Moving to Korea with a family can seem a Herculean effort, yet the opportunities to learn, travel, and grow closer as a family draw scores of families overseas every year. Here, Brian Beatty gives us the benefit of his experience moving his family out to Korea.
Brian never knew that a chance meeting with Bernadette Peters when he was 10 would someday lead to writing for the Expat Lounge. A jack-of-all-trades and master of none, Brian loves 80s music, New York-style pizza, and Texas Hold ‘Em. Most recently from Chicago, he and his family have caught the expat bug and affectionately call Korea the “gateway drug” to living abroad.
When my wife Kirstan and I married 12 years ago, we agreed that traveling the world was one of our lifelong ambitions. We have always been enamored with experiencing and learning about new cultures, food, and music, and we wanted to pass along that love to our children. But, realizing early on in our child-rearing years that vacationing overseas would be a stretch, we decided to get creative and do as many in the education field have done: throw caution to the wind and move abroad.
After pinky swearing that we were “all in” together, we attended a job fair, got jobs at a great school in Seoul, sold almost everything we owned, and arrived in the Land of the Morning Calm in August 2013. To say that this has been the greatest experience of our lives is an understatement. Not just for us, but for our kids, too.
In this post, I hope to provide, for you and your family, practical advice on how best to make the transition to living in Korea.
I’m not an expert on international living; I’m a husband and a father trying to live life to the fullest. Kirstan and I are working hard to provide for our family, not just monetarily, but culturally as well. I heartily encourage you to make this experience your own. You already have an adventurous spirit and Korea is a fantastic place to raise a family – especially as an expat.
Before you depart for Korea
These websites have been valuable resources for us:
- Kids Fun in Seoul – Seoul’s best for kids and families
- Seoulistic – Korean culture and travel
- Six in Seoul – Blog by an expat mom
- Meetup – Meet new folks with similar tastes
- Cine in Korea – Movie site; reserve your seats today!
- Korea 4 Expats – A great resource and guide
10Mag – Korean Lifestyle, Media & Entertainment
- Korea Herald – Stay up to date with news from a Korean perspective
(Hey! What about The Expat Lounge?! -ed) Prep work:
Grab some books and magazine about South Korea. We bought books by Frommer’s and Lonely Planet as well as some titles for the kids that we found at Barnes and Noble. Have some fun and scour the web together for YouTube videos from expats about life in Korea. There are a ton of them, and we have found many of them to be very helpful even after we arrived.
Because most of the expats who come to Korea are single, you won’t find too much information oriented toward families. But don’t fear: anything singles can do we can do, too! Families just need to be a little more creative and flexible. So, as you are discovering Korea, make sure you do it together as a family. Share your hopes, desires, and expectations, and, in sharing the experience, grow closer together.
It’s a good idea to invest in a Dropbox account or an Internet Cloud storage service. There, you can store important documents, pictures, videos and vital information that you will need at a moment’s notice.
In terms of banking, eventually you will be setting up an account with a Korean bank, but it’s also smart to consider your current financial needs. Because Citibank has a good presence in Korea, we opened up accounts with them and also let them know that we were going to be overseas for an extended period of time.
- Finally, it would be a great idea to get an international driver’s permit. This is essentially a translation of your driver’s license into multiple languages. Make sure yours includes Korean, and that you keep your original driver’s license together with it. We got ours through AAA (the AA in commonwealth countries -ed). The process was easy, inexpensive, and didn’t require additional testing.
Ship stuff ahead of you:
Rather than regurgitate information that you can readily find online, visit this site for some great tips on what to send ahead. These are the things that we found most valuable, however:
There’s no one-stop solution for the lack of board games, but many online stores do offer shipping to Korea. Check out what they offer before you leave to familiarize yourself with what you’ll be able to get once there:
- Amazon: Will ship to Korea, but it’s expensive
- What the Book: A fantastic new and used English-language bookstore in Itaewon; ships all over Korea quickly and cheaply
- High Street Market: High-quality, western-style deli and grocery; they also sell pre-cooked Thanksgiving and Christmas meals
- iHerb.com: A great place to order ingredients, herbs, spice, and supplements; shipping to Korea is cheap!
- The Arrival Store: Located in Korea, and supplying houseware and other necessities
- In addition to sending toiletries, we also found it very helpful to ship Advil, Aleve, and other familiar western pain relievers like Children’s Tylenol and Motrin. Even though the Korean healthcare system is amazing and there are pharmacies on every corner, sometimes you just don’t want to deal with the language barrier.
- We love to have family game nights and were surprised to find that it was difficult to find western board games. Some bookstores have games (and plenty of English-language books) but don’t forget to pack your Scrabble and Monopoly and send them on over.
Finally, remember to not bring too much with you. You’re going to have to do something with it at the end of your contract (if you decide to go anywhere). The other important thing to remember is that you’re moving to a whole new culture. Don’t be afraid to branch out and invest in some uniquely Korean items for your personal consumption and enjoyment.
After you arrive
Make your house a home:
Adjusting to life in Korea is going to take time. Give yourself, your spouse, and your children the breathing room they need to acclimate to the culture. If conventional wisdom says it generally takes people two months to adjust, give you and your family at least four. Be patient. Things take longer – and that’s just fine.
While Korea has many Western amenities, it is also very foreign, and it may take a while for your house to start to feel like home. One of the things that worked very well for us was allowing our children to choose special items to bring that make anywhere we live “home.” Bring plenty of pictures and decorate your living space with comfort in mind.
You will also need to consider getting your kitchen set up. If you bring western appliances, The Arrival Store is a great resource for transformers and other items. Appliances are readily available in Korea, though they tend to be a little expensive and you will need to translate the owner’s guide. I would also recommend a Costco membership – but do not ever shop there on a Saturday or Sunday. It’s bumper to bumper traffic, but with shopping carts and ajummas!
Not just spouses, but the entire family. Never just assume that everyone is fine. Because we’re all individuals, we’re going to process life events differently. Moving to Korea is a big deal. Read that last sentence again. This will have a profound effect upon each and every one of you, so don’t be afraid to be open and honest with your feelings, frustrations, and fears, because a little vulnerability goes a long way.
We have found that the best time to do this is at the dinner table – so get the conversation going and maintain a mental barometer of how well everyone is doing. Don’t just assume everyone is coping at the same pace. Spouses, stay committed to going out on dates with each other. Do this for the sake of your personal, marital, and familial health.
Stay connected with friends and family:
If you’re not on Facebook, what are you waiting for! Korea has a robust technological infrastructure, so the chances of you having great Internet connectivity is very high. Invest in a camera that will help you not only document your experiences as a family, but it will help everyone back home feel as if they have a front row seat on your journey. Here are some good technology resources to also look into:
Video chat: Skype, Google Hangout, Facetime
Smartphone apps: OTO International, Kakao, Google Translate, Seoul Subway, Google maps
Television: Netflix, Hulu, Slingbox (you will likely need an IP masker or VPN to use these services outside of the US)
VPN: Tunnel Bear
In addition to staying connected with friends from around the world, make sure you develop a network of Korean friends who can help you navigate life on the peninsula. You never know when you’ll need someone to call when you’re stuck in a cab, a hospital, or even at the grocery store.
Koreans are a very generous people and they love to help. I can’t tell you how many times we have been approached by complete strangers when we were wandering around and completely lost.
After You Have Been in Korea a Few Days, Weeks, or Months
Don’t stop discovering!
After you start to feel like you’re getting the hang of things, don’t lose your sense of wonder. We think it’s important to always be a student, so be careful of complacency.
We have some friends that play a fun game with the Seoul subway map. They put the map on a wall, throw a dart, and travel to the destination closest to where the dart lands. As a result of this simple game, It has helped them discover new neighborhoods, new restaurants and expanded their horizons like never before.
When considering how to most efficiently move your family around Korea, and Seoul in particular, we lean pretty heavily on public transportation (subway, bus, taxi). We also purchased a used car right before the winter hit, and it was the best investment we have made thus far. It took a little while to adjust to driving here, but if you have an English-language GPS you should be in great shape. We also bought some bicycles for the entire family. They’re economical and are used by everyone, everywhere.
There is so much to see and do that you will never be at a loss to find interesting and fun activities for your entire family. Enjoy Korea!
Regardless of the level of anxiety you are experiencing right now, always keep in mind that you are embarking on a journey that few get to experience. And that you are doing it as a family puts you in an even smaller demographic. Remember to stay flexible and ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ – and you and your family will have the time of your lives!