Monday, March 21, 2011

Packing List

As my return to the ROK draws near, I've begun to reflect on what I'll pack this time around. Now that I'm older and wiser, I'm beginning to think what I could have done differently. My first round took two large checked bags; I want to see if this time I can use just one. (I am obsessed with packing light and I embrace the "one bag" philosophy whenever possible; as a result, customs people sometimes give me strange looks.)


  • 4 pairs work pants (solid color/understated pattern/non-jean)
  • 2 pairs casual pants
  • 4 pairs bermuda shorts/capris
  • 1-2 blazers
  • 1-2 nice hoodies
  • 3 "warm weather" blouses
  • 3 "cold weather" blouses
  • 5 pairs of leggings
  • 2 casual-to-dressy dresses
  • 1-2 dusters
  • My t-shirt collection's "greatest hits" (maybe 6? 8?)
  • 1 pair nice shoes
  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 pair sandals
  • Scarf collection's "greatest hits" (about 3)
  • 1 winter hat
  • 1 "aesthetic"/bad-hair-day hat
  • 1 heavy winter coat
  • 1 medium fall/spring coat
  • 1 light jacket
  • 2 pairs pajama bottoms
  • 1 fuzzy bathrobe
  • My jewelry collection's "greatest hits" (2+ necklaces, 3+ rings, 3+ bracelets)
  • 2 bras
  • 1 sports bra
  • 5 pairs underwear
  • 1 pair mittens

Last time I was in Korea, I didn't quite have a good sense of Korean hagwon attire: how to dress without being a) really boring or b) a slob. Hopefully, between nice blouses and nice blazers over t-shirts with interesting graphic prints/text I can navigate that better. Also, obvious protip: keep your separates mix and match and you'll go far. Fortunately my life in the states pretty much revolves around the color burgundy, as pictured here:

so most of my wardrobe kind of matches itself.

Layering was really important at Sherlock, as the building could fluctuate in temperature easily—never mind that work started in the middle of the hottest part of the day, but let out after the sun went down. I often took only a light jacket in the afternoon, and ended up freezing on my walk home in the evening. Having more "throw-on-top" options is important.

You'll notice there's no socks in that list. Packing socks (unless you have specialty hiking socks, huge feet, or the like) to go to Korea is dumb. Buy them there. They're cheap, they're cute (cuter than what's usually available in the US and also kneesocks!), and it's that much more space you save. Were I not a fat chick, I'd also forego packing underwear and just buy it there. But I'm a fat chick and I'm not about to pay whatever dumb markup it is on fat people clothes imported from other countries, so I'm bringing my own.

I could even nix all of the winter items (since I'll be arriving in May) and have them shipped to me later, or buy some of my own once I'm there. If I wanted to really be a minimalist about it. I don't know if I'm willing to go that far, though.

  • 5 sticks deodorant
  • Dr. Bronner's Soap
  • Lotion (Burt's Bees)

If you bring anything more than deodorant to Korea, you are a chump. That is the only thing in here that I would list as a necessity.

Antiperspirant deodorant is simply not the standard in Korea that it is in the US and you're going to pay stupid markup on it if you don't bring your own. What do the Koreans do to not sweat? They just don't sweat as much, and you can find what I call "armpit spray," but it's not going to keep you from sweating it out when the summer rolls around. Maybe antiperspirant deodorant and fear of sweating is just silly, meaningless Western convention? Probably, but that's a convention I'll cow to, since I'll be working with other foreigners. Also, my preferred brand I simply couldn't find at the foreign market, anyway.

I could even forego the Dr. Bronner's, if necessary—if that was all that stood between me and one checked bag. But I like to maintain a hippie lifestyle whenever possible and I use it for washing things besides myself: clothes, dishes, floors, etc. Likewise the Burt's Bees lotion: I like it a lot for multiple reasons, but I could junk it. I'm convinced that if your toiletries section is anything more than like four items you CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT, you should reconsider a traveling/ESL-teaching career. (I am sympathetic to foreigners who bring their own big fluffy towels, though; they don't exist in Korea and the luxury of a big fluffy towel after a shower is priceless. Also, you should always know where your towel is.)

Razors, toothbrushes, aftershave, shampoo, toothpaste, towels, conditioner: you can buy it there. So why not? Most of it you would use up anyway, and things like towels you can wash and give to your replacement (or a homeless shelter, etc).

Make-up is a strange subcategory of toiletries, in that it's not physically necessary, but is nonetheless an expectation as far as women are concerned, both here and in Korea. A lot of times I wore makeup to work just so I wouldn't feel as young and as much like a little kid as I did. (I did wear it when I went out, sometimes, too, but not that often.) I don't think I'll bring any this time. The only cosmetics I'd consider would be my nail polish (the one girly indulgence that doesn't send me spinning into an awful feminist rage).

  • Laptop
  • X books
  • Jewelry supplies

When I pack, I spend more time fussing over books than I do over clothing. And if I were really a hardcore type, I wouldn't bring any and just depend on the kindness of hostel-based bookswaps and used bookstores to tide me over. I haven't transcended to that stage of One Bag-ism yet, though, so I bring my own. Also with the exploding popularity of e-book readers, you might very neatly sidestep this issue with something like a Kindle. Tons of space saved. Of course, I don't believe in the Kindle so I'm taking my dead tree editions with me.

The jewelry supplies there is where this begins to really depart from my minimalist packing scheme. Do I really need my bead collection? My wire? My metals supplies, if I break down before I leave and invest in a whole bunch of stuff? Not to survive in Korea, no. But for my own, outside-of-Korea interests, yes. I may end up compromising by taking only the most essential of hardware and buying the rest of my supplies at places like Dongdaemun.

  • Afghan
  • 1 large box baking soda

I see people packing things like sheets and bedsets and that makes no sense to me. Why would you pack those before you even know what your bed will look like? Mine ended up being a king-sized beast (two people lived in my apartment before I got there), which I would have never predicted.

People also put "pillow" as an essential on their packing list but I think that's silly. Whoever tells you that "Koreans don't really use pillows" or "Korean pillows are hard and uncomfortable" is mostly talking nonsense. At a yogwan, or at the jjimjilbang, yes, they're firm to the point of not-as-comfortable. But otherwise I found bringing my own pillow to be quite unnecessary.

My afghan I bring out of sentimental value as well as function: it's warm but it's also a nice piece of home to have with me. I could drop it, if necessary. This is the bulkiest thing I ever take with me, and if I want to make it to one checked bag I'll probably have to drop it. This is the point where I'll probably cave and simply pack two bags again.

Baking soda, though, is hard to find in the quantities I use it in. At LotteMart, it came in little spice-sized plastic containers. I go through a large box in a year (medicating my stomach, washing my hair, occasional household cleaning). Better to bring my own and bring enough of it. One bag travel bonus for using baking soda to wash your hair: no dumb liquids rule for carry-ons.

Recruiters often recommend bringing difficult-to-find spices for anyone who likes to cook. Not my thing, personally—my palate is not that sophisticated—but I wouldn't fault anyone who did.

There's a whole other list I have, of "things to buy with my first paycheck," but that's just tangentially related to this, so I'll save it for another time. As far as packing, I think this pretty much covers it.


  1. wow. ive been reading your blog and you seem like a really cool person. I'm glad you are having fun in korea.

    it sounds like you have had quite the adventure. I am new to korea and am looking for some cool people to hangout with since I've been having a hard time making friends since my school is small and my co teachers are much older. there is one young person but she's got a korean bf so she never seems to want to hangout. anyway, just trying to make new friends. I don't have a blog just fb so if I don't seem to much of a freak to you please shoot me an email on fb or whatever. itd be nice to talk to someone who lives here and is friendly and open minded.


  2. This is great! I'm getting ready to move to Seoul in a few weeks and trying to pack has been a mindboggling task, so thank you for your suggestions!

  3. I'm glad you found it helpful! I really think people go overboard on packing when they come here, and most of the other lists I've seen I think are overkill—because really, you can buy SO MUCH. Especially with clothes; if you are anywhere near a "standard" size in the US, you should be able to outfit yourself from LotteMart/E-Mart. And honestly, you can probably survive on less than you think.

    (Re-reading this, I would change *some* things still: maybe take out two pairs of leggings in exchange for two more bras. I am too fat for Korean bras; if I needed a new one it would either be a trip to the "Big & Tall" store in Itaewon or a package from home.)