Cotton-balls in Seoul: What to Pack for South Korea

I am beginning to appreciate just how many Americans travel to South Korea each year for employment. Take Chung Dahm for example. They hire approximately 300 teachers every quarter. Multiply that by hundreds of academies and hogwons across the country and the number of ESL teachers coming into the country each year climbs into the thousands. Add to that the thousands of enlisted soldiers coming to live on various military branches and the hundreds of businessmen and women working for big corporations who regularly spend weeks, months, or even years living in Seoul and you come up with a population comprised of about 2% foreigners – a significant number when considering the population in South Korea is somewhere in the 50 million range. It’s none too surprising, then, that the big question among people headed to the ROK is: What do I pack?

So, for today’s post, I put together a list of items to consider packing for a long stay in Korea with a little discussion of each. I hope future expats find here a useful anecdote or two.

WHAT TO PACK:

  • Deodorant: Unless you have easy access to a commissary, deodorant is difficult to find and expensive when it is. If you get stuck in a lurch, you can purchase deodorant for a high-markup price at several of the foreign markets in Itaewon, but it’s much easier just to go to the Dollar General Store before leaving the states and stocking up on a year’s supply to throw in your luggage.  It’s well worth the extra weight and luggage space. Also, it will save you from having to beg friends and family to send more when July rolls around and you’re sick of your own stench.  Seriously, Koreans do not use deodorant and you will not find it on the shelves at E-mart or any other retailer.
  • Toothpaste: While there is plenty of toothpaste to be had in S. Korea, it is quite dissimilar to American brands, so if you have a favorite brand, I recommend packing  a year’s supply of that, too. Next to deodorant, it is the American product highest in demand among American expats.
  • Clothes and Shoes: This may seem obvious, but unless you are petite and thin (or of Asian descent), it will be difficult to find clothes that fit properly. There are several fundamental differences in body shapes between Korean and American people and most clothes available for sale in Korea are not going to accommodate the size, shape, or length of the average Western body frame, even in extra-large sizes. If you can’t fit a full year’s supply of clothing into your suitcases, I recommend packing clothes for the season you will arrive and for the season that follows. Next, arrange to have a friend send you a box of clothes in six month’s time. It may be expensive, but not any more so than buying specialty clothes in Korea. Besides, that’s an infinitely better option than wearing clothes that feel awkward or which are inappropriate for the season. If you find yourself in a lurch on this one, try scouring foreign clothing stores in Itaewon, though even here the selection will be limited to an odd array of knock-off t-shirts and baggy jeans.
    • If you are up for an adventure, find a tailor or seamstress in the Dongdaemun Fabric Market who is willing to work with you. If you are a little savvy, open-minded, and willing to try speaking Korean, you could get a really wonderful deal on custom-made clothing – Western style OR Korean, for they regularly make traditional Hanbok for weddings and family photos.
  • Cosmetics for Your Skin Tone: Clinique, Este’ Lauder and Channel are just some of the major high-end brands that ARE available in the malls in and around Seoul, but keep in mind that foundation, make-up, and powder shades are suitable for the Asian complexion.

DON’T BOTHER PACKING:

Korean Language Books and Guides: Not only are there myriad language books and guides in used book stores around Itaewon and the foreign book sections of large bookstores like Bandi & Luni’s, you will also likely inherit books from fellow expats, teachers, or co-workers who no longer need them.

  • Shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and other every-day toiletries: There is an abundance of these types of products in stores all over South Korea. Besides E-mart, these products are available Watson’s, Homeplus, Costco, and most pharmacies. Also, there are millions of Body Shop, Olive, The Face Shop, and similar outlets in every neighborhood.
  • Accessories like sunglasses, socks, ties, hats, scarves, Jewelry: Name brand knock-offs of these products can be purchased from the thousands of street vendors that line the streets of nearly any district in S. Korea, not to mention in the subway stations and sidewalks of most neighborhoods. If you don’t want to buy the cheap stuff from a street vendor, there are something like two million stores and malls in S. Korea, many of them high-end, where you can buy high-quality items. You won’t be sorry.
  • Office, Art, and School supplies: S. Korea is a virtual heaven for the office and art supply aficionado, most of it exceeding anything you can find in America in terms of quality and variety. My very favorite place to shop in the entire country is Dream Depot. In fact, I’ve filled boxes and bags of stuff from Dream Depot to send back home.

Recommended:

  • Favorite accessories, books you feel you can’t live without, and your favorite teddy-bear: Even though there are many quality products in S. Korea, sometimes you just want your own stuff, so pack it. Living abroad for a year is a big challenge and it’s a good plan to have a few comfort items and mementos of home to get you through those less-than-stellar expat moments.

Post Script: One evening, a group of my fellow teachers and I were swapping stories about our first impressions of S. Korea – specifically, what we had and had not packed. One of the newer teacher said that for some reason she worried she wouldn’t be able to find cotton balls in Korea, so she’d packed way more than she could ever use in a year. Since cotton balls are not hard to find, she was giving a few of her packages away.

The perspectives we had acquired through experience allowed us to laugh at ourselves and the silly misconceptions we had before coming to South Korea. Still, preparing for a year of teaching abroad can be somewhat of a mystery fraught with anxiety for some. With any luck, this post will make the job a little easier a fellow angst-prone (but none-the-less adventurous), traveler.

2 thoughts on “Cotton-balls in Seoul: What to Pack for South Korea

  1. jopo

    Hi thanks for the post. Very helpful. Regarding cotton balls, haha… my wife and i can’t seem to find one. We just moved in to Songdo, Incheon and we went to lotte and several grocery stores/convenience stores but did not find one. Will try to go to other malls you mentioned above. Appreciate if you can send more tips via my email. Thanks and God bless!

    Reply

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