Sunday, February 6, 2011

Packing for a Year: The Fairly Thorough Guide to Doing It Right

Many a neophyte NET faces the taxing task of packing up their belongings for a year (or more) to move across continents and oceans to South Korea. A year is a long time. A year requires many wardrobe choices. And with a country boasting 4 seasons (well, it's really more like a frigid winter and suffocating summer with a few weeks of springy/autumnal pleasantness spliced between them) you will need a variety of clothing. Quite a few people have asked me, "How do I do it?" "What do I bring?" "Will they have blah blah in Korea?" So I thought the best way to address the question of what to stuff into the ominous empty bellies of your luggage in a post.

If you are a girl, it is likely you have many clothes and many shoes. If you are a boy, this may or may not be true. But the issue of what to take and what to leave remains. In the end, you will leave most of your stuff at home. Trust me, it's better this way.

What to Bring

1) Work Clothes
NETs are in Korea to work and usually that means we need to look presentable for the youth we are teaching. Yes, some schools are more relaxed and allow their teachers to wear jeans exclusively but others are much stricter. The principal at my school actually chastised the faculty for their poor dressing and asserted that, "You are teachers. You should look like one." For me, work attire comprises of mainly black/grey pants, black skirts, sweaters, and nicer tops. You don't have to be super fancy nor wear a suit but it is better if you look nice. Dry cleaners are abundant and cheap in South Korea so the cleaning of said clothing will be easy-peasy. I suggest everyone invest in a pair of nice, comfortable black pants. If you are a guy, you may want to toss a sport coat into the mix. The tops can come from your current wardrobe - sweaters, button-ups, other nicer shirts that are versatile (you can wear to work and out). Perhaps the most important consideration for work clothes is modesty. Girls, be sure to pack enough tank tops to wear under those v-necks (especially if you are on the buxom side) and ensure your skirts are work-appropriate.

2) One pair of school shoes.
I was unaware when I came to Korea that you will need to leave a pair of shoes at school to be your "school" or "inside" shoes. For those of you with bigger feet (pretty much anything above a women's size 8/8.5) be sure to bring a pair of comfy shoes to stow under you desk and shuffle around school in. Some teachers in Korea even wear Hello Kitty slippers in school (I find this horribly unprofessional but to each her own), others wear Crocs, and then some choose to wear heels (this is rather common in SK). My school shoes are a pair of Sofft black flats with a half-inch heel and a few patent leather accents. Keeping it classy! The key here is to be comfortable, though.

3) Jeans
I am extremely picky about my jeans. I brought 5 pairs of jeans with me to Korea and I think it was a perfect number. I made sure to buy 2 pairs before I came to ensure against disaster (rips, cigarette burns, acid spills, etc).

4) Shoes & Undies
Many Westerners have problems finding shoes in the land of small-footed people (aka Korea). I wear a women's size 9.5/10 and have had a TIME finding shoes. This is a mixed blessing, as I save oodles of money not buying up the abundance of adorable shoes in Korea. I have bought one pair of flats, a pair of insane heels (at Forever 21 in Seoul, they were cheap and fantastic so I couldn't resist), and a pair of running shoes (Asics stores abound, as well as Nike, Adidas, Reebok - I just had to buy men's). If you do happen to wear a bigger size, I suggest bringing enough pairs to suit every occasion. For girls: a pair or two of heels, a pair or two of boots, flats, tennis shoes, flip flops, sandals - just be sure to not overdo it. You will NOT require 6 pairs of black pumps. Really. You won't. For guys, you know what you need, just be sure to grab a few new pairs before heading over.

The bigger size thing also applies to bras. Girls, if you are bigger than a B cup, you will need to stock up on bras. While you're at it, go ahead and buy yourself a lot of nice underwear, too.

5) A Good Coat
Yes, you can buy coats here but if you already have a nice winter coat, go ahead and bring it. I have a nice down coat that I put into one of those bags you suck the air out with a vacuum. It shrank down nicely and doesn't weigh much. You can buy a winter coat here if you like but if you have broad shoulders, big boobs, or wear a larger size, it may prove difficult to find a coat in Korea. There are many outdoor stores offering snowboarding attire, as well as department stores but outside of Itaewon (the Western, expat area in Seoul) you may be hard-pressed to find a well-fitting, affordable coat.

6) Deodorant
It is possible to buy deodorant in Korea. But, once again if you are picky, it is better to stock up. The options are much more limited and the prices higher than at home. If you are just a die-hard Old Spice user bring enough for a year (depending on your usage, probably about 10 sticks will see you through). I stocked up and have been happy with this decision.

7) Tampons
Obviously a girl's-only point. I actually haven't sought out tampons in Korea, but from what I've seen at various stores, they are difficult to come by. I've seen pads/pantyliners in abundance though. Once again, if you have a preference (like Tampax Pearl) be sure to stock up. You can actually find Tampax Pearl (only regular from what I've seen) at places like Homeplus and Olive Young. You can also buy tampons in bulk at Costco.

8) Medication
Pharmacies and doctors aren't hard to find in Korea but brand name pharmaceuticals can be. If you take a particular type of drug in the US that is really important to you (and your health!) stock up. Also, ask you doctor for a prescription for antibiotics if you can for unexpected stomach bugs. I always travel with a script of Levaquin and Cipro - they've come quite in handy. Allergy medication, vitamin supplements, cold and cough meds, and other common meds are easy to find here from your local pharmacy. Just pop into a 역 (some even speak English - this will usually be advertised on their sign) and ask for what you need. Some people like to bring a supply of Advil with them (ebuprofeno is what you ask for here - I've used it, seems to work fine). Also, if you have a preference for something (say Luden's cough drops or Vick's VapoRub) be sure to bring enough.

9) Gifts
Pick up a few gifts for your future bosses before you come. These should be things from your state/country. If you are in a public school, be sure to bring 2 or 3 nicer gifts and a couple of little things (think souvenirs - bookmarks, shot glasses, etc) for your co-teachers. The number of co-teachers will depend on the school - it's almost impossible to know this ahead of time.I brought a couple small bottles of bourbon for my superiors. If you are working in a hagwon (private academy), I really don't know how many people you will need gifts for. I'd say my suggested number will still work.

Pro tip: When you meet your principal/VP, say hello (annyong-haseyo) and nice to meet you (ma na so pangapsupnida) in Korean. This will win you immediate brownie points on top of those you are getting for the gifts. Remember, gifts and gestures are key to successful relationships in Korean schools (and Korean society). These will really help you out in the future if you need something.

10) Money from Home
This money isn't to buy things. This money is to show your kids. I did quite a few lessons on US currency (including teaching them who was on the money, history of the money, and nicknames for dollars) and my students went CRAZY for them. For my English club, I even held a market simulation/game and gave the winners a crisp $1 bill as a prize. They almost died. Most students will have never seen money from anywhere outside of Korea - exposure to dollars, pounds, rand, euros will stir up quite a bit of excitement.

11) One Towel
Bring one shower towel with you. This will help you through the first week or two until you get out and buy all of the home essentials. I actually didn't bring one with me but my school was kind enough to give me 2. However, these 2 were hand towel-sized. They did the job but it was strange drying off with a super small towel. You can absolutely find large towels in Korea - any HomePlus and Emart will have them. They are also available at markets and other bigger stores. In Daegu, there is an entire street dedicated to towels.

Note: If you are an incoming EPIK teacher, they will likely give you an EPIK towel (which is normal shower-sized) at orientation. As a late comer, I went to orientation a month after arrival so I didn't have the big towel from day one as many others did.

12) One Set of Adapters
You will need an adapter for your laptop charger. (If you have a Mac, I highly suggest investing in their world adapter set. It easily pops into every kind of Mac charger - iPod/iPhone/laptop - and comes with an extra charger for iPods/iPhones. The kit will run you $30 and is well worth it.) You will also need an adapter for things like external hard drives, camera battery chargers, etc. I only have one adapter for SK and it has proved sufficient. The entire adapter set will come in handy during your travels abroad during vacation times (SE Asia is different from Korea, for example). As far as a converter goes, go ahead and bring it if it comes with your adapter set but most things I use abroad have converters built in (like computer/iPod/cell phone/battery chargers).

13) ATM Card
It is likely that it will be at least a month until your first paycheck. Although EPIKers do get a 1.3M won settlement allowance, this can go by rather rapidly (or there could be delays in getting your bank account set-up and with getting payment quickly). My PNC account allows me to use any ATM in the world fee-free. I highly suggest looking into such options before you leave the country. These fees can really add up. Such a card is also fantastic abroad. I loathe exchanging money at money changers and prefer to do all of my transactions via ATM. They are reliable, safe, and you can keep track of how much you withdraw with online banking. This also comes in handy on vacations across Asia as most Koreans bank cards available to foreigners will not work abroad (I know for sure Nong Hyup/NH will not work. This is the bank most EPIKers are set-up with when they arrive. It is more of a credit union. Depending on where you are, you may be able to sign up at a Citi bank or other bank with locations in the US.) Just be sure to call your bank before you go on vacation to make sure you still have access to your money! (Pro tip: You can call toll free numbers in the US using Skype for free - no credit necessary! Most banks in the US will have a 1-800 you can call.) If you have a bank card from a small, hometown bank you may consider switching to a larger financial institution while abroad - I find you'll encounter far fewer issues with global transactions this way.

