What do I need to do to get ready for a move to South Korea?
June 16, 2008 5:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm moving to South Korea in August to teach English for a year and I have a few questions, but would appreciate advice in general.

I have lived abroad before in Japan (I realize the countries are quite different, but I just wanted to make it clear that I'm fully aware of "Ugly American Syndrome" and will avoid it at all costs), but I'm curious about a few things regarding the ROK (I'll be living in Seoul, btw, and I currently speak no Korean at all).

1) I'm 6'1' and have a 38' waist. Will I have a hard time finding clothes as needed? Obviously, I want to bring as little junk over as possible.

2) What can I expect as the hottest and coldest weather conditions?

3) What are some things I should bring but probably haven't thought about? My mainstays will be -- business casual outfits for teaching (slacks and dress shirts and ties with maybe two sports coats), a lap-top for internet access, language books with audio courses already on my computer's hard drive. That's really about it. Other than my passport and wallet and excitement, what am I forgetting?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation around South Korea (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Illl try to get in touch with a friend who taught english in both Japan and SK. I don't know if this applies to you, but he was deported for smoking weed. Just saying. It's a pretty big offense.
posted by MiggySawdust at 6:28 PM on June 16, 2008

You should get in touch with stavrosthewonderchicken. Not only does he live in Korea, but since he's started training for the 2nd Annual MeFight Club TF2 Tournament of the Champions, he's grown several inches taller while maintaining a normal BMI, and increased his cardiopulmonary reserve by 4000%.

Really, though, he's there now, pretty smart about things, and a nice fellow. He may be willing to research answers to your questions he might not know off the top of his head. Also: I'm pretty sure he wears clothes, but cannot confirm.
posted by herrdoktor at 6:52 PM on June 16, 2008

My brother's lived there for about two years, teaching in Seoul and another city. I can put you in touch with him. Mefi Mail me.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:06 PM on June 16, 2008

I'm not your size so I'm not aware of the availability, but there are plenty of custom tailor places, especially around some of the American military bases. You just show the tailor a picture of what you wanna get made, pick the fabric, and voila! New clothes. I had it done once and was pretty satisfied (except it was a little bit too tailored so when I gained weight I couldn't wear the outfit anymore...). Also tailoring on ready-made clothing is also pretty cheap, so if you find something that "almost" fits you can always have it modified easily too.

Weather in summer isn't very hot temperature wise (usually around the 80s) but is very humid. Be prepared to be sticky and sweaty most of the time, yeech. Your tolerance for winter will probably vary depending on where you're from . It does snow here (at least in Seoul) and the temperature usually ranges from the mid to low 20s. Whether that's cold or not will depend on you (I'm from a warm climate, so it's absolutely freezing while my buddies from northern climates just shrug at the weather).

Korea is a developed country so within the big cities you can find almost any product you need although it might not be the exact same brand. However, availability of Western products decreases the further you go out of the main cities, so what you're able to get on a regular basis will really depend on where you're going to be living.

English books and magazines while available, are sort of expensive, so if you do a lot of reading you may want to stock up on some reading material so you don't spend a ton of money like me...

And get a language exchange partner! Everyone wants to practice their English here so they're really easy to find. And they can help you out a lot if you're ever in a pinch.
posted by tastycracker at 7:32 PM on June 16, 2008

Read up on some articles from here:


Try gems like CostCo Field Trip, Tim Hoo is a Genius and For Who the Bell Tolls.
posted by jonah at 8:00 PM on June 16, 2008

My friend and her husband have been living in South Korea for the last year teaching English and have blogged muchly. They may not touch on all your questions, but you can see what they have to say here.
posted by olinerd at 8:40 PM on June 16, 2008

Just as I was looking for something else to procrastinate with, up pops this question! How lovely! :)

I spent a year (2001-2002) in South Korea teaching English in Incheon, which was near the airport, and about a 45 minute subway ride from Seoul. As it was my first time abroad, and thus my first time living abroad, it was both the best experience of my life and the worst.

I have more to add, which I'll add later, or feel free to PM me, but I'll get to your stated questions.

1) When I was there, I was 5'9" and just over 200lbs, with about a 34-36" waist. Buying clothes was very very hard for me, as everything was very small, even XLs. If you can get into Seoul, or around Dongdaemun or Itaewon, you should be able to find some places that will cater to more Western bodies, with the military presence around. However, this largely depends on where in Korea you're teaching. The language institute that I taught at had 36 locations all over South Korea, with some being in some pretty rural places. You definitely want to find out how far you're going to be from Seoul itself.

