I’m guessing it’s about time for new teachers to depart for Korea. So I figured I would muse about what to bring based off my experience. Keep in mind I’m in a city of about 180,000 surrounded by rural areas. Plus I arrived in August. And I’m a guy. All these things color my experiences.
The big thing is that I think people can be a bit alarmist when they tell you what to pack. I remember the material sounding like you will be in the middle of nowhere, away from any civilization. So you better bring a year’s supply of everything, plus $1000 (about 1,000,000 won). I found this wasn’t necessary.
As for money, I was terrified that I came to Korea only with $400 (about 400,000 won) and there would be no way I’d be able to make it till my first payday, more than a month away. After orientation, my school gave me 300,000 won. Still less than the 1,000,000 won suggested. Well, I ended the month with about 250,000 won left over, meaning I spent roughly $450. Now admittedly, I had some help. The previous teacher, whose apartment I moved into, left a lot of things. So I didn’t need to buy anything for my apartment other than some cooking utensils. He also left some money for first month utilities since I arrive in the middle of a billing period. And the other foreign teachers in Andong were very generous. Basically there’s a rule where if go out with the other teachers, you don’t pay until you get your first paycheck. Other situations may not be so nice. But in general things are fairly cheap in Korea, so I wouldn’t worry too much about finances, especially if you are in a province.
Next, what to bring. You can buy most day-to-day things in Korea. So as far as toiletries and such things go, I’d pack as if you were going on vacation. You just need a little bit til you get settled in your apartment, and then you can buy what you need. Of course if you like certain brands—particularly deodorant—those might be hard to find. As for household items, there’s really no need to bring anything. Maybe a set or two of a fork or silverware for convenience. That’s about it.
There are some things that I found it was good to bring, even though it wasn’t mentioned at all. The most obvious is clothes. If you are a large person in any sense of the word, you might want to bring more clothes than you think you need because it may be hard to find things your size. I’m 6’0, and had issues finding pants that were long enough (I eventually got a few pair sent from home). Now I’m trying to find U.S. size 11 shoes, and I’ve been laughed at when I ask the clerk if that’s available. I have a friend who’s tall and hefty, and he’s pretty much given up on trying to find clothes in Andong. I know many of the women teachers have bras shipped from home. Often teachers make pilgrimages to Itaweon (basically the foreigners’ district in Seoul), where you can generally find sizes for all shapes of people. Also, know your sizes in centimeters and millimeters. It will make shopping easier. Basically if your afraid you won’t be able to find something, bring extra from home.
Along the lines of clothes, bring some type of nice looking sandals. At my school you get dirty looks if you wear shoes around school. So everyone wears sandals, even in the rain or winter, even outside. I don’t quite understand. Generally the teachers leave their sandals at school, while the students take their sandals home.
Another thing is you might want to bring some comfort items, especially food. A family friend gave me a bottle of Cleveland’s Stadium Mustard, because that’s always what she misses when she’s away from home. I thought this was ridiculous, but took the mustard to be nice. It’s been a nice thing to have. I also brought a little taster’s bag of coffee, which was also a relief. So if you have space, I’d bring any type of favorite snack food, candy, coffee or even tea (it’s hard to find black tea in Korea). It’ll just be nice to have if you get homesick or exhausted.
Then there’s the issue of electronics. For small electronics like hair dryers, etc. buy them in Korea. I have a friend who brought an electric shaver, and the current differences in Korea fried it. For big items like computers, it’s a close call. I brought a laptop. It’s nice because I know how to use it, but it was pain for my school’s non-English speaking computer teacher to set up the internet. Plus my laptop doesn’t have a Hangul keyboard, which would be convenient every now and then. You’ll need a plug adapter to put things into the outlets. At orientation, they were nice enough to give everyone one (along with a towel, mug and alarm clock). For little computer add-ons, like webcams or wireless routers, buy that in Korea.
The best thing to have when coming to Korea is family and friends that are willing to ship you things! The trouble with this is it’s expensive. A small box airmailed costs about $37, a larger box costs around $85! Shipping by actual ship is cheaper, but takes around six weeks (so I’m told by my co-teacher).
Your co-teacher will probably offer to take you shopping within a few days of getting to your apartment. If you are located in a very rural area, getting your apartment may not be ready yet. Two friends of mine are in a small town, and they had to deal with homestays and cheap hotels for a month before they got an apartment (I suspect the fact that they were an unwed couple trying to co-habitate in a conservative small town had something to do with it). Most items can probably wait until your first pay check. But I would suggest getting a clothes drying rack (Koreans generally don’t use dryers), and some cleaning supplies as soon as convenient.