Tag Archives: homesickness

What should I pack for Korea?

31 Jan

When I arrived in Korea I was nervous, but excited. The EPIK program tends to starve you of information – you don’t find out until the last minute where you will be placed. You don’t know the area, you don’t know the age of students you will be teaching, you essentially know nothing. For someone who likes to research and plan, that’s pretty daunting. I was lucky then, to have a lot of support waiting for me when I arrived in the form of the previous NET at my school, who left me tonnes of notes and information, maps and activities, and even met me to show me around a little and answer my questions.

I hope in a month’s time to have the opportunity to pay-it-forward, but for now it has got me thinking about one of my most burning questions when I was planning my trip – what should I bring? It’s a very subjective thing, but since most of the lists I read were written by Americans, or men, I thought I’d add my own suggestions so you can learn from my mistakes. In three parts…

1) Things I wish I’d brought to Korea:

– Toothpaste

I read this on so many blogs and every time I went “psssht! Like I’m THAT attached to my Western toothpaste!” How wrong I was. Colgate is a fiercely guarded and much valued commodity amongst expats in Korea. Korean toothpaste is… weird. A lot of it isn’t even mint flavoured and the consistency is strange. The closest thing to Western toothpaste I was able to buy here was some Arm & Hammer (which is gross in its own special way). To illustrate how much I missed toothpaste – I asked my mum to send me some for my birthday. Seriously. Pack it.

– Deodorant

This is another one of those things I didn’t believe, and indeed I bought a small roll-on deodorant here and wondered what everyone was banging on about. However, it’s rubbish. I smell way more here than I did at home, and I can’t wait to get back to my fearsome Mitchum deodorant when I return home.

– Blu-Tack

An actual conversation before I left the UK:

Me: I need to get some Blu-Tack before I leave.

My friend: Oh, come on! They’ll have Blu-Tack in Korea!

They do not have Blu-Tack in Korea.

It’s invaluable for both household decoration and as a teaching aid. BRING BLU-TACK.

– Sunscreen

Sunscreen here is expensive and mostly comes in small bottles. I stocked up when I found Nivea spray in HomePlus, but it isn’t easy to come by.

– Personal bug spray

Spray for the home was easy to find, but for the body not so much. The mosquitoes are killer in the summer here (especially for the Brits, it seemed) so bring a bottle of deet with you.

 2) Things I was glad I’d brought to Korea:

– Beach towel

Korean beach towels are hard to track down, and then when you do they’re often really small. If you’re moving to a coastal area like Busan, throw in a beach towel. If you can’t survive without large bath towels, then I’d suggest bringing one of those too. I got one from EPIK when I arrived at orientation, but most of my Korean towels are hand towel sized.

– Chocolate

Specifically Cadburys. Korean chocolate bars are pretty good if you like nuts and nougat (I do) but the solid stuff is not so good. Lots of it is Hersheys which is also pretty poor. The only chocolate bars I recognise from the UK available in Korea are Twix and Snickers, and the odd bar of Galaxy (branded here as Dove). Care packages of my favourites (Crunchies and After Eights mostly – hey, I’m dairy intolerant so I have weird tastes) kept me going.

– Silicone earplugs

I slept with earplugs in when I lived in London because otherwise the constant bustle from outside (and yelling from my neighbours) would affect my sleep. I use them sporadically in Korea to block out loud traffic noise, snoring roommates in hostels, and yelling from my neighbours (different city, same problems). In Korea you can find the orange foam earplugs in stationers as study aids (in small quantities usually), but for a good night’s sleep I find these can hurt my ears. I stocked up on silicone earplugs before I left.

– Marmite

I’m British. I love it. I brought two massive jars (and still ran out). I also made Marmite sandwiches for my kids for summer camp and they were really excited to try this British food. Most of them absolutely hated it, but they were still excited to try! The same went for American friends I made in Korea.