2) Again, where I was, in Incheon, we got snow in the winter, and crazy humidity in the summer, but, based on your location, YMMV. Like, it put the humidity that I hated for four years living in Maryland to shame. One of the gifts that my students gave me during the summer was a set of handkerchiefs because I would just drip sweat in the classrooms. Air conditioning was a bit of a luxury, so often during my lunch break from teaching, I'd walk the mile to my apartment and lay naked in front of my oscillating fan. Winter got pretty cold, not too much snow, but with some a good jacket, I was fine. The other seasons are really lovely, weather-wise.

3) When I went in 2001, torrenting and file-sharing (read: pirating, I guess) wasn't something I understood yet, so I was *incredibly* thankful that a bunch of my friends put together a great big box of DVDs and shipped them to me early in my trip. Going out is great, and there's lots of sites to see. And, if you have a TV, you can get the military channel in English, but there were many many Sunday evenings when I just wanted to stay in and watch a good movie, because I was feeling a little homesick.

I'll think about it some more and post again.

I'd also recommend keeping a good journal or blog while you're there, for two reasons:

1) At first, I would send out updates to friends and family via email, but after each one, I would get a bunch of emails from friends and family I forgot to put on the list and have to send it out again...it was a hassle that having a blog that I could just point people to resolved.

2) You'll make incredibly wonderful memories while you're there, and it was such a growth experience for me, that it would be a shame if you forgot your process of being there and experiencing Korea.

Finally, when I went, I had just decided that I was going to be a vegetarian. That was the biggest mistake I could have made, because Bulgogi and Kalbi are two of the finest things this planet has to offer.

I honestly hope you have a GREAT time.
posted by cheeken at 8:42 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you've got the money and a place to land in Seoul (to stash your stuff) I recommend putting together your professional wardrobe collection here and bring it with you.

4-5 slacks, 10 dress shirts, as many ties as you want, *COMFORTABLE* dress shoes (at least 1 pair) etc. Doing the wash every other week is good, especially if you've got to go out to the laundromat. Plus the less you wear your shirts the better they look in the rotation, so the more the merrier.

From my experience in Japan I felt more comfortable going to work in real American work clothes.

I flew from Tokyo to Seoul in late-November (1992) and found it Witch's Tit-level cold. The peninsula is much closer to the Siberian landmass & its winder brrrrrrr.
posted by tachikaze at 9:13 PM on June 16, 2008

>Kalbi are two of the finest things

the best meal I ever got in Tokyo was a kalbi-don in Akihabara. Shop closed ~10 years ago, but DAMN was that good.
posted by tachikaze at 9:14 PM on June 16, 2008

1) I'm 6'1' and have a 38' waist. Will I have a hard time finding clothes as needed? Obviously, I want to bring as little junk over as possible.

So am I. In Seoul, you'll have some luck in places like Itaewon finding clothes and shoes. Outside of there, pretty much forget it. I get my business shirts custom made through a tailor-website thingy, but I've never in 10 years found pants off the rack that fit me here. Then again, I hate shopping for clothes, so I haven't tried that hard. I wear size 12 shoes, and have to get them sent to me from Canada, or have them custom made here.

As far as media goes, bandwidth is plentiful, cheap and uncapped. If you have no moral qualms about downloading, you'll be fine.

I haven't lived in Seoul for 5 years, having relocated to the southland seaside, but last I lived there, and still universally true where I live, is that you can't find deodorant/antiperspirant for men easily, if at all. Bring lots. Pretty much everything is available online, though, so if you can find someone to help you with the Korean shopping sites, you'll be good.

The language is difficult, but the writing system is remarkably easy to learn and beautifully logical, so tackle that first. It will help immensely, impress your Korean friends, and is pretty essential to getting by.

Everything else has been answered pretty well, I think. There have been a lot of threads about this over the years, so make sure and search AskMe for more, and hit one of my sites (long un-updated (I haven't been writing much in recent months) but hopefully useful for general info) here, in particular the essay called 'The Skinny'. Good luck! There are a few of us MeFites in Korea, mostly in Seoul, so call for a meetup over in Metatalk once you get settled in.

Also: I'm pretty sure he wears clothes, but cannot confirm.

