Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What to Bring to South Korea

My old friend Grant asked, "Where exactly in Korea are you based? And what should I bring with me? I'm still waiting to hear, but I'm hoping to get to Seoul."

Well, firstly I'm also still waiting for my interview, but I've got my fingers crossed for Daegu. As for what to bring...

The official EPIK website has a pretty detailed list of what you'll need to have when you're in Korea, but I've found options that make it easier for you to pack. The EPIK list is here, outlining the basics. And somehow you need to fit it into a 20kg bag.

Some tips and tricks I've picked up from reading other blogs:

Pack for half the year, not the whole year. 
If you're arriving in Fall, then pack winter clothes (you can get an idea of what the weather is like at whatever time of the year by going to your city's Wikipedia page). Limit the bulky items; the key to staying warm in Korea is layering, and they're also better equipped for cold there, so you can buy the bulky stuff there, if you are not a 6ft giant. Be ruthless; your school has to provide you with a washing machine and there is indoor space for you to hang things up in your apartment, so just accept that you'll need to do laundry often at first. Pack up the clothes you won't need for 6 months and get someone generous to post that package to you once you know your address.

Pack things you know you can't get in Korea.
It's really hard to get shoes if your feet are a Saffer size 6 and above, although some shops and markets in Seoul are becoming more sasquatch-friendly. And you can order shoes online from other countries and have them delivered. But when you arrive there, make sure you've got shoes that are worn with socks and come off easily for various occasions. Koreans are not so hot on bare feet, and you need to take your shoes off when entering a home. Also pack a decent pair of hiking boots. Again, you can leave half your shoes at home, to be posted later - if you're arriving in February, you don't need to pack your wellies as the monsoon season only starts in August-ish. But make sure you have some kind of boot to traipse through puddles in.

As I mentioned previously, other things like underwear also might be hard to find in your size if you don't have a particularly Asian build, so stock up on that.

Koreans don't sweat nearly as much as Westerners, for some reason. As such, it's almost impossible to get deodorant unless you pay an arm and a leg on the black market. Bring as much as you can fit in your bag, keeping in mind that summer in Korea is very humid.

The cold - there's a weird weather system that means that in Korea, in winter, the wind blows frostbite at you from Siberia. No, really, SIBERIA. South Africa doesn't ever get that cold, so you might need to visit Cape Union Mart and get a Ski jacket. Even then, it probably won't be warm enough, so accept that you're going to look like an obese jersey-addict for a bit until you get a proper warm Korean jacket.

You start work pretty much immediately after orientation, so make sure you've got some decent teacher clothes as well. Suit up, boys and girls, and ladies - hide the girls. Koreans don't mind if your skirt is so short you can see your armpits, but your shoulders must be covered and your twins stowed neatly out of sight.

Settling into your apartment - I've seen a lot of blogs suggesting that you bring bedding, as it is difficult to buy it in Korea. Wellll... I suppose so. But I am personally going to save space by ordering the basics from The Arrival Store. They're cheap, they deliver to your door and they're awesome, according to people who've used them. I'm not sure how long you'd need to wait for them to deliver it, after you arrive, but every apartment has underfloor heating, so if you bring a blankie or something you can probably 'camp' on your floor until your TAS box arrives - probably only a night or two. Hey, it's an adventure. It will be fun. Maybe.

Unnecessary items:
Don't bring your phone unless it's a recent smartphone, such as one running Android, Windows OS or an iPhone. Ordinary phones don't work in Korea, and you can easily get one when you arrive. If you bring a smartphone, you probably won't be able to use it at first because those require contracts, which no one is going to give a GET in their first six months, as a lot of GETs get homesick or fed up or disillusioned and leave.

You can buy most shampoos and conditioners in Korea, and their make-up is about 500 years ahead of the rest of the world, so bring some basics but indulge in the wonders of BB cream and eyeliner compasses when you arrive.

Bring a couple of pairs of nice socks with you - soft, clean, new-looking and not raggedy and full of holes, but know that you can buy them by the bucket load when you arrive as well. So, bring a couple for the first month or so, and then go shopping with your first paycheck (2.1 mill) + entrance allowance (1.3 mill) + settling in allowance (300 000) +... How awesome is it that we'll be millionaires in a month? Ah, ok, millionaires in Kwon isn't quite the same, but hey, I like seeing multiple zeroes in my bank account. Provided there's something in front of those zeroes. I digress. You only get this at the end of your first month (except for the settling in allowance) so bring some cash with you to tide you over for a month.

Quell homesickness
If there is a particular item from home that you love and cherish and makes you feel happy, bring it. Your first couple of months in Korea can be pretty lonely. I'll be bringing a massive stack of fake polaroids of some very happy times and the teddy bear I've had since I was a baby. But the best way to deal with homesickness, and I know this as someone who's lived away from home since I was 14 years old, is to

a) pretend you've slipped through a portal into a parallel universe. I'm nerdy like that, but if you treat it like you're hopping in the TARDIS for a bit and can pick up right where you left off, you may be horribly mistaken but it will feel a lot easier than if you think you're abandoning your home, your country and all the people you love.
b) learn to use and love Skype. You'll have internet set up in your apartment pretty soon, and until then there are lots of wifi hotspots, so you can keep in touch with the fan-damily if you feel the need.
c) keep busy. Learn Korean. Explore your city. Make amazing lessons for your students. Don't just sit in your apartment, wallowing in self-pity and loneliness. If you made friends during Orientation, meet up with them. They're probably feeling as lost and as lonely as you are.

So bring stuff that lets you do that. You can buy books on learning Korean when you get there. Save weight by bringing a Kindle - it can hold thousands of books and it will love you forever and you can cuddle it and snuggle it and try not to fall asleep holding it above your face because it is harder than a paper book and it will hurt you. Ow.

That's all I can think of right now - but remember I haven't listed everything, just the personal tweaks I'll be making if I make it through the interview stage. Use the EPIK list as your foundation, but know it's a little bit flexible depending on how willing you are to adapt to your new environment.

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