
7) Things from home to give/show kids/co-workers. People here are fascinated by you and your way of life, and they will be really excited by anything that you bring from your home country. I brought maple candies and syrup, and one day I brought in some home made banana bread. Its always a huge hit. It's also really important to bring your photos from home. I like to include photos of myself hiking/horseback riding/goofing off with my friends and family to include in my lessons. The kids always ask "Teacher, real????" and are super impressed. One day this winter I even brought Jim to class with me. I had kids sneaking into my class, looking in through the windows, and "casually" walking by my office all day.
Life and well-being:
1) Read up about Korean customs and etiquette. There are a lot of little details that are important to know - but also remember to take everything with a grain of salt. Lots of the stuff you read isn't true. For example, I read that you weren't supposed to stab things with your chop-sticks and that you should be careful not to point your chopsticks at other people when you put them down. But the Koreans I know do both of these things all the time. I suspect these rules apply only to very formal situations.
2) Learn to read Hangul.I didn't learn it until I got here, and I felt like a tool until I finally did. Learning to read the characters is really important for ordering things on menu's, reading bus schedules, etc. And there are lots of words that are the same in English as in Hangul, so it will greatly improve your ability to communicate. For example, "Bus Terminal" is 버스 터미널, which roughly reads "Bu-suh Te-mi-nal." There are lots of resources, but I actually found this simple info-graphic the most useful.
3) Think about some foods you would like to try/places you'd like to visit. When I decided to come to Korea I had NO IDEA what this place was all about. I'd never even tried Korean food! Reading up about it made me really excited to try it all, and gave me a lot of things to do when I got here - keeping my mind off of being home sick.
4) Be prepared to teach. Sometimes its hard to remember that the reason you're here is to teach English. A lot of people who come to Korea have no experience and no resources when they arrive. So take a TESL or TESOL course, read up about teaching strategies/philosophies, watch some youtube videos about Korean classrooms, and take a look at other peoples' REAL lessons on sites like waygook.org.
What I wish I hadn't packed:
1) That bathing suit that fell apart on the first day I wore it and those stupid canvas boots that also fell apart the first time it snowed. Bring stuff that's going to last you the year, people.
2) Chintzy Canada souvenirs. Canada fridge magnets and pens are lame and they make crappy gifts. Bring something more valuable. Food and booze are always a big hit.
3) Stickers. Someone told me that its impossible to find cute stickers for student work over here. They were wrong. Stickers are everywhere, and they are WAY better and way cheaper than anything you get in Canada. Also I teach high school boys, and they don't give a $*@& about cute sparkly stickers.
4) That sweater I NEVER wore back home, but I somehow thought I would wear as a work-shirt in Korea. Chances are if you didn't like it at home you're not going to like it here. And remember, Koreans tend to dress conservatively (unless they're trekking - then the brighter the better) and fashionably. On the other hand, I wish I had brought my heels. I thought "I'll be the tallest one there...what do I need heels for?" But it turns out that the tallness thing is irrelevant, and all women wear heels here. So my nice low heels would have been perfect for work. :/
Stuff I'm really glad I packed:
1) My cleats and Ultie disc, heart-rate monitor, sports bars, and running shoes. Sports are how I de-stress, and the ultie disc has been a huge success in the classroom.
2) My large camera.
3) A day-pack and my 70 litre pack. Weekend trips away require a day pack. Twice yearly vacation requires my 70 litre pack.
4) Candy from Canada. Kids go crazy for it. Wish I had more
5) My laptop and hard drive with all my pictures and movies on it. Laptop is required for lesson planning, and its really nice to have all my music, movies, and photos at my disposal.
While you're here:
1) Ladies: Buy men's leggings and men's shoes. I have size 9 feet, and I can't find women's shoes that fit me - even in Seoul. Since standards of masculinity are different here, shoes are often feminine enough that you can get away with wearing them. And yes, men's leggings are a thing. And they're super warm. The extra stretch in the crotch is just an added bonus.
2) Korean cosmetics and skin care. Korean cosmetics are the envy of the world. And so is Korean women's amazing skin! Japanese and Chinese tourists are known to load up on Korean cosmetics and skin-care products before they get on the plane. The average Korean woman has an elaborate 5-step skin-care routine carried out three times every day (cleansing -> massage/mask -> tone -> essence -> moisturise). You don't have to get that crazy, but you CAN take advantage of the mind-bogglingly huge array of high-quality and relatively cheap moisturisers, foundations, cleansers, toners, and essence sprays. I have these three, and I love them.
3) Shop on line. You won't be able to get everything you need in your town, especially if its a small one line mine. And even if you do have an e-mart or homeplus and live in a bigger city, shopping online is often cheaper. I recommend G-market (a korean site that literally has everything. A bit overwhelming at first, but super easy to use once you figure it out), ezshopkorea (groceries/Costco goods), and iherb (groceries, tea, supplements). I've also bought my travel guide from The Book Depository and heard good things about What The Book.
4) Get online orders delivered to your school. Deliveries usually happen during the week, during working hours. Your school won't mind, and it ensures you get your goods!
Life and Well-being
1) Stay busy, stay active. There are a number of ways to do this. When you first arrive, get to know your town by walking/running around it. You'll be amazed at the little things you'll find. In Korea eating out is as cheap/cheaper and can be just as healthy as making your own food, so get out there and have dinner with people. Join a club, a sports team, or a marital-arts class. Bring gear for your favourite sports. I'm super grateful that I packed my cleats at the last minute, and I'm also happy to have 2 pairs of runners, hiking boots, my heart-rate monitor, and my Ultie disc even though at the time I was packing I worried about how much space they took up. I'm kicking myself for not bringing my gators and my running hydration gear.
Try and involve yourself with Korean as well as foreigner clubs. Its important not to isolate yourself within the foreigner community, but lets face it...sometimes you need a break from all things Korea.
2) Keep in touch. Combat home-sickness using all the technology at your disposal. Skype, facebook, and free call/text programs like kakao are really useful. Also consider sending care packages home (I haven't done this yet, although I keep meaning to), and get your mommy/daddy to send you a care package or two while you're here.
3) Make your apartment a home. This can mean something as small as moving the furniture around. I bought some cheap scarves to hang on the walls, and a plant. Its important that you have a sanctuary to return to that feels like "home."