Every year when a holiday rolled around and I was asked what I wanted while living overseas I’d suddenly draw a blank. I was over 6,000 miles away from home and I knew my stay wasn’t permanent so that made things difficult when trying to decide what I wanted. Was it worth it to have to one day in the near(ish) future re-ship it back home? Or try to stuff it into my suitcase? Usually not. So I’ve thought about it and after being home for a bit and trying to adjust here are the things I wish I’d asked for along with things I got and loved. For anyone new, welcome, I lived in S. Korea for 5 years and Prague while studying abroad. The majority of this is from living in Korea as a person from the States. But I think it should still be applicable for those you’re thinking of who are far away.
If you’re wanting to send a box to them then what I recommend you start with is thinking about your traditions. They may feel very normal to you, and easy to do, but there’s a chance the things you use to make them that you can get easily are unavailable or difficult to get for your loved one overseas. However please always check what is allowed through customs before sending anything.
For Korvia I wrote a baking glossery for people expats living in South Korea. You can find that here to see what’s available in general.
However, the spices available will depend on where a person lives and what stores they have access to. In my first four years of living in South Korea, I lived in the middle of nowhere and my store only had cinnamon, salt and pepper, Korean red semi-spicy red pepper, and a couple of basic herbs. I had to go to a city to find other spices and even then a lot of things were hard to find or impossible, like paprika. In Korean paprika is bell pepper and they don’t have it as the spice. Thankfully I had a little spice basket from my aunt and uncle’s travels that included paprika, but any time family sent me spices or spice packets for things like tacos or flavor packets I was ecstatic. My parents sent me the recipe and spices to make my own pumpkin spice mix. So grab some mixes and throw those in a box of flavors you used to eat together. If you can send a vanilla bean or a few give that a try too so they can make their own vanilla extract. S. Korea pretty much only has vanilla powders which result in a different taste.
Dry Food mixes
This could be instant potato mix, oatmeal, cornbread mix, pancake mix, cookie, or cake mixes. Anything that just requires egg, oil, and/or water or milk. Even something like hamburger helper or mac and cheese. These things will be well-loved, especially if they’re super simple to make. The goal here is comfort food. I always wanted pudding and jello in part for myself, but also to share with my students since I couldn’t easily find jello in Korea. We tried making some with agar for a summer camp and my students hated it.
In Korea, I noticed that I could tell the season by what fruit was available. That fruit would be the new flavor of juice, or fancy drink at the tea and coffee shops, or on the cakes. But I found myself missing the stateside flavors. Summers of s’mores, autumns of pumpkin spice, and Winter of candy canes, chocolate mints, hot chocolate, gingerbread, and egg nog. These flavors weren’t easy to find. I went on yearly journeys to find candy canes and somewhere selling eggnog or gingerbread. In my final year in S. Korea I was absolutely floored when Starbucks came out with a pumpkin drink in Korea, however, it wasn’t the same. It was more pumpkin than PSL. I was even more surprised when I found a Gingerbread house kit at Emart. I was so ecstatic to buy it and put it together. It doesn’t matter what you send with these flavors, but I bet you unless they loath that flavor that they’ll get a kick out of it. My parents sent me Ghradelli holiday flavored chocolates and some of the limited edition flavors of Lays potato chips or Oreos as well as flavored teas like pumpkin spice tea bags. Lots of other companies put out these seasonal flavors, like M&M’s or Hershey kisses. If you see something new think about adding it to the box.
Depending on the country your expat is living in clothes that fit just might not be an option. Depending on shoe size, also might not be an option. For me, it depended on the store as well as what was in style in the underground markets. But I loved it when my parents or aunt would send me things from home, like joke t-shirts about how my old school never lost a football game (You’re always undefeated if you don’t have a team) or whatever fun professional artsy shirt they found.
For me, in S. Korea I ordered a lot, like shoes, shorts and swim suits from ASOS. Which shipped to Korea fairly cheaply if not free and allowed for free returns.
For a couple holidays the USA goes all out with their decorations. Halloween and Christmas are big ones where it’s fairly easy to find cute cheap themed items. Overseas it’s not as easy to find these things. While I could find a cheap small desk Christmas tree at Daiso along with lights and santa hats at Artbox, the selections were quite small. For Halloween even more so. Especially with candy. One of my friends grew up in Germany where for Christmas they celebrate with an advent wreath with candles, however she didn’t find one for several years until she made a long trek out to a German Christmas market where they luckily were selling homemade ones. But then she struggled to find the correct candles for it. Little advent calendars also can’t be found easily or many things for other holidays like Hanukkah. So if you have traditions and you see something festive or a staple in your celebrations send it along.
