Tag Archives: Shopping in South Korea

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.


  • 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.


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.


  • 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.

The Banana Story: Procuring Produce in S. Korea

Purchasing bananas at the Pyeongchon E-mart in Anyang South Korea can be a little trickier than one might expect.

At first glance, the produce section of an E-mart grocery floor looks pretty much like any produce section in any American grocery or discount department store, except some of the varieties of produce may seem unusual to a foreigner. Persimmons, for example, will appear in produce bins in the autumn, as will arrays of pumpkins of a very different assortment than the large orange kinds we are used to in the United States. In the spring, large purple grapes with skins as thick as a plums and a more tart taste than table grapes typical in America appear beside the most delicious mangoes you’ve ever tasted in your life.

But bananas are as common and equally as loved in S. Korea as they are in the States, and abundantly available in the produce section –  as long as you are shopping several hours before the store closes. This is because produce is stocked once, I assume very early, every day and not replenished. In other words, produce is pretty much first come, first served. So, you can buy all the bananas you want (though buying only a few can prove a little more challenging) as long as there are bananas to buy.

Not being much of a culinary adventurist, and a big fan of bananas, I made sure to grab a generous bunch of them my very first shopping day at the Pyeongchon E-mart before browsing around for other interesting foods and odds an ends for the officetel. When my cart, which, by the way, had multi-directional wheels,  felt sufficiently full, I headed to the rows of cashiers on the ground level to purchase my goods.

There’s nothing unusual about the way E-mart cashiers operate. Just like at home, you wheel your cart into line, wait your turn, then unload your purchases onto the conveyor belt. The cashier then runs the bar code of each item across the scanner and the cash register keeps a running total. Everything was running just as smoothly as can be when suddenly the rhythmic flow of scanner-beeps came to a halt. This is usually indicative that the cashier has come across some bit of produce that needs weighed This is not, however, what occurred in this instance.

The bananas, by then somewhat near the top end of the grocery cart, had finally made their way down the conveyor belt amidst boxes of dry goods and dish towels and were now being held in the right hand of the somewhat confused looking cashier. She looked at me questioningly and I looked at her questioningly, and when that garnered no result or action on either part, I just shrugged my shoulders to convey my ignorance over the situation. She shook her head and put the bananas away, and I did not get to buy any bananas that day.

Walking home with my self-boxed groceries on my recently purchased dolly I realized that one difference between the check-out counter at E-mart and those in American grocery store is the absence of produce scales. Since the other produce I had purchased was prepackaged, it was easily scanned and caused no problems. The bananas, however, were not so conveniently packaged, and since there is no scale at the check-out counters at E-mart, there was no way for the clerk to know how much to charge for the bananas, so she could not sell them to me.

Of course, this is probably what she was trying to say to me, but not knowing the language, I remained ignorant.

When I returned the following day to try my luck again at purchasing bananas, it was with a more observant attitude. I headed back to the banana bin in the produce section and scanned the area for a scale. Nothing. But there was a woman wearing the kind of hat one wears as an employee of a grocery store standing on the other side of the banana bin helping a customer with her bananas. I made my way around to the pair and watched their interaction. The customer handed the bananas to the woman with the hat who weighed them on a digital scale, pushed a button to produce a UPC sticker, bagged the bananas, placed the UPC sticker on the bag  and handed the bananas back to the customer. Voici! What an easy and civilized method, I thought, and promptly followed suit to purchase my very own bunch of bananas to enjoy in the comfort of my own home.

This may seem like a small success, but when you are living in a foreign country and simple communication suddenly becomes a daily issue, sometimes the small successes are your only successes and so are worthy of celebration.

But this is not the end of the banana story.

After work one night, around 10:30 PM, I went by E-mart to pick up a few things as my coffers were running low, and a bunch of bananas was on my list.  Knowing my chances of getting any produce so late a night were slim, I hoped for the best. When I got to the banana bin, it was nearly, but not completely, empty. There were a few bunches of bananas left.  I picked a bunch out and took it to the lady with the scale and handed them to her. She shook her head, crossed her fingers (the Korean sign for ‘no’) and took my bananas away from me and placed them on a table behind her (well out of my reach). I was astounded and quite confused. But one thing I’d learned about Korea is this: if someone tells you “no,” they mean NO. So, realizing I was standing there like a person struck dumb, I roused myself went about my other shopping business without protest. It took me a few shopping trips to get up enough courage to buy bananas at E-mart again, and I never had any problem again.

I’ve told my banana story to many people, including my Korean students, and while they all found it amusing, no one has offered a possible reason why the banana woman took my bananas away. I’ve decided I prefer to think she knew something about those bananas that I did not and was protecting me from making the grave mistake of purchasing them. Who knows, perhaps because of her wisdom, I have avoided some infamous banana plague that causes one to foam at the mouth and attack E-mart customers while hanging from the ceiling (or otherwise “go bananas”). In which case, let me just say, thank you banana lady at E-mart who runs the digital scale, thank you from the very bottom of my heart.

Anecdotes and Advice Revisited: Deodorant Availability in South Korea

Among the many words of advice passed on to me when people learned I was moving to South Korea to teach was to “pack a year’s worth of deodorant.” Everyone said that deodorant would be difficult to find in South Korea, and even when found, it would would be expensive and/or ineffective.

I researched this point a little before leaving the states, mostly by cruising blogs of others living in South Korea (and documenting their experience) and expat advice sites on the internet and found among all these sources a consensus that, yes, indeed, deodorant is difficult to find in South Korea.

