What to Pack
Among the greatest challenges facing the international teacher is the relocation process itself. For most, "relocation" means compressing life into two checked bags and a carry-on -- a daunting task under any circumstance, but particularly challenging when you're faced with prospects of setting up a classroom as well as a new home.
Most of the information that follows is geared toward teachers bound for South Korea. Some general tips will apply to everyone, but I can't comment on the availability of various items in Singapore or Slovakia because I've never lived in those countries.
- If you're picky or larger than the typical Korean, pack enough underwear to last you the year. Though the size range has increased in recent years, I've yet to see women's underwear above size 95 or men's above 105. As a special note for the women, it can be difficult to find bras in anything other than an A or B cup.
- Bring shoes that are comfortable to walk in, but don't try to bring a pair to coordinate with every outfit. Living in Korea means walking -- lots of it -- and stairs -- lots of them. And unless you're a descendent of the Marquis de Sade, you probably won't want to face either of these in pointy-toed, spiked-heel wonders. Besides, it's still expected that you shed your shoes at the door of every home, many restaurants and most schools, so it really doesn't matter if your blouse and your sandals are different shades of brown. It is difficult to find women's shoes above size 8 1/2 (250) in Korea, but it's not impossible. I picked up a pair of comfortable unisex tennis shoes for W20,000 after my expensive Nikes were stolen from a local gym, and in an emergency hand-sewn Italian leather dress shoes can be found in Itaewon in practically any size.
- Bring clothes for all four seasons, but don't bring an abundance of them. Wardrobe space is generally limited over here, and you aren't expected to have a different outfit for every day of the month.
- If you're tight on packing space, consider mailing bulky items to your future address. Items such as sweaters, sweatshirts and jackets don't weigh much, but do command a fair amount of space. Sometimes it's best to let the postal system get these items to you. (First, check with your future coworkers to ensure the mailing address is secure first, though!)
- Count on being able to get some additional outerwear locally. I picked up several heavy sweaters for W5,000 (less than U.S. $5) apiece at one of the many outdoor markets last winter. I found a windbreaker at a discount store for W25,000 and bought several sundresses for W10,000-12,000 each. Granted, none of them would win fashion awards, but they all fit and are acceptable for daily wear.
Contrary to what some people seem to think and what some older sites suggest, toothbrushes, sugar-free toothpaste, dental floss, Tylenol and deodorant have all made their way into Korea. I live in a town of 40,000, and I can still buy dental floss and deodorant at the local supermarket. That said, you can't always find the brands you find back home.
- Shampoo -- Korean shampoos tend to be a bit heavy on the perfumes for my taste, but Pantene, Vidal Sassoon, Dove and Johnson's Baby products are available just about everywhere. I've also seen Flex at a number of supermarkets. Clairol's Herbal Essence products seem to be gray market favorites, and Costco sells quart bottles of the stuff. Costco also sells two 32-ounce bottles of their generic version of Pantene for around W12,000 (U.S.$10). In short, unless you're into the really expensive designer label stuff, throw in a sample size bottle to get you through your first couple of days and buy shampoo and conditioner when you get over here.
- Toothpaste -- I've heard that many of the Korean toothpastes have sugar in them. Whether this is true, I have no idea. I'm an Arm and Hammer fan, and Arm and Hammer toothpaste is available in most of the larger stores. Toss one tube in your suitcase and look for a brand you like when you get here.
- Mouthwash -- I like Korean mouthwash just fine, but die-hard Listerine fans generally complain that it's too weak. A year's supply of Listerine is kind of heavy to pack, though, so either reconcile yourself to the Korean stuff or buy your cherished Listerine on the gray market where it's widely available.
- Soap -- As western brands go, Dial, Dove, and Caress are staples over here. Lever 2000 is available, but harder to find. Dove and Caress bady washes are also easy to come by, and a most of the larger stores carry Dial anti-bacterial body washes. That said, my favorite soaps are actually Korean. Another item for the "don't waste packing space on this" list.
- Dental floss -- Unless you're a dental floss snob, you ought to be able to find something that will do the job at any larger store -- Home Plus, E-Mart, Lotte Mart. Heck, most Family Marts even have it.
