The door closes behind my new boss and I’m left standing alone inside a sparsely furnished apartment. I clutch a bottle of water in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other, and the only sounds to keep me company are the humming of an empty fridge and the sounds of traffic that I will learn to accept as a permanent background drone.
My bed, a Queen sized mattress on the floor, faces a television that assaults my senses with loudly shouted Korean and obnoxiously sweet jingles. There are no subtitles to explain to me what it is I’m seeing. I take my meager supply of food into the kitchen, barely more than a wardrobe, and examine the motley collection of plastic bowls and second hand utensils I’ve been left with.
My apartment looks as if it were furnished from a thrift store. I later find out that it was actually furnished with things picked up from the side of the road on trash pick-up day. It’s cold and grey outside and I am thousands of miles from home without a computer or a phone. I sit down on my bed and I cry. I’ve never felt so alone in my life.
My first few days in Korea were amongst the most emotionally draining in my life. Granted, I’d not lead a particularly challenging or action-packed life up to that point, but I think most people will agree that moving abroad for the first time is a challenging prospect. Doubly so when you don’t speak the language or know anything about the culture.
It’s a reality that many people who take an ESL teaching role in Korea won’t understand the language and might not know a great deal about South Korea. With the exception of having fast internet and having co-hosted a World Cup, Korea isn’t exactly a country on the global map – regardless of how much they might argue to the contrary. This lack of knowledge is a double edged sword. On the one hand it means you don’t come in with any expectations, but on the other hand it leaves you sadly adrift when you first arrive on the peninsula. It’s a garishly lit, loud, smelly, and often intimidating place that looks and feels very little like the country we left behind.
That changes, obviously. I wouldn’t have spent two and a half years of my life in Korea if it were a place without its charms. I’ve discussed some of these charms in my previous articles about Korean food and Korean festival culture. But this entry is about the comforts from home that make that early introduction into Korean life just a little easier. So, without further ado…
As I mentioned when discussing Korean food, you’re not left without familiar faces entirely. McDonalds, Burger King, Dominos, Cold Stone, Baskin Robbins, 7/11, Pizza Hut, Krispy Kreme, and Dunkin Donuts have saturated the market in South Korea to the point that it’s hard to go more than a few hundred meters without seeing one or more of them. For the most part these places are much as you’d remember them from home, with a few quirky touches (Bulgogi Burgers at McDonalds, red bean paste donuts at Dunkin Donuts etc) that make them distinctly Korean.
Likewise, shopping isn’t without tastes of home. Hershey’s chocolate is an ever present option (sadly, Cadbury’s is far harder to find) and the universally known Coca Cola products are readily available. I swear to God, we’ll encounter alien life one day and their first reaction will be surprise that we too have Coke.
Korea isn’t a third world country. You’re not going to struggle to find essentials such as beauty products, toiletries, medicine, or anything like that. You might have to settle for a makeup with in built whitening agents (Korean women are obsessed with appearing white) or your bread being sweeter than you’d like, but don’t for a second think you’re going to be eating handfuls of rice and drinking goats milk to get by. This is an Asian country with a rapidly growing Western feel to it.
While it’s true that big chain supermarkets like Home Plus, eMart, and Lotte Mart do stock a great selection of foods – their Western food sections are usually quite smile. You’ll find tortillas and lunch meat at these big stores, but if you’re after cheese or your favorite soup from home, you’re going to have to find a foreigner market. The most well known of these is the Foreigner Market in Itaewon in Seoul – but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Underground Grocer in Gwangju. I might be a tad biased though, since my friend Michael is the founder of both the market and its attached Western restaurant – the First Alleyway.
Foreigner markets don’t offer a huge selection by any stretch, but you’d be a hard man or woman to please if you couldn’t find a little something to put a smile on your face. Their prices are going to be higher than you’d pay at home – but after a few months of eating plastic American cheese, you’ll gladly shell out 10,000 won for a block of Colby Jack. Trust me.
Another good option is Costco, which has a number of stores in South Korea. The cost of membership (35,000 won) is more than worth it for the opportunity to buy food from home.
Another tried and true way of getting a taste of home is the care package. If you’re feeling homesick and would kill for some Flaming Hot Cheetos or Smarties, make a call home and beg the family (or a particularly good friend) to send a little something your way. Postage to Korea isn’t terribly bad on a flat rate box from the US, but expect to shell out a bit more if you’re posting from Australia. Australia Post are cruel bastards.
There are very few things more exciting that prying open a care package from home and finding all manner of goodies inside. You’d be surprised how excited you are to receive a packet of taco seasoning or some Caramello Koalas from home.
Koreans brush their teeth (a lot) and they shower. You’re not going to struggle to find dental floss or body wash or shampoo in Korea. You will, however, struggle to find deodorant and condoms designed to fit the Western penis. Yes, it’s a horrible stereotype, but trust me on this – Korean and Japanese condoms were not designed to fit a Western sized penis.
In fact, from my experience, it’s akin to wearing a tight pink tank-top on your penis. It’s only going to cover about half of what it needs to, and you’re going to need to finish quickly to avoid losing the tip due to a loss of circulation. Bring condoms from home. I can’t stress this enough. Girls, don’t worry, birth control is readily available and doesn’t require a prescription.
Deodorant can be bought at foreigner markets at a pretty hefty mark-up. Don’t expect to pay less than 8000 won for a can of Axe. Roll on sticks of deodorant are a little easier to find, and I’ve even found a decent selection in a back alley market in sleepy Jochiwon. Spray deodorant is a lot less common and, sadly, not something you can post. Best to suck it up and shell out at a foreigner market.
But seriously – condoms. Bring them and bring lots. Just because everybody in the country has been tested for HIV upon entering doesn’t mean they can’t have something else or that they can’t bear you an accidental child. I can’t imagine a much worse scenario than trying to deal with an unwanted pregnancy in Korea. Don’t risk it.
Movies & Television
While most Koreans don’t speak much English, you’ll be pleased to know that a good selection of US television shows are aired in South Korea on cable TV. These are aired in English with Korean subtitles, so if you’re a fan of Bones or Medium or NCIS – you’re not going to miss out. The Simpsons airs here and so does Spongebob, although the latter is dubbed (poorly) by Korean voice actors who all sound virtually the same as one another.
Western movies, particularly action movies, are released in South Korea at roughly the same time as the rest of the world. There are a few exceptions – Harry Potter’s final installment is being held back until December for some ungodly reason. These are all in English with Korean subtitles, even the animations. But if there’s a second language in the film requiring subtitles – you’ll be left in the dark. I tried watching Defiance at the cinema and could make very little sense of it.
Making Your Apartment Feel Like Home
Most teacher accommodation in Korea comes in the form of a studio apartment. They’re rarely particularly large and often come with a single bed. Clearly, we Western folk don’t have sex. If you’re lucky, your apartment will be furnished and equipped with new things – but often you’re left with a mismatched assortment of beat up furnishings and old utensils that you’ll want to replace as soon as humanly possible. Buying furniture isn’t something I’ve done a lot of in Korea – but places like Home Plus and eMart do stock a healthy selection of furnishings. These range from the fancier things that only a long term teacher would want to shell out for, to easily assembled desk and chair kits that I’ve splashed the cash on in the past.
Another good option is to check foreigner groups on Facebook or to investigate sites such as Korea Bridge. Their classified sections are often packed full of foreigners trying to offload things before they leave the country. I’ve picked up treadmills, chairs, exercise ikes, weights sets, tables, and even guitars this way. Sometimes for substantially less than I’d have paid in a store.
A good tip for fighting of homesickness is to bring a few touches of home along with you. Whenever I head to Korea I’m sure to take photos, a few books, and one or two of my favorite DVDs. You’d be surprised what hanging a few photos from home on your wall will do to brighten up a dour apartment and also lift your spirits. Hanging a brightly colored blanket on the wall or buying a rug to put on the floor are other simple ways to make an alien place feel like a home. And trust me, after a few months of junk accumulate in your apartment, it will feel just like your old college dorm room.
One other way to be more comfortable in your new environment is to get a pet or a plant to put a little life into things. Pets are obviously a temptation, but bear in mind that you’re likely to leave after a year and that it’s not cheap to take a pet back home with you. If you are determined to get a cute little kitten or a puppy, be sure you are either in it for the long haul or you have somebody lined up to take them when you’re done. Ditching an animal back into the already crowded pound system is just not cool.
Better to buy a plant and have it put a bit of colour into your apartment. They take less work and they’re not quite as hard to find a new home for when you decide to call it a day.
Finally, the all important topic of clothes. When you’re heading to Korea you’ve got maybe one or two bags to work with. That’s a tiny bit of space to bring a year’s worth of clothing. And while some people are blessed with the thin Korean physique and can shop just about anywhere – a lot of us don’t fit that particular mould and will find shopping hard or downright impossible. Even visiting Seoul’s ‘large size stores’ in Itaewon can be a frustrating affair if you’re not a gang-banger. Apparently we all just get around in throwback jerseys, baggy jeans, and bling.
You’ll find chains like Zara, Forever 21, Nike, and the like in Korea – but you’ll find that most (or all) of them stock only Korean sizes. Even if you’re a little overweight by Western standards, don’t bother looking. There are few things as deflating to the ego as walking into a store and being greeted by an impossibly pretty and petite Korean woman informing that there is ‘no large-ee size’.
There are a number of ways to get clothes from abroad, though. Care packages are a good bet if your family loves you, or there’s websites such as gMarket, eBay, and individual company sites that will ship to Korea for a fairly acceptable postage fee.
Shoes are the same. Big feet? Bring extra or have ’em shipped from home.
There you have it. It’s hardly comprehensive, but hopefully the above tips will help you combat homesickness or prepare for your trip to Korea. It’s a fantastic and sometimes bumpy ride, but with a little preparation a scary place can be turned into one you’ll remember as a second home forever.
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