Eager to test the validity of this rumor once I had arrived in South Korea, I made it a point to check out the toiletries aisle at our neighborhood E-mart during our first shopping expedition. The aisle was well stocked with every imaginable health and beauty product available, from shampoo and conditioner to toothpaste to shaving cream and disposable razors. “Ah ha!” I thought smugly to myself. “Deodorant is surely among this plethora of products.” I walked confidently down the aisle expecting any moment to see Korean versions of recognizable brands like “Secret” and “Old Spice” or some other similarly branded Korean deodorant. But alas, there was no sign of deodorant of any kind. I tried a couple of other likely aisles thinking perhaps E-mart arranges their toiletries in a different manner than it’s American counterparts, but I never found deodorant at E-Mart that day, or any day since.

Several months had passed since that first search for deodorant when I went to Itaewon for the first time and consequently to the Foreign Food Market. There, on a high shelf behind the counter, safe from the hands of casual shoppers and possible shoplifters, I noticed a collection of “foreign” beauty products. There, sitting between a bottle of Nivea body lotion and a container of Noxzema was a row of various brands of American deodorants. Because I had taken the advice of all those many expat blogs and websites and stocked up on deodorant before I came (thank you Dollar General Store) , I had no need to inquire into the price of those sticks of deodorant, but considering Campbell’s Tomato Soup is over $3.00 a can, I’ve no doubt the those rolls and sticks of deodorant were over priced and comparatively expensive.

But perhaps the proliferation of deodorant on the shelves of E-Mart and like chain stores is not too far in South Korea’s future. South Koreans are very consumerist oriented and lately I’ve been noticing advertisements on the subway for prescription antiperspirant, and really deodorant is not a big leap from antiperspirant, is it? (I know I confuse the two all the time). I also know Korean people to be fastidious in the personal hygiene as well as avid consumers, two conditions which, combined, seem to me to make an auspicious market for deodorant companies.

Consider dairy products as an example. I assumed there would be few dairy products in S. Korea for a couple of reasons: One, where would dairy cows be kept? Secondly, as far as I know, folks of Asian persuasion have a difficult time digesting lactose. Imagine my surprise when I saw aisles and aisles of dairy products at E-mart. Milk of every flavor (chocolate, strawberry, banana, peach, mango), American branded yogurt, drinkable yogurt (delicious, by the way), pudding and all kinds of ice cream. The only dairy product that has not much caught on yet is cheese (still available, but expensive).

So why all the dairy products? Perhaps it has to do with marketing.

On sidewalks in front of schools and academies on any given day there are stationed well dressed representatives of myriad companies promoting milk products the best way possible – by giving away free samples to kids. Convenience store owners are also known to give away an extra carton of flavored milk as “service” to customers buying something from their store. Also, there is a lot of very positive advertising for dairy products on billboards in the city and 0n the

Be White

Be White

subway. The most memorable of these is an imperative from “Smoothie King” to “Be White.” A slogan successful because white skin is highly prized in this part of the world, though it certainly doesn’t hurt to have celebrity endorsement of the likes of Olympic Gold Medalist, Yuna Kim.

I believe it is the direct result of this heavy marketing that S. Korean folks have embraced dairy products as enthusiastically just as they have embraced eating meat for three meals a day (as opposed to hardly ever); further, it is no big stretch of the imagination that, should deodorant companies begin a marketing campaign as aggressive as that of dairy products, deodorant companies will easily convince S. Koreans that they need these products despite the likely fact that they do not. I mean, if marketing can convince people to drink a product that is arguably hard on their digestive system, why wouldn’t it work equally well to convince people that don’t sweat much from their armpits that they need a product to prevent or minimize the odor of such bodily function? No much at all, I fear.

At this writing, unless you have access to the army base, deodorant is still pretty difficult find in South Korea and expensive when it is found.  If you are headed to the R.O.K and deodorant is an important part of your personal hygiene, then I also recommend packing extra for the trip. If you are the sort of person who is overly concerned about such things as the availability of deodorant in a foreign country, then you may want to reconsider your trip all together.

Trip to Dongdaemun Fabric Market (South Korea)

City Gate

A couple of weeks ago I went up to Dongdaemun (pronounced dong-day-moon) to visit the Dongdaemun fabric markets; a five-story fabric, yarn and craft mall. I’d heard about this place through the Soul Stitch and Bitch group and have been trying to get out there since I arrived.

Anyway, it was late on a Saturday, and unlike most places in Korea, the Fabric Market has relatively “normal” business hours that run from 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday, so though many of the shops were disappointingly beginning to close, there were enough shops open for browsing pleasure.

There are probably thousands of individual vendors set up in small “shops” that are anywhere between a 10×10 to 20×20 square feet. There is every kind of fabric imaginable and the prices are amazing. The pathways are very narrow and I can imagine that in the middle of the business day it is probably louder and crazier than the stock market.

I was there to find fabric to make a curtain of sorts to hang in the opening between our “bedroom” and “kitchen” areas (to help keep out the light when one of us is sleeping and the other is up late working). I found a beautiful gold-colored fabric with a deep red leaf

“Hanbuk,” Korean Traditional Clothing

pattern that I think will be lovely, though wish I’d purchased twice as much. I wonder if I’ll ever find the same vendor again.

Besides every kind of fabric imaginable, we saw literally miles of buttons, and I am NOT exaggerating. If ever you needed a button, I’m positive you could find an exact match among these vendors. There were also amazing quantities of tassels and other embellishments, not to mention bulk tread at a pittance for what one would pay in the states, and in every color.

Fabric Market

Miles of buttons!

I was also there to find yarn with which to make an afghan and found an overwhelming supply of same. Very nice wool yarn can be had for 5000 won a skein – that’s about 5 bucks for something as nice as merino wool. I only wish I could have found a wool/silk blend. Anyway, I found what I needed and bought eight skeins. The woman threw in two pair of circular knitting needles (part of the service).

I can’t wait to back again!