As infrequently as possible.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:38 AM on June 17, 2008

I'm in Seoul now. I'm the same height, but my waist is considerably smaller. I can find decent, cheap stuff off the rack with some work at, for example, Dongdaemun. You will have some trouble, unless you go to Itaewon, but I doubt you'll be able to find pants. Basically, I agree with Stav about clothes; however, it's possible to find larger shoes in Seoul if you look. But, like Stav, I got mine sent from Canada.

You CAN find deodorant/antiperspirant in Seoul these days, but it... um, kinda sucks. Bring your own.

Agree completely about the language.
posted by smorange at 7:04 AM on June 17, 2008

The tip above about comfy dress shoes is good. Make them 'slip-on' shoes, and bring two pair. Other than that, you shouldn't have too much trouble buying clothes in Itaewon or even in some of the fancier department stores in Kangnam. But again, the internet is your friend, and Land's End (et al.) will deliver to Korea.

Get ready to go out to eat . . . a LOT. Get ready to drink a fair amount too. If you don't drink, tell the folks you're with that you're "taking medication." That's a pretty handy excuse.

Don't worry too much about language. You'll pick it up as you need it. Do take the time (like maybe 2 days max) to learn to READ han-gul (the Korean alphabet). It's simple enough to learn to read, but there's a far cry between being able to read and being able to read Korean and to speak Korean.

Like others said, winters can be bone-chilling cold, and summers are hot and sticky. It's kind of like living on the yeast coast of the USA, but Korean buildings are not (apparently) insulated as well as their North American counterparts. You may want long johns, and I doubt you'll be able to find any there. (I did, but I'm a good deal shorter than you.)

But one of the joys of a Korean winter is sleeping on an ondol floor. Get yourself a NICE ibul and yo (a fancy Korean bed made for the heated floors), and get ready to get cozy come November.
posted by deejay jaydee at 12:32 PM on June 17, 2008

You might want a camera. I was in China for a semester and a couple of times I went eating at restaurants by myself or with other non-chinese and would find a delicious but unknown food. I would take a picture and bring it to the Chinese woman who helped our group with the details of living in China. Also, pictures will distract your family/friends when they ask you to sum up your amazing experience in a couple of sentences.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 12:48 PM on June 17, 2008

I have lived in Seoul for a couple of years.

Firstly, many of my colleagues who have lived in Japan have not had a great time in Korea. Try not to make comparisons and appreciate Korea for what it is.

To address your questions directly:
1) See answers above
2) Some numbers on the weather in Seoul. In other words, you will need both warm winter clothes and cool summer clothes. It's worth noting that Koreans tend to dress a little smarter than westerners, especially those from the USA.
3) The Gmarket online shop in English is a good place to get an idea of what's available in Korea. For example, see the results of a search for 'deodorant'. As you you can see, it's available, but a bit pricey and with a restricted selection of brands. You can get most things here, especially in Seoul and online. Maybe bring a few books to see you through until your first order with What The Book comes through. My previous answer includes at the end the names of a few books that might prove helpful in getting the hang of the culture.

Hope that helps. Good luck!
posted by Busy Old Fool at 9:35 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Holy crap, I hadn't realized Gmarket had an English site! Thanks for that link, Busy Old Fool!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:01 PM on June 17, 2008

Other than that, you shouldn't have too much trouble buying clothes in Itaewon or even in some of the fancier department stores in Kangnam.

I don't know about Itaewon's selection, but I'm going to have to reiterate that if you're built like me (and presumably the OP) -- not terribly fat in my case, but wrestler-big, over 6 feet and with a 38 inch waist or bigger -- you're not going to have much luck at all finding off the rack clothing. I admit that I like my clothing loose and roomy, but I've been here most of the time since 1996, and I've never found a pair of pants off the rack I could get into comfortably, or a business shirt that didn't bind me at the shoulders and chest. Not once. For what it's worth.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:02 PM on June 17, 2008

Indeed, Stavros, I don't know why it isn't better-known. For ex-pats in out-of-the-way places, it must be a godsend. They've even got quite a lot of food items like couscous, sour cream etc. that can be tough to track down, even in Seoul.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 9:42 AM on June 18, 2008

Just in the spirit of sharing, for people who aren't in Seoul, Taegu or Daecheon (the only places there are Costcos), I've used and recommend this site, which allows you to order stuff from Costco, which they buy, pack and send to you, for a small markup. It's in Korean, but if your Korean isn't up to snuff, you can get someone to help. Mmmm, sour cream and cheese and salami and salsa and all kinds of stuff!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:39 PM on June 18, 2008

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