For some of my friends finding makeup, especially things like concealer and foundations in their shade was a nightmare. S. Korea’s selection range was rather limited and a lot of popular brands weren’t available, especially ones known for their wider array like Fenty. While S. Korea is really good with cosmetics and skin care their array of availability in shades is very limited. Also if they live in S. Korea or Japan send them deodorant. They will thank you. It’s expensive and not widely available. Also depending on their hair type, curly hair or hair that requires more moisture and special products to keep healthy is difficult to find.
This is another area where I’m going to throw in seasonal scented things. Candles that smell like winter or specific seasons can be hard to find. I missed mint scented candles, or pumpkin spice, or even fir tree something fierce. Not to mention hand soap or chapstick. One friend visited home and brought me back Pumpkin spice chapstick and soap and I spent so much time just smelling it.
Books get heavy. Sending them gets expensive. While living overseas having an e-reader allowed me to travel with options of what to read. I started with a Nook, however Nook eventually due to copyright laws wouldn’t allow me to download any more books unless I was back on USA soil. Kindle however did allow me to continue. If you don’t want to do Kindle, I recommend maybe loading the e-reader up with books before sending it, otherwise sending an giftcard for books or actual physical books would probably be appreciated.
If your expat enjoys video games they may have taken a system with them. For most systems this means they can only play games from the country they got the system in. Sending games would be great. If you’re willing to send something expensive I recommend the Nintendo Switch. It’s one of the few systems that it doesn’t matter where you buy the system, you can pick up games for it wherever you go or get digital copies. If you want to play with them in something like Super Smash Bros, Mario Cart, or Animal Crossing you can also get a family plan for Nintendo Online which will allow you to play together on some games. It’s how my sister and I play Animal Crossing together.
Jackbox Games: This is an online group of games that you can buy packages and bundles and play with people online. My sister bought a couple and has set up various family game nights via zoom where we’ve played with cousins across the country as well as overseas all together and it’s been a lot of fun. You don’t have to buy this for the person, you can buy it for yourself and then send them the room code to join you while you all video chat on a computer and play on your phone or tablet, the main player/ owner of the games will need to share their screen.
Not all online streaming services are available overseas and in all countries. So make sure you check before hand. But gifting things like a Netflix, Disney +, HBO Max, prime or hulu subscription where you can watch together on one of the many other streaming services can be a fun way for them to unwind.
If your expat travels a lot in their vacation time or even just takes the long flights back home there’s quite a few things I recommend.
A good sleeping eye mask. I can’t sleep if there’s too much light and especially as a person who shares rooms, sleeps in hostels or bathhouses, buses, and on flights or at least tries to sleep in all these places having an eye mask to cut out the light is probably my best travel friend. I’ve found I need it to be comfortable and with an elastic band that goes behind my head. Ones that go over your ears bug me too much.
Here is a guide from Good Housekeeping on how to pick out the best kind and their top ten choices. (I got mine at Artbox and it’s elasticity has run out and the replacement one is too tight so I can’t recommend it anymore. )
A quick-drying towel. This towel dries super fast and is perfect when traveling. I took it with me for when I wanted to go swimming or to an amusement park with a water park, or if I just wanted a bigger towel than what Korea tended to have. I also took it with me when I was traveling in Korea to stay at guesthouses that didn’t provide towels. It’s lightweight and easily fits in a bag.
A scarf with a hidden pocket. I got one from this company a long time ago as a gift and it fits my phone and passport with additional space. They have a ton of colors and pattern options.
A good neck pillow: I have a couple. I have a cute Spirited Away dragon that wraps around my neck, a trtl pillow, and a memory foam washable one I picked up at an airport. For me, the memory foam one works the best for my long flights. Here’s a Travel and Leisure top 15 guide to travel neck pillows.
A passport cover. For a long time, I didn’t use a passport cover. But then one year for Christmas Nathalie got me one off of Etsy and I love it. It protects my passport when I shove it back into a bag at the airport and keeps me from bending it when I put a book in my already overstuffed bag. There’s all sorts of different kinds, I just recommend one big enough for the passport and with extra pockets for other info like boarding passes or things a person might need while at the airport.
*I use the term expat since it’s commonly used, but for your friends and family who’ve immigrated, are studying abroad, married, working, or any other reason that has taken them overseas during holiday seasons.
I also totally know that some winter holidays are over or ending soon and others are coming up quickly. But you can use this for belated gifts or in the future. Hope it helps.