- Deodorant -- Was next to impossible to find a few years ago, but now most larger stores carry at least one or two brands of it. It's also widely available on the gray market and not that expensive, all things considered (W4,000-6,000 at most places). This is one of those products where brand does matter to me, though, so I generally pack a half dozen sticks.
- Cosmetics -- Cosmetic stores are everywhere, and most of the Korean cosmetic products are quiet good. The only real challenge tends to be finding foundation, as Korean products are designed for Korean skin tones. The best luck I've had has been with Clinique (available at department stores) and The Body Shop products. Still, given the price difference, foundation is one of those things I try to buy in North America. (A single bottle of Clinique runs between W35,000-W40,000.)
- Feminine hygiene products -- Both pads and tampons are widely available, though tampons tend to be quiet expensive (a box of 8 sells for W3,000-W4,000) unless purchased at Costco. The selection of pads is varied enough that most users can find something tolerable. Tampons are generally limited to Korean Tempo (which I've never heard anything good about) and Tampex regular (harder to find). Many tampon users recommend packing a year's supply.
- Over-the-counter medicine -- Aspirin, tylenol, and ibuprofen are all available here, but more expensive than in the States. A sheet of 10 aspirin costs W1,000. A box of 12 extra-strength Tylenol, W1,200-2,000. Given the price difference and the limited space it takes up, I generally bring a bottle of aspirin with me. Cold remedies are hit and miss. Of the ones I've tried, the only two I'll buy again are Toplexil (a French cough syrup that's basically the same thing as Robitussin) and Contac (great for allergy season). I still prefer Alka-Selzer Cold and Cough enough that I asked my sister to mail more to me when my original supply ran out. (Happens when you end up with pneumonia twice in six months ...) Hydracortisone cream, anti-nasuea medications, and travel sickness patches are also available over the counter and effective.
- Prescription medicine -- Up until 2001 or so, any drug could be had by walking into the local pharmacy and asking for it. Please note that this has changed. Most drugs that require a prescription in the States now require a prescription in Korea as well. Also, be warned, that Korean doctors generally prescribe drugs for only two or three days at a time, so if you need two weeks' worth of an antibiotic, you'll have to make at least four doctor's visits to get it.
- Birth control -- Birth control pills are one of the few products still available without a prescription in Korea. You won't necessarily find the brand you used in your home country, but should be able to find something similiar and get it quite cheaply. On the flip side, if you're trying to conceive, home pregnancy tests are readily available and also cheap. Ovulation prediction kits seem to be an altogether different matter, though.
- "Other" drugs -- It should go without saying, but don't try bringing illegal drugs into Korea. If you're lucky, they'll get you deported. (Oh, and the Korean government generally confiscates assets when it deports people.) If you're not so lucky, you'll find yourself getting free Korean lessons from a prison guard. And, yes, we're talking "even marijuana" here.
Since I've discussed materials at length on another page, I won't waste bandwidth repeating everything here. A few specific items you may wish to pack, however, include ...
- Pictures, pictures and more pictures -- Most Korean students (even adults) have never traveled abroad and will be curious about how you live. Bring pictures of your home, your home town, your family, your university, etc. They'll be great for breaking the ice with your new classes, and later on you can use them from picture description activities.
- Posters -- They're cheap and easy to pack, but the selection over here is quiet limited.
- Calendar -- Yes, you can buy calendars in Korea. In fact, businesses seem to give them away left and right at the end of the year. But a calendar from home will help you keep track of all the western holidays that aren't on the Korean calendar, and these western holidays can be great springboards for teaching students about foreign history and culture.
- A Sears (or JC Penney) catalog -- Seriously, if you've got room for an old catalog or two, you'll find the pictures to be a priceless addition to your teaching supplies. Talking about clothes? Let the kids describe the outfits they see, or race to find particular items of clothing, or cut pictures out and make flashcards, etc. Talking about rooms of the house? Flip over to the home furnishing pages and look at curtains and couches. Give the kids a budget and have them use the catalog to furnish a particular room in a house. Use pictures as a springboard for discussing likes and dislikes. Show them how to fill out an order form. Better yet, let them pretend they're calling in an order, and have another student in the class take it down.
- Alphabet tiles or foam letters -- Tiles are cheaper, but I'm partial to Lauri's Alphabet Avalanche, because I find the textured letter shapes better for tactile learners. Still, either is useful for letter recognition, sound identification and word-building activities, not to mention a host of free-style word games.