14) College ID
This may seem like a random suggestion but it could save you quite a bit of cash. Even if your college ID has an expiration date on it (both of mine don't) it is a great thing to keep in your wallet. This is mainly for use on vacation but could come in handy in Korea as many museums and services abroad offer discounts to students. I know I use mine all the time in the US for movie tickets. It is a small piece of plastic you can just shove in your wallet and it can do a great many things for you from saving you money and serving as an extra form of ID if needed.

15) A CD case of your favorite DVDs
Sometimes you need to kick back with your favorite movie. Unfortunately, English DVDs are more difficult to come by in Korea. That is probably because they speak Korean in Korea. Go figure. Before leaving the US, I took aside a handful of my favorite movies/TV shows (Season 1 of BSG, Talladega Nights, The Lion in Winter, and a few others) and tucked them into small, easily packable CD sleeves. These took up little room in my backpack and I am glad to have them. Although you will have access to Internet TV in Korea (Hulu is not available outside of the US but you will find that sites such as Side Reel become life savers for your 30 Rock or Glee fixes), it is nice to also have quick access to your favorite titles without waiting for buffering or those pesky hour to pass after watching 72 minutes of MegaVideo. However, in this nifty era chock full of technology, a hard drive full of TV shows and movies will also do the trick!

16) Copies of Important Documents and Passport Photos
This is an obvious one. If you lose your passport, it is easier to get it replaced if you have all of the information from the old one. This is the same for your Korean visa (which is peskier to get replaced but if you have all of the necessary documents it will, of course, facilitate the process). You will also need a couple of passport photos for things such as medical reports (sometimes) and your Alien Registration Card (ARC). I actually already had a couple of extra passport photos I used for a visa a couple of years ago - these worked perfectly for all of my paperwork and official needs. So when you get passport photos taken for your EPIK/visa application, go ahead and get extras. Yes, passport photos are available in Korea but it was one less thing I had to take care of when I first came here. (Trust me, even the smallest task off the to-do list is a relief at first. With bank accounts, medical exams, ARC registration, and the other mounds of paperwork to deal with, you will be happy you already have those photos handy.) You may also need these if you are applying for a visa to another country for vacation, notably China. Also, when you have passport/ID photos taken here they will photoshop the bajeezus out of your face, turning you into a lily white, flawless version of you that belongs more in Madame Tussaud's than on an official ID.

Be sure to have your bank account info from your home country for money transfers home. An easy way to do this is just toss your checkbook - or a single check -  (if you still have one of those) into your bag.

17) Contraceptives
Yes, they do sell birth control and condoms in Korea, however, they're a little different. Birth control and Plan B (not name brand but the same thing) can be bought over the counter here from most pharmacies - you just need to go in and ask. It is best if you have the chemical name you prefer (ex.: Yaz is drospirenone & ethinyl estradiol; Othro Tri-Cyclen is norgestimate & ethinyl estradiol). As for condoms I am mentioning them because of stories of unexpected pregnancies I've heard from reliable sources. Trustworthy brands and proper sizing may be difficult to find, especially for Western men. Yes, there is a definite size difference (if you are a guy, Korean men will likely want to talk about this). So bring a supply from home or you can order them on the Internet from companies that mail them to you in discrete packing (as a friend said, the box won't say "Condoms R Us"). So if you plan to be sexually active abroad, be sure to BE SAFE and wrap it up. Also, remember condoms DO have expiration dates on them and heat exposure will reduce the durability (and efficacy!) of the rubber.

18) Misc.
If you still have room in your suitcase, fill it with little things you may miss from home. Taco seasoning, for example, is almost impossible to find in Korea. If you like peanut butter candy (Reese's, Butterfinger, etc) toss a bag or two in. Have a favorite hot sauce? Throw in a bottle of Cholula. Some people seem unable to survive without blue box macaroni and cheese. (You can buy boxes of mac and cheese, Kirkland brand, at Costco but I've heard it isn't great.) These little touches will really help you cope with initial culture shock and pangs of homesickness.

What NOT To Bring

1) Hair Appliances
If your hair appliances aren't already 220V, leave them at home. It takes up unnecessary space in your luggage and you risk frying/melting them in Korea. You can easily buy nice hair dryers/straighteners/curlers in Korea (I bought all three, nice brands for about 100,000won).

