*anyone whose lived overseas for a longish period of time. Expat or immigrant whose heading home.
As a note. I am from the USA and returned to the USA after living and teaching in S. Korea for 5 years. So some things might be very USA specific.
Let’s start further out in advance. You know you’re going home what’s some things you can start doing ahead of time to make life easier for yourself?
Here is a checklist you can download and use:
A year to 6 months ahead of your departure:
If you have any pets you have to decide whether they’re coming home with you or if you need to rehome them.
This is a huge ordeal. Trying to rehome them can take a lot of time. Especially if you want them to get a good loving new home. One friend of mine tried to rehome her cat and a couple of weeks after rehoming the cat she ended up with the cat once again because the new owners hadn’t had a pet before and changed their mind. It was either pick the cat up or the cat might end up on the street. So she had to restart the process all over again. It was super stressful. So start head of time if you want to rehome. There are several animal pages and groups on Facebook and other expat* communities. So look around, take cute photos, and be upfront and honest about the personality of your pet.
Taking your pet home:
Depending on where you’re going after you leave Korea there are different rules regarding pets. You need to first check which airlines will allow you to fly with your pet. These numbers have been dwindling and might lead to you having to go out of your way. And in some cases finding someone who is also going that way to fly with your pet in case, it’s at a later date or earlier one. This was once a popular option via the Facebook groups, but due to the dwindling amounts of flights that are pet-friendly and the pandemic, I’m unsure if people are still willing to do so. One of my friends flew to the States with her pet, but the airport that allowed her to do so didn’t have connecting flights to her home state that was also pet friendly. So she had to get off the over 13-hour flight, rent a car, and then drive the rest of the way to her home. Also depending on where you are going there are different requirements on what vaccines and health checks your pet may need in order to be allowed within the country. For the USA you check on the USDA APHIS website here. You should also check with the CDC, which you can do so here. There’s a lot of documentation you will need, and you’ll have to get this process started with your vet. This is why as soon as you know you’re going home any pets you have should be starting the process they need to come with you.
Declutter your life
Start saving boxes of things that have been shipped to you. Start keeping all the boxes you can use for shipping. I broke mine down neatly and set them behind my couch so that when it was time to move I just had to retape them and ship them. The post office also sells boxes or you can check out your local stores and see if they’re getting rid of boxes.
Take stock of all the things you own. What do you want to take home with you? What do you need till you move? What do you want to get money back on by trying to sell it? What do you want to rehome or give to friends?
One of my friends came to my apartment and stayed with me for a bit to help me through this process. We went through the stuff that I wanted to keep that there was no way would fit in my two and a half suitcases I’d be taking home with me. She helped me bubble wrap my things, put together boxes, and then carry them over to the post office to send home. This was a long process. We spent all day doing it and some of those things were heavy. But I’m so glad I shipped it all home. Opening those boxes when I got home was like a present to myself full of memories of Korea. Things I knew I wouldn’t be able to find here and things I could use. Stuff like cute stