So, I have been reflecting lately on my time in the land of the morning calm, and I have decided to tell you prospective expatiates a few things. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It may be haphazard, but Korea is haphazard, so get used to it.
Doctor / patient confidentially does not exist here. If you ask your boss to make you a doctor's appointment, the doctor and your boss may discuss what is going on. Find the foreigner clinic, or get a co-worker to help you, just not the boss.
Set up your own bank account yourself, don't let your boss do it for you. You want it to be yours, yours, yours. It's like going to the doctor.
Make some friends. I learned this later than I should. In Korea, stuff is done in groups, dining out especially. If you want to eat out, make some friends.
Don't complain too much. You are here, at work, just like everyone else, so do what they ask. Go to the meetings, do the team building, enjoy the dinners. It's not always fun, but it's important to have a good attitude about all this stuff. Be a team player. I get crabby about this stuff, but slap a smile on your face and try to have fun, and it's often better than you think.
Roll with the punches, because there are a lot of them. You will go to staff dinners announced 2 hours before they happen. You may be told about an all day Saturday friendship outing as late as Friday. It is frustrating, but try to go with it. If you absolutely can't make it, just speak up, but by participating in the activities, you are showing you are dedicated, and it will help their image of you.
Do not be afraid to go to the doctor. Most of them speak some English, and more can communicate with a bit of writing. If you get medicine, it will only be a few days worth, so be sure to go back for all the check-ups. You don't need an appointment, just walk in and be sure to bring your insurance card and ARC. There is usually a pharmacy in the same building where you can quickly pick up any medication. The best part is that it's super cheap.
When you want to buy just one toothbrush and not a 10 pack, hit up a pharmacy. In fact, any sort of medication is purchased there, from Advil to canker sore cream.
Grocery shop like a grown up. You can probably afford it. While you can't find all your foods from home, you can find a lot of staples. Try to cook familiar foods to get you through the rough patches. If there is something you can't live without, bring it. Might I suggest taco seasoning and vanilla extract? Eat balanced meals, you will better be able to deal with all the weird stress and jet lag.
Read! It is so easy here to get books with the web shop What the Book? (I am not an e-reader, so this may be an outdated bit of advice.) Over a million titles, tons of which can be delivered in 2 business days or less. Kids books, too! If What the Book? doesn't have what you're looking for, try The Book Depository. I have used and appreciate both.
Go to the movies! There are a fair amount of English movies that play here. You can and might want to buy your tickets in advance, and seats are assigned. I prefer to go on weeknights or really late, like the last showing, to avoid the crowds. If there is a movie you want to see, see it, because it may not play for more than a week. Check out cineinkorea.com for movie times in English.
Be cautious about haircuts. I know some folks have no problem, but I am not one of them. Ask around, ask around, ask around. If you have specific instructions, ask a Korean friend to write a note. Expect mediocrity.
Maybe buy American brand shampoo. Korean shampoo is different. I have had good luck with some and bad luck with others. A lot of it is strangely oily. American brands are widely available, especially at the bigger stores.
Stuff to bring with you: pain killers (I brought tylenol and tylenol PM, advil and advil gel caps and aleve. Bring what you want to be sure and have. ) Cold medicine, day time and night time. Yeast infection medication, who wants to visit the doctor if they don't have to? Taco seasoning! You can find it sometimes at specialty shops and big stores with international food sections, but just do yourself a favor and pack a couple to hold you over. Vanilla extract, if you think you will miss it. I have seen the real thing in only one shop, and I love it so it's a must. You could also make it yourself with vodka and a vanilla bean, but it takes a few months. If you have any herbs or spices that you can't live without, bring them. Chances are, after a lot of searching and riding around all day on the bus, you will be able to find what you want, but if it's important to you, bring it. As far as personal care products go, bring your moisturizer. A lot of the moisturizers here are actually whitening cream. Yikes! And deodorant. Bring that. You might be able to find it here, but don't risk it. A lot of expats bring tampons and pads, especially if they are picky. Tampons are becoming widely available, which is a new thing in the past 3 years or so. If you're not too picky, don't worry about it. As far as clothes go, you are probably a different shape than 99% of Koreans. I'm speaking from a woman's point of view here. Not a lot fits me, and less fits me well. I am average, and the sleeves are too short, shirts are too short, etc. I have bought some clothes here, a pair of pants, a sweatshirt and coat, a pair of shoes, nothing to be too excited about. I know a lot of expats shop here and love it, but I am not one of them. So, bring a solid simple wardrobe. I brought slacks and blouses, sweaters, and good shoes that fit. (As far as I can tell, most shoes sold here don't have any arch support, but I have had good luck buying inserts. Also, women's shoes are NARROW and don't go much past a size 9 U.S.) Error on the side of nicer clothes, because by the end you might look pretty rough, so it's better to look rough in better clothes. Bear in mind, I don't live in Seoul, where I guess there are maybe more resources. My city is decent sized, with a lot of expats, but still, if in doubt, bring it. This is a first world country, but it's also not America.
Try and save some money. Trust me, you can still live well while saving. The exchange rate can be frustrating when trying to save, but there's nothing you can do about that, so just do your best. When you get home and have to buy new clothes and a car, you will be glad you saved some money. Make a budget!
Just try and eat it. When your boss motions at the little dish of bugs or dried whole fish, just take one and go with it. Eventually they will stop asking, and eventually you will get over it and it won't be so bad.
Don't get sloppy drunk at a company dinner. You can add water, discreetly, to your soju cup, and when toasting, raise your glass and don't drink, or just hold it to your lips. This is harder for men than women, because women tend to be excused from drinking, but just do your best, because do you really want to be the one throwing up in the street? I didn't think so. (incidentally, I have never been that person, either, but once at a dinner my meal was the victim of that person...check please!)
Get some mesh laundry bags so your laundry doesn't just turn into a tangled stretched out mess. They are cheap and you can get them at most big stores in the housewares department. If you don't want to put everything in those bags, do yourself a favor and at least put your bras and undies in there. I don't put the towels in the bags, but I put most everything else in them.
Bleach is your friend. Everything here seems to get moldy, and I just spray it on everything.
Buy a fan. It helps after a shower to face it into the bathroom, which reduces the mold. It can help reduce aircon costs. They are expensive and hard to find out of season, but totally worth it.
A lot of people use their time abroad to make a positive change in their lives. Take up a new hobby, learn to cook, get some exercise, change your diet, stop smoking, etc. We expats, those of us who came here to work, especially teachers, probably have a lot of free time, and it can be used wisely! That and we often have plenty of money, so taking on new and interesting things is possible.
DO NOT GET A PET. How will you get it home? Then it will be part of the vicious abandoned pet cycle. You will be searching for another home for it, and it's just not a good plan.
Make your house a home. You have to live there. If you don't mind a bare bones place with no chairs or forks, that's fine. At the very least, your house should be comfortable for you. It's the place where Korea doesn't have to come inside. I bought an oven and a crock pot and was given a blender, and those things help SO MUCH. A lot of people try to just get by, but I really think you should invest in a few things that will improve your quality of life. From a soup pot to a video game console, get some stuff you like to have around.
You get what you give. Send postcards home and you will probably get treats in the mail. It's fun for everyone!!
Consider staying for a second year. You have invested so much into the first year, that it makes a second year way less daunting. You have already set up your apartment, so you won't have to spend any of that money over again. You may be able to negotiate a trip home between contracts. You will also be able to save more money!!
PAY OFF YOUR CREDIT CARDS. Figure out how to make the payments before you leave home, and do it. You will be so happy!
Don't be afraid to travel alone in South Korea. I have done it plenty. Korea is safe, and don't let the lack of a traveling companion stop you from seeing the sights. Since Korea is small, consider taking day trips as they are usually a little cheaper. Train travel is easy and buses connect nearly everything.
Know where your passport is. At all times. Since N and S Korea are still at war, you should be prepared to leave at a moment's notice, and really the only thing you must have to get out of here is your passport. I also have a little bag packed at all times with a few must haves, including emergency cash, clean undies, and a toothbrush, because you just never know. If you are evacuated, it's not always a one way ticket to home, your government will decide how to do it, you may end up in Japan or China and then sent on your merry way from there.
Register with your government as a person living abroad. This way, in the event of anything weird going down, they know you are out there floating around. I get monthly newsletters and emergency emails concerning everything from typhoons to travel warnings to military drills to national holidays. Staying informed will lower your stress about living in a strange land.
I'm sure there's more, but I've talked your ear off.
Have a good time! (that gets said a lot instead of have a good day, so it's funny)