– Clothes and shoes

I’m taller than the average Korean woman and with bigger feet. Feet so big, in fact, that I cannot buy shoes here (unless they’re unisex or mens). I also struggle to buy trousers outside of Western stores like H&M and Uniqlo (I’m luckily thin enough to shop at Uniqlo here which have a smaller size range in Korea than they do at home – size 12 and over may struggle). I also stocked up on tights, and high-neck long sleeved t-shirts to help me conform to Korea’s standards for female modesty.

 

 

 

 

3) Things I wish I hadn’t bothered bringing to Korea:

– Tampons

Information about tampons in Korea was vague – the first rule of Menstrual Club, of course, being “don’t talk about Menstrual Club” (the second rule is “no smoking”, and if you got that reference we can officially be friends) and suggested that since Korean women seemed to prefer sanitary towels (pads), finding tampons would be difficult and they’d be expensive. I don’t use tampons that often, but have managed to find them in most places that sell pads, and if buying off-brand in a shop like Olive Young or Watsons, found them to be reasonably priced. There isn’t however a lot of choice (usually two types in most stores, both applicator and “normal” flow, usually one is the Playtex brand) and so I suspect if you prefer to use tampons and you like non-applicator ones, or need ones for heavier flow, you’d be better to bring them with you. If any of my expat readers have contradictory evidence, please let me know in the comments.

– Smart clothes

My school is not that dressy, and I looked out of place in my shirts and dress trousers. My trousers were wide-legged (as is the most common office fashion in the UK) and in the land of the skinny trouser I was roundly mocked by my students. I would have done better to bring some smart-ish skirts instead – indeed I bought some jersey skirts in Korea and wore those with smart-ish tops and jumpers to school most of the time. I’ve lately resorted to smart jeans and chinos. I suggest dressing smarter at first, but fairly feminine for women to make the best first impression. I hate to admit it, but I think a pencil skirt, blouse and a cardigan would have won me more instant brownie points than my shirt and trousers did.

– Cosmetics

Generally speaking, Korea is amazing for cosmetics. I love trawling the different shops for skin products and make-up and nail varnish and all sorts of things. I didn’t need most of the stuff I brought, for the most part. The exception is perhaps foundation as some people will find it hard to match their skin colour to the products available here. If you have something you can’t live without, bring it. Otherwise have fun experimenting with the cheap and plentiful cosmetics available here (my favourites include Etude House nail varnish and Tony Moly lip stains – totally addictive).

There you go – it’s by no means exhaustive and is completely subjective, but hopefully will give you a few pointers when it comes to the daunting task of packing for a year in South Korea!

Top 5 Confusing Korean Compliments

27 Aug

I was going to update you on my summer, but I actually don’t know where to start. I’ve left it a little bit too long and I have so much I want to say that I think that, actually, I’m not going to say anything at all. I’ll leave the summer for now, and come back to that once my friends upload their photos (I am a terrible photographer – I mostly just forget to take photos, or am too lazy or embarrassed to get my camera out. Especially when everyone else is snapping away!)

It’s the first week of the new semester and I’m sadly not filled with the renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm that I had secretly been hoping for. Instead, I just feel a little bit homesick and a little bit tired. I’ve been in Korea six months as of August (man, that’s flown by!) and I really miss my friends and family. I also miss being able to make decisions about my future, long-term. Living in another country temporarily means I am always thinking about things that I want to do, or make, or own when I get back because there’s no way of doing those things now. Does that make sense? I miss making plans, and starting on projects, and a feeling of stability.

I’m sure these feelings will pass, though, once I get really stuck in to the new semester. I still have plenty of things I want to do and experience here in Korea, and a load of wonderful friends to spend my time with. It really makes a huge difference to know so many people who are incredibly easy to be around. It also makes a huge difference that it’s now raining! If anything could make me feel happily at home again it’s rain. Ah, England. I miss your grey skies, wet days, and cool winds now that I’ve endured endless weeks of heat and humidity. A typhoon is due to hit Korea (only glancing Busan, I’m told by my students, who are mostly upset that this means school won’t be cancelled) this week, so that should bring a little change. Hopefully it won’t do too much damage as it passes over.