- Favorite children's books -- Don't load yourself down with books, as the selection here is quiet good. But if you have a half-dozen or so favorites, bring them! If nothing else, they'll be great for those first few days of class. Dr. Seuss books are particularly good for use in the ESL/EFL classroom and suprisingly hard to come by. (I won't set foot in an early childhood classroom without Hop on Pop and Wacky Wednesday nearby.)
- Stickers -- The tiniest shape or chart stickers thrill most youngesters, while Trend's Stinky Stickers are enough to make the toughest crew shape up. While you can find stickers in Korea, you won't a North American teacher's store for price or selection. Plus, a double of dozen packs of stickers take up almost no room.
- Stamps -- Motivational stamps with English messages can also be a good addition to your luggage. Kids love to see positive messages stamped on their homework, their tests, and even their hands after a particularly good day. Plus, scented inks (available at many teacher's stores) double the fun.
- Videos or DVDs -- English videos with Korean subtitles are widely available, but educational videos are harder to come by and quiet expensive. If your classroom comes equipped with a television and VCR or DVD player, the Magic School Bus, Bear in the Big Blue House, Schoolhouse Rock, Franklin, the Wiggles, and Between the Lions are your friends. Even two or three (purchased cheaply through Half.com, of course) can be a life-saver if you lose your voice or end up combining classes at the last minute to cover for another teacher.
From peanut butter to Kraft dinner, many western foods are available for a price these days. Most cities of any size have "gray market" vendors that re-sell goods purchased on U.S. military bases. It should be noted that it IS a violation of military policy for military I.D. card holders to re-sell goods purchased on base to ANYONE, be they friends or gray market vendors, but it IS NOT illegal for private citizens to purchase said goods from a gray market vendor. That said, I've found that much of what is available on the gray market is also available on the legal economy and actually cheaper if you know where to shop. Costco, department stores, and large discount stores all offer a decent selection of imported products, including canned vegetables, Campbell's soup, cheeses, sauces, and an assortment of cleaning products. So what do you actually need to pack?
- Spices and seasoning mixes -- Garlic, ginger and cinnamon are widely available. Thyme, bay leaf, oregano and parsley can also be found with some amount of looking. Things I bring from home include chili powder, chipotle peppers, minced onion, chives, creole seasoning, Greek seasoning, Italian seasoning, nutritional yeast, Italian and vegetable boullion cubes, taco seasoning, fajita seasoning and Knorr sauce mixes. I brought coriander, cumin, tumeric and curry with me way back when, but soon found that the Halal shops carry all of these.
- Dried beans -- You can find kidney beans, black soybeans and mung beans pretty much anywhere. Additionally, Halal shops sell chick peas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and yellow split peas quiet cheaply. I pack dried black turtle beans, pinto beans, white soup beans, and cannelinni beans. I also usually bring along a couple of bags of 15-bean soup mix for the those cold, long winter days.
- Seeds -- Though not exactly food when I bring them, my seed collection turns to cilantro, parsley, chives, and basil over the course of the year.
- Jello and pudding mix -- Yes, both are available on the gray market, but they're not worth W3,500-5,000 a box to me. In fact, I don't even like them. But neither are available here, and students are fascinated by both of them. I'll generally schedule a "cooking day" after I come back from vacation, make one or the other with the students, then help them write about the process. Red and green Jello can also be used to make candied popcorn at Christmas time.
- Kool-aid (the cheap unsweetened stuff) -- A few flavors of the pre-sweetened variety are available on the local economy, but sweetened Kool-Aid doesn't work well in homemade play-dough. :-)
- Comfort foods -- For me, this means steel-cut oat groats, dates, and a couple of pounds of yellow stone-ground grits. Your mileage may vary.
Basic though it may sound, it's one of those things that can get forgotten in the hustle and bustle of packing. Make sure to have on your person ...
- Plane ticket
- Proof of insurance
- Major credit card
- List of emergency phone numbers
- Notice of any critical medical information (conditions, drug allergies, etc.)
It's also a good idea to stash a photocopy of your passport, plane ticket and insurance information in another place, as well as to leave copies of this information with a trusted family member or friend.