This is it… for whatever reasons, you’ve decided to take the plunge and move to Korea. You may have a six-month or one-year teaching contract, you may be expecting to stay for a lot longer than this, or may just want to see how things go. Either way, you’re almost definitely feeling a range of emotions- anticipation, excitement, panic and maybe even a little fear- all of which are completely natural! Whilst the element of wonder is all part of the experience, it’s also a good idea to do some prep before jetting off. Here are some tips that will hopefully make your life easier, and allow you to arrive smoothly and confidently.
Do your homework
The journey from deciding to move to Korea, to landing in Incheon with nothing more than your backpack, is often a whirlwind. I found myself on the plane clutching a phrasebook in one hand and a beginner’s guide to Korea in the other. If I could do it all again, I would definitely have done some more “homework” in advance.
As a starter, familiarise yourself with Korean culture and customs if you haven’t already. Reading some more posts on The Korea Blog will definitely help with that, and will lead to other great blogs and resources. Learning some basic phrases, even just “annyeong haseyo” (“hello”) or “komapsumnida” (“thank you”) will impress whoever is meeting you at the airport and your new co-workers, and will show that you’ve made some effort.
In terms of learning vocab, also have a think about your own personal needs and wishes. Do you have any disabilities, or special or medical needs? Are you vegetarian, or allergic or intolerant to any foods? Is there anything in particular that you are looking to do, or anything you want to avoid? If so, you may want to learn phrases that will assist you when you arrive.
It helps, too, to look up facts about your city and province. What is the place known for? What are the facilities? Where could you go on weekends? What’s the exact location of new apartment? Acquainting yourself with these can add to the excitement, and give you a feel for your new hometown and lifestyle.
As well as Googling, it’s also worth checking Facebook, as there may be a page or group with useful info. The “Foreigners Living in Chuncheon” group helped me to track down some good bars and make loads of new friends.
It’s also a good idea to check out your school / hagwan / workplace. They may well have a website. If not, the agency or individual that you secured your position through should be able to help. Just seeing a photo or receiving some information will help to set your mind at rest.
Pack your bags
When moving to a new place for a year, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you need to cram as many of your clothes, shoes, books, papers and worldly possessions as you can into your humble suitcase. This isn’t necessarily the case, though.
It can be really expensive to pay for excess luggage (make sure you weigh your luggage and check your airline’s policy before leaving for the airport), so be ruthless, and make sure that everything in your bag is absolutely essential.
Keep in mind that clothes in Korea are stylish, reasonably priced, and come in a variety of styles. You’ll probably end up buying so much that you’ll be leaving behind much of your original “essential” wardrobe anyway (Note: be wary of sizing though- Korean sizes tend to be petite!)
Things like stationery, toys, fashion accessories and gifts are incredibly cheap, especially compared to the prices that I was used to back in the UK. So if you’re going to work as a teacher, wait until you arrive to buy your pens and notepads!
Of course, what’s “essential” is subjective, so be true to yourself. Personally, I packed below the minimum weight and this was more than enough to start with. A year later, I had accumulated so much “stuff” that I had to ship a number of boxes back home (it’s far cheaper this way!)
Prepare to combat homesickness
The excitement of your move can often cloud the fact that you will miss home. You’ll miss people, places, foodstuffs and things that simply can’t be replaced when you’re away from the place you think of as home. No-one’s denying that this can sometimes give you the blues. But there are things that you can do before you’ve even left that will help you to stay connected from your new home!
Firstly, make sure that you take a wealth of printed photos with you. These will decorate your wall, fridge, mirror or desk, and will allow you to feel close to loved ones and passed times. Secondly, ensure that you have an address book with everyone’s details in it. Even if you’re in touch online, on special occasions you’ll probably want to send cards and / or presents by snail mail.
Which brings me on to my next point: Korea provides super-fast internet services. There are PC-bangs (internet cafes) in even the remotest of cities, and you’ll almost definitely be able to get connected to the internet in your new apartment.
As far as you can, ensure that you’re linked to as many people as possible through email, Facebook, Twitter and Skype. Web cams make a huge difference, and mean that you can still have face-to-face conversations for free. This was my saving grace, and allowed me to interact with my baby nephew as he grew up!
There are also a number of public phone card top-up systems that will be much more cost-effective than using your Korean mobile phone to ring abroad. Work out the time difference between you in Korea and your family / friends back home, and arrange a good time for a call.
Embrace the new
Depending where you’re from, you’ll find that some things you regarded as “everyday items” will not be so readily available (or available at all) in Korea. For me, the list included real cheese, Cadbury’s chocolate, a proper curry, vegetarian items on restaurant menus, gravy granules, face wipes, non-whitening moisturisers and deodorants.
International supermarkets in big cities and care packages from the folks back home will help provide these rare luxuries on occasion. In my opinion, though, the best thing to do is to adapt to what is available.
I discovered so many Korean foodstuffs, products and brands that I now wish were more readily available here in the UK. My new list includes real kimchi, homemade tteok, soju, nockcha lattes, the luxury of “Kimbap Nara” (a restaurant chain) being open 24 hours, the Dalki range and Tonymoly products. I’d never have found these gems without the omission of what I was used to.
Needless to say, I also miss my Korean friends, students and co-workers, my apartment, the places I love and the lifestyle I had. It seems that South Korea became my second home, and that might just happen to you too.
Expect the unexpected
The truth is, no matter how much preparation you do, when you move to Korea for the first time, you’ll always be entering into a new world, a country miles away from the place you’ve called “home” until now, a rich new culture and a fresh chapter of your life and career. You’ll encounter things that you may never have imagined or thought possible. You’ll meet lots of different kinds of people, and a lot of people! You’ll almost definitely be surprised, bemused, delighted and amazed.
This may sound daunting, but the truth is South Korea is a very welcoming, friendly and fun place to be moving to. You shouldn’t run into any problems, and if you do, someone will be able to help you out. The most important things to remember are your positivity and open mind. Equipped with these, you’re sure to have the time of your life!