My students seem to feel much the same as I about the new semester. They’re unhappy about the shorter summer vacation (shortened from last year to make up for the loss of Saturday classes) and seem tired, but they also seem to be seeing me with a renewed fascination leading to a barrage of observations that resembles their curiosity from the very start of the year.

Let me give you my top 5 confusing “compliments” from my Korean students (I say “compliments” because I’m not sure if some of these aren’t just descriptions!):

5) “Teacher! Small face!”

My small face. Photo by Maddie Lamb

This is something most Westerners hear from their students and hairdressers, and something that confuses us all no end. What does it mean? Well, students often couple it with a raised fist, or a circle made from hands that they squeeze down around their own faces. Does that help? They think the typical Korean face is quite round with small features and they strive to make their faces look smaller as a result. With my middle school kids this mostly means big blunt fringes. Personally I can’t really see what they’re talking about most of the time, but I am repeatedly told that my face is small and that this is a good thing.

4) “Teacher, so tall. Good ratio.”

Ratio is another thing that confuses Westerners. My kids like to pinch my head from a distance and try to work out how many heads they can fit into my body length. Apparently being tall with a relatively small head (giving you a high ratio of head to body height) is a good thing, and something that Koreans strive to achieve through the use of high heels for women and lifts (a sort of wedge inside the shoe that acts like a high heel – usually seen in high top trainers and boots) for both women and men. It’s basically like worrying that you’re too short, but with added maths. You can read some things about ratios and other aspects of the Korean beauty ideal here: http://www.teamliquid.net/blogs/viewblog.php?topic_id=321767

3) “Turn and let me take a picture of your nose.”

My students like my nose. There’s a lot of plastic surgery in Korea, and getting a bridge built up on your nose (so it resembles my Western nose rather than the generally low-bridge of the typical Korean nose) is a popular surgery here. I guess that’s not surprising – I think nose jobs are pretty popular back home too!

I was once sitting in my classroom at lunch time chatting to some of my students when a girl tried to get me to turn sideways, holding her camera phone up at my face. I didn’t understand, so in exasperation she asked her friend to distract me. The second girl ran in front of me and started jumping about going “Teacher! Teacher!” to get me to turn my head, and when I did the first girl took a photo of my nose in profile. “Very good nose, teacher. I will buy,” she told me, very seriously, afterwards.

2) “Your hair, teacher. Original?”

Korean middle schoolers have to obey strict school rules about their appearance. The one that seems to upset the girls the most is the hair rule, which states their hair must be less than 10cm below the ear and straight. Some girls cut their hair shorter with special dispensation (presumably their parents have to argue their case) but most sport a shoulder length bob, with or without a fringe. Their hair is uniformly dark brown or black, and they cannot dye it. I have naturally wavy hair which I dye unnatural colours, and let grow as long as I can. My students are very jealous, and every alteration or new hairstyle is scrutinised in great detail. They were convinced I must have a perm for a very long time. They even seem enchanted by the frizz I’ve been sporting in this heat – apparently it makes me look like Hermione.

1) “You look like…”

I hear the name “Emma Watson” at least three times a day.

What do these women have in common? Anne Hathaway, Keira Knightly, Emma Watson, Kristen Stewart, a young Catherine Denevue? They’re young, they’re white, they’re skinny, and they look like me, according to my students and fellow teachers. Emma Watson is the one I get the most, although I’ve been told that from drunk Brits at times (I blame it on the frizzy Hermione hair). Sometimes a particular hairstyle will lead to an accusation of “Bella Swan, teacher!”. When a Korean teacher told me I looked like a young Catherine Denevue, however, my Korean friend considered this and then said “I think all Westerners look the same to some Koreans.” Hopes dashed.

Dogs Don’t Like Boys, Dogs Like Cars and Money

20 Jul

Remember that time I went to the cat cafe? And I likened it to a brothel? And enjoyed mauling the captive kitties? Well, I found something even better.

First, a little background. I love animals. I especially love all the fuzzy kinds of animals, and for the most part they seem to like me back just fine. Cats, horses, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, dogs, ferrets… I have owned or looked after them all at some point in my life. I am, however, an unashamed cat person. I love their aloofness. I love scrambling for their approval. I love being treated like a lackey, ignored until it’s convenient, and woken up when they’re bored. I love the knowledge that they would probably eat me alive if they were tiger-sized. I love their blood-lust, and their laziness, and the way they do really stupid stuff at about 2am when they revert back to kitten-hood and the house is suddenly filled with crazy invisible gremlins that only they can catch.

Me with our family cat Jeffrey and my brother with the family dog (here just a tiny puppy!) Dexter. Yes, we have matching T-shirts because we’re just that cool.

As a proud member of Team Cat, it pains me to admit that the best place to get my fix of animal lovin’ in Korea was the dog cafe (and as this is Korea I should probably clarify that this is a cafe with dogs in, not a cafe that serves dog). Dogs, it turns out, make much better cuddle-whores. Which makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, what do dogs do better than give humans attention in the vague hope of pats, or food, or just some acknowledgement? To dogs, even being told that they’re stinky little idiots is glorious, glorious attention.

Sadly, I have to conclude that the dogs are better at showering paying strangers with affection.

Painted Jezebel – canine version. Yes, the dog has dyed cheeks. Photo by Caroline Quick.

The dog cafe I went to is in Jangsan. There were some larger dogs in one area, and then a whole bunch of little guys in the main cafe where you can sit down and enjoy the complimentary cake buffet. For my 8,000 won entrance fee I got access to the cake buffet, a free smoothie, and licks, cuddles and chews from at least four dogs.

Photo by Caroline Quick

This guy was my favourite. He was a sturdy little fellow with a snub nose and well trimmed moustache. I couldn’t figure out what breed he was, though. Perhaps some kind of shih tzu/terrier mix?

We nicknamed him “The Brigadier”. Photo by Caroline Quick

I was totally prepared for the place to be a little stinky with that many dogs, but the staff did a great job of swiftly cleaning up after the little guys and I found I didn’t really mind the over-powering odour of dog. I forgot it all in a haze of gleeful belly scratches and face nuzzles.

Cuddles! He insisted on being picked up before I could leave the cafe. Photo by Caroline Quick

Seeing as Korean apartments are often quite small, and that taking a pet home to the UK is costly and time-consuming, the dog cafe might be the only way I’ll get to spend some time with animals during my stay here. My mum can rest assured that for another week at least, I’ve managed to restrain myself from adopting a pet in Korea.

Sad face

13 Jun

 

Last night my guinea pig died, and I’m feeling pretty sad about it.

 

He was living with my mum, and she noticed he was eating less, and behaving strangely, so she took him to the vet. To cut a long story short, she had to make the decision to have him put down last night.

 

I feel bad about this for many reasons. For starters, my poor mum had to make the decision alone about what to do. My guinea pig was in pain so there was a time pressure on the decision, and she tried multiple times to call me with no luck. She called my mobile phone – but here in Korea no one calls me who I don’t know unless it’s a nuisance call or a weird boy (long story), so I didn’t pick up to the strange number. My laptop keeps overheating lately, and it did so last night so I turned it off and wasn’t on Skype, or email.

 

To say I feel bad about that is an understatement; I feel horrible. I know how hard it is, and how terrible it feels, to have to make decisions for someone else about their pets. I’m grateful to my mum for taking care of the little guy for me whilst I was away, but I wish I could have eased the responsibility for her last night.

 

I’m also sad because – hey, my pet died. I got the guinea pigs when I lived in a tiny flat in London and was feeling pretty depressed about life. They cheered me up, and gave me something else to focus on. As I said in a previous post, I miss having animals around me here in Korea because I’ve always had pets at home. I feel wrong without a pet. I feel weird knowing mine died when I wasn’t around.

 

Merlin, as my pig was called, was a ridiculous creature. He loved to eat, and when he briefly lived with my mum he preyed on her ignorance about the appetites of guinea pigs and grew to a ridiculous size. One time I took him to the vet, and warned him that Merlin was a bit fat. When I lifted him out of his box, the vet laughed so hard he shook and then exclaimed through the tears “that is the biggest guinea pig I have ever seen!”

 

 

Merlin in his favourite “flashing her my balls” pose. Sadly, this is how I will always remember him!

 

Merlin liked to scare the vet by squeaking loudly whilst having his claws clipped so that everyone thought he’d lost a toe. He loved to make popping noises along to the Hollyoaks theme tune (he had terrible taste) and would purr when being snuggled in a towel. He loved to show me his balls in the summer, and climb into my armpits in the winter.

 

I’m taking tonight to mope around the flat and feel bad about it, because sometimes you need to do that. I’m also going to eat junk food and watch shit TV and knit because these things are comforting. It sucks to be so far away from all the people I’d be hugging if I were in the UK right now. Tomorrow I hope to be cheered up by spending time with some awesome people, though. Luckily I know plenty of those in Korea.


Teaching and Learning

16 May

I’m aware of how cheesy and cliché it sounds, but teaching and learning are two things I do pretty much every day here, with varying degrees of success.

When it comes to teaching, this week I’ve been struggling to learn how to discipline my classes. I’m not a very stern person naturally, and it’s hard to discipline children when you can’t actually say much that they can understand. One punishment that we do dole out a lot in my classes is to make students stand at the back facing the wall, and all my students know what a silent and angry pointed finger means!

In the last class of today, which was a particularly rowdy one, I turned around and caught one of my students firing a spit-ball at my co-teacher’s back. This infuriated me! I know this class is unruly because my co-teacher is unpopular and the students have no respect for him, but not speaking Korean, I am only as strong as my co-teacher. I immediately ordered this girl to the back of the room, but she apologised and begged me to change my mind. She’s a pretty good student, who I also have for after school class and who always works hard, so I nearly gave in and allowed her to stay put. At the last minute I decided to hold firm – I can forgive many things, but spitting paper at a teacher is not one of them. I didn’t tell my co-teacher why I’d sent her there – one punishment ought to be enough. I felt terrible about it when I saw her face though! I suppose I’m torn between wanting to be liked, and wanting to be respected.

One of my adorable letters!

 

Obviously some students like me, as I received a pair of letters for Teacher’s Day! Teacher’s Day is when Koreans honour and celebrate their teachers, often by visiting former teachers and giving flowers and other gifts. My school had a ceremony in the morning where the students sang to us (enthusiastically but not very well!) and gave us carnations. Some of the classes had decorated their classrooms with balloons and in one case a red carpet leading me up to the lectern. The students seem to enjoy Teacher’s Day more than the teacher’s do, I think!

 

Back to the learning… I’ve realised that a certain amount of homesickness has started to set in. I’m lonely. Not to a crazy extent – I have made plenty of wonderful friends here who I see all the time. I can share things with them and relax around them in much the same way as I can with my friends at home. The difference is hard to explain. Essentially it’s tactile. My group of friends and my family at home are all pretty tactile people – we hug and hold hands and link arms and curl up on the sofa. It takes a long time to get to that point with new people for me; I’m generally not that cuddly a person! I realised that I’d been skipping a few stages by just drinking a little too much which allows those barriers to come down. Problem is, I don’t actually feel any better for it in the long run, so I’m going to have to try and push through it sober, I think!

 

I’ve always been surrounded by pets, too, so being literally alone in my flat all the time is having an effect. I’ve always thought I could live alone, and I think that’s true, but I can’t live alone and pet-less! I have no idea if I’ll go straight home at the end of my contract or if I’ll be tempted to resign, but I’m worried that I wouldn’t be able to live here, by myself, for more than a year without getting seriously depressed. After all, I only survived the last three years or so in London thanks to these little guys:


My guinea pigs, Arthur and Merlin. Merlin is still with us, and currently wrapping my Mum around his paw.

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