After almost three years of residence in Seoul, my husband and I haven’t yet been back to the United States. As a result of our extended time abroad, we end up going on a hunt for special foods whenever we travel overseas. Known to raid stores for US-brand snacks, haloumi cheese, and Taiwanese pineapple cakes, I’ve also dragged my husband to Sydney’s Chinatown specifically to seek out star anise and low-sodium Kikkoman soy sauce. While imported goods are growing easier to find in Korea, experience has taught me that foreign goods are often limited to those who are willing to jump through hoops. You might need to make long treks across Seoul, navigate exclusively Korean websites, and/or pay a higher amount than you normally would in your home country.
While imported goods are growing easier to find in Korea, experience has taught me that foreign goods are often limited to those who are willing to jump through hoops.
With many new job contracts beginning in the fall, countless numbers of individuals from abroad will relocate to Seoul to begin life under a new title: expat. Perhaps you’re one of the hundreds making the move and could use a few tips on how to pack for life in the capital.
Before you rush out to stock up on your favorite comfort foods and household items, it’s worth recognizing that with your move there will be an exchange in lifestyle. Sure, there’s nothing like having a few things from back home to make a foreign life feel slightly more familiar. But don’t let this be a barrier between yourself and Korean culture! Hopefully, through experimentation and a few adjustments over time, you may find yourself less dependent on international products, learning to love the grand experiment of life abroad.
Until then, here’s a short packing list compiled below, garnered from conversations with expats from all over the globe, currently living in Seoul. We think these ideas will help you arrive well-equipped for a smooth transition. You might even find an expat asking you, wide-eyed, “Where did you buy that?!” to which you can smugly reply, “Oh, this? I brought it from home!”
Clothing + Outdoor Apparel
It’s a safe bet that in Asia, clothing sizes follow Asian body types- so be prepared to pay a bit of a premium for larger, western sizes. Women’s shoes over size 8 are generally unavailable. In addition, with 75% of the land filled with mountains, hiking is a popular pastime you may be interested in checking out. Due to its centralized location, Korea is also a great base point from which to travel to other parts of Asia. High quality domestic and international brands for sturdy, hiking and travel-ready gear do exist- but check out the price difference: A water-proof Gore-Tex jacket found for around $100 USD on Amazon.com may run as high as $300 USD in a Korean sportswear shop.
Beauty + Hygiene
Consider bringing along your toothbrush/toothpaste of choice. Unlike breathtakingly minty western counterparts, Korea’s toothpastes tend to have a medicinal or herb-ish flavor. As for toothbrush bristles, western expats mention they lean toward “soft” on the firmness scale. Some Japanese acquaintances, on the other hand, claim the bristles are “too firm.” Among a wide variety of domestic brands, many stores in Seoul also carry the U.S. Arm and Hammer brand toothpaste, as well as a line of Dentor products from Japan. Pricing is fairly reasonable: Only about $1-3 higher for imported brands. Sensitive skin types will be glad to find Aveeno and Cetaphil available. An $8 bottle of Aveeno lotion at Costco will run about $14 in major Korean chain stores like E-Mart or Kim’s Club.
Although red chili-pepper flakes are ubiquitous in Korean cuisine, a Chinese expat points out that Korean red-pepper flakes taste completely different from those found in China.
Food + Cooking
Although found in larger grocery stores in Seoul, friends in nearby cities of Incheon and Bucheon lament a lack of celery, fresh basil and cilantro. Surprisingly, dried Italian spices seem to be a staple throughout at reasonable prices. Specialty Indian spices are sold at expat-run shops, while Latin American ingredients still seem to be largely unavailable. Although red chili-pepper flakes are ubiquitous in Korean cuisine, a Chinese expat points out that Korean red-pepper flakes taste “completely different” from those found in China. Baking enthusiasts will be happy to find that most basic ingredients like baking powder, cinnamon, flour and confectioner’s sugar are easily found at low prices in most supermarkets. As for items such as vanilla extract or specially- flavored liqueurs and bake ware, seek out websites such as Gmarket or Happy Baking (the latter is only available in Korean). If you’re in central Seoul, be sure to take your time perusing the extensive selection of ingredients and cooking/baking accoutrements at Bangsan market, located at Euljiro 4-ga.
Books + Movies
Major bookstores like Kyobo or Bandi and Luni’s carry an enormous selection of books in English at market rates. Even better, specialty store Whatthebook in Itaewon offers new and used books both in-store and online. Although libraries in the main districts of Seoul (such as Jongro-gu) do carry English books, the selection is far too limited for regular use. In terms of movies, specific branches of CGV and Lotte Cinema theaters in Busan and Seoul offer select showings of Korean films with Japanese and English subtitles.
Finance + Banking
Before you make the move, consider opening an account at an international bank with branches in Seoul such as Citi, HSBC and Standard Chartered. Plan ahead so you know the details, limitations and perks specific to each bank because not all international branches are made equal. Citi, for example, is easy to spot throughout the capital, but it’s not a branch of Citi USA—you will not be able to access your US account at the help desk or withdraw from your US account without incurring an ATM surcharge. You will, however, find better rates and reduced or waived fees should you decide to make transactions between global accounts. On a related note, if you plan on maintaining a credit card, regularly wiring money abroad and keeping up with bills while overseas, then it’s safe to say you won’t encounter difficulties with purchasing music or the latest apps for your smartphone. If not, treat yourself to a few iTunes gift cards to avoid the hassle. It’s one of the easiest way to acquire the most up-to-date technology and media from overseas.
If you’re an expat living in Seoul, what do you wish you had brought from home?