2) Toothpaste
Yes, bring enough for your first week or so (a travel sized tube will do) but toothpaste in a variety of brands and flavors are available in Korea. I don't understand how picky some people are about their toothpaste. I bought a tube of 2080 Spearmint toothpaste at HomePlus and it tastes like normal, minty toothpaste. You can also buy some brands here, and I've heard you can find specialty pastes like Sensodyne as well.

3) Lots of Makeup
I brought some extra makeup from home and had my mom bring me some when she came but overall, you don't need to stock up. I brought mine because I already had them and it is cheaper in the US so it wasn't a problem for her to bring my powder and foundation. Makeup stores are EVERYWHERE in Korea and almost all brands can be found here (Clinique/Estee/Lancome/Benefit/Mac/Maybelline/and many many many more). This also holds true for things like soap and shampoo. There are LUSH stores in all of the bigger cities and more cosmetics stores in every town than are necessary. Brands like Dove/Oil of Olay/Clean and Clear/Herbal Essences/Neutrogena/Aveeno are widely available, as well as Korean brands which work just as well. For me, I actually bought 2 large bottles of Bedhead shampoo in early 2010 so I had an extra bottle which I just tossed into my suitcase - it has lasted me 5 months already and is no where near being used up. If you have a real preference for certain soaps/cosmetics, bring some but you will be sure to find plenty of options here in Korea.

4) A Lot of Accessories
Koreans LOVE accessories. Whether it's jewelry or purses or headbands, there are tons of cheap, adorable/pretty options to buy in Korea. Socks are also in everywhere and cheap. In many shopping arcades you can even find stores that sell a wide array of bags for man won (10,000 won). I use them up and then have no guilt leaving them behind/throwing them away. This gives girls a lot of extra packing space, especially if you are a bag/jewelry/accessory/hat/scarf fanatic. I only brought a small pouch of jewelry (on that note, leave your NICE stuff back home in a safe deposit box), 1 headband, a small clutch, and one other purse. This also gives you more opportunity to shop while on vacation in bargain shopping meccas like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and Cambodia.

5) Books
I brought 2 books with me to Korea - 2 I wouldn't care parting with after my year and ones I've wanted to read for some time. Books are heavy and bulky. There are quite a few large English bookstores you can browse through in Korea:
*What the Book? in Itaewon. This store also offers free delivery throughout Korea.
*Bandi & Luni in the COEX Mall. This is like a Barnes & Noble, I mean look at their logo!
* Kyobo Books all over. Kyobo is Korea's largest bookstore chain and has locations throughout the peninsula, including in Seoul, Daegu (Jungang-no), Busan, Daejon, and Geonggi-do. They do offer a selection of English books and magazines, though these are a bit pricey.
*Buy the Book Cafe in Daegu. This small shop (open only on weekends) offers vegan/veg/organic fare, event space, as well as a selection of used/new books and magazines. This cafe also hosts a couple of "Swaparama" events for Daegubers to trade their gently used clothing with others.
*Be sure to search if your town has a smaller store, likely in areas with universities.

Beyond bookstores, the easiest way to buy books is online. You can do this through What the Book? in Seoul or through The Book Depository. Both offer free shipping (the first throughout Korea, the latter internationally). I have never ordered from What the Book? but I've heard nice things. I did order 5 books from The Book Depository and was very pleased with their selection, prices, service, and quick shipping. I had the books sent to my school (this is advisable for shipping all packages as Korean mailboxes are very tiny - mine is actually a slot in a hanging shoe rack).

Finally, I will end this post with my Ritual of Packing. As an experienced world traveler, I've done my fair share of packing, and with every trip I get a little better at the art of packing. I used to be a TERRIBLE overpacker. "Why yes! Of course I need 10 pairs of shoes for a 10 day trip." Wrong. Even now, I go on vacation and find things I've expertly tucked into my suitcase that I find no need for whatsoever. Despite the occasional mistake, however, I have become quite adept at the art of packing what is necessary and manageable by following the same routine:

Erin's Ritual of Packing: Start packing a week or so before you leave. Place everything you think you will want into your luggage (I always cordon off a room for this process). Walk away and wait a few days. Return to your pile of clothes and toiletries a few days before you leave and take away roughly HALF of the things in the suitcase. You will usually be shocked at the things you placed into the suitcases a few days before. This process should yield a manageable amount of stuff that will abide by the luggage restrictions of your airline. If not, repeat this process again. And remember, no, you don't need 6 pairs of flip-flops nor 8 black tank tops. Trust me. You don't.

If you have more specific questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section. I'd be happy to help! You can also consult WAYGOOK.ORG, an invaluable resource for NETs in Korea, for discussions on questions about just about anything to do with Korea, including preparation and packing.

Cheers and Happy Packing!

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