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Those Two Crucial Suitcases: What I Wish I’d Known...

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When you move from the States to Korea, you get two checked bags for free, plus your carry-on and personal item.  Trying to cram an entire life into these limited space and weight constraints can be overwhelming. So, after seven months in Busan, I’m finally going to sit down and write the post I wish I had been able to find when I was packing to leave this time last year.  Here’s what you need to know about packing for Korea.

As you might imagine, beauty products and the like are different here.  There are lots of retailers that sell makeup, skin creams, cleansers, etc, but if you are brand-loyal, you might want to bring plenty of cosmetics and cleansers from home.  The selection of American products is kind of limited, and they are definitely more expensive.  (Burt’s Bees cleanser is a luxury item here, retailing for almost $30 a bottle).  I also have noticed that most Korean cleansers and moisturizers aren’t as fragrance-free as I’d like, so if sensitivity is an issue, bring it from home.  Shampoo and conditioner for Asian and Caucasian hair are both easy to find and not too expensive.  They have Pantene, Head and Shoulders, and most of the usual suspects over here, so don’t waste space with that or toothpaste.  If you have African-American hair or locks that require extra care, you may want to bring a starter supply of your own hair products until you can figure out what will work for you over here.  Almost all shampoo and conditioner bottles are entirely in Korean, so it’s tough to figure out what’s for normal hair, what is moisturizing, etc.  However, despite the plethora of beauty products, tampons are a relatively new concept in Korea, as in, you could not buy them here at all three years ago.  They are easy enough to find in Busan, but smaller towns may not be so cosmopolitan.  Be prepared.  The same rule applies for deodorant.  It’s here, but rare, so it’s definitely worth your suitcase space.

Sheets and towels are not as luxe here as they are in the States, and they are a little expensive.  If you have extra space and are particular about your bedding, it’s worth packing.  Accessories (particularly hair accessories) are abundant, interesting, and cheap.  Jewelry is readily available.  Socks are cheap and everywhere–and will fit even my size 10 feet–don’t bother bringing more pairs than what you will need to get you through the first couple weeks.  Same goes for gloves, hats, and scarves.  Don’t waste space with them.

Shoes and clothing are definitely the most important issues when deciding what to pack.  In some respects, Korea is a conservative country; cleavage stays covered and in smaller towns, most women don’t bare their shoulders.  However, my experience here has taught me that no skirt or shorts are too short–even for work.  You will be amazed at what women wear here; Korean women are some of the most fashion forward in the world, and it is not uncommon to see them walking long distances in impossibly high heels and foregoing hats in frigid weather in order to protect their coiffures.  Also, what you need to pack differs dramatically depending on your body shape and size.  Here’s what I’ve learned.

If you are thin and not too tall with small feet:  Pack nothing.  Fill your suitcases with your favorite foods and things like peanut butter, dill pickles, oatmeal, Reese’s cups, Dr. Pepper, and Doritos, because those are in short supply here.   You will be able to find clothing readily available and cheaply.  You, you lucky goddess, are the typical Korean body type.

If you are busty, hippy, leggy, in possession of a big booty, or any combination thereof:  pack it all.  Most Korean clothing is a size 8/10 or smaller.  Even larger clothes are made to fit smaller bodies, which means that a sweater that fits your hips, waist, and bust may have sleeves that are too short.  Jeans are almost all skinny and stop at the ankle.  Like Korean leggings, skirts, and shorts, they are made to fit narrower hips and smaller bottoms.  If you are tall, you probably won’t be able to find dresses, skirts, shorts, or pants long enough for you.  Korean skirts already tend toward the short side, and height compounds this problem.  If you live in or near a larger city, you may find some places that carry larger sizes (Busan, for example has an H&M where I can occasionally find clothes), but don’t count on shopping here.  If your chest is any larger than a B cup, you will not be able to buy underwear or swimsuits here.  I’ve never even seen a bra that looked large enough to fit a woman who actually needed to wear one.   Shoes rarely come larger than a US women’s 8, unless you’re somewhere like Itaewon in Seoul that specializes in larger, Western sizes.

The one area I could see size 10/12/14 women being able to find clothes would be when shopping for loungewear.  A lot of Korean men’s clothing is pretty unisex, so you could easily find pj pants, t shirts to sleep in, or workout clothes in the men’s department that might fit you.  However, I wouldn’t bet on it–some men’s clothing fits me, but even some of it is too small.  I have also been able to find men’s shoes here (like sneakers or hiking boots) that fit.

So, if you aren’t a smaller woman, bring all the clothes you think you might need.  Bring tee shirts and jeans.  Bring a couple of cute pieces to mix in. Bring winter basics like thick leggings and sweaters to layer with.  Bring a fleece jacket that will layer under your winter coat.  Unless you grew up in a large city and are used to getting around without a car, you will spend much more time outside in the winter cold and summer heat, so you’ll need to dress accordingly.  Bring all your most comfortable shoes–unless you’re a gal who can handle blocks of walking in stilettos.  I have one pair of heels over here, but I haven’t worn them more than twice.  I live in boots, flats, sandals in summer, and sneakers.  Bring the statement pieces you love–the hot pink ballerina flats, the floral sundress you can layer under sweaters for fall, your favorite tee shirts and spring skirts.  Without these, you’ll feel like you’re wearing a uniform every day.  To maximize your suitcase space, buy those vacuum bags–they really help, particularly when it comes to packing sweaters and heavy coats.  As far as expenses go, we found it cheaper to pay for an extra or overweight checked bag than to mail a large box from the US to Korea.  On the way home, however, we’ve heard it’s cheaper to send items on the boat, so we’ll probably ditch a suitcase or two and mail our off-season clothes home.

As far as tech goes, bring it–your laptop, mp3 player, e-reader–all of these are essential to a life abroad, particularly one that can involve long commutes.  A camera or good quality phone camera is also a must-have because you are gonna see tons of stuff EVERY DAY that demands to be recorded.

So, there you have it–Korean ex-pat life condensed down to the essentials.  What did I forget about?  What else does a burgeoning expat need to know?  Leave your comments and questions below!


Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: Busan, clothing, Korea, Packing, Shopping, What I Wore

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Jill in Korea
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Joined: 11/19/2010
Re: Those Two Crucial Suitcases: What I Wish I’d Known...

This is such a great post!  I've been here 4 years and am not packing to come to Korea, but I STILL read the whole thing... It's that good!  LOL :)   I remember packing over 10 scarves that I had purchased on a trip to New York before coming here.  Then I got here and saw them in the subway for $5, and they were cuter and softer!  Wish I would have packed oatmeal, like you said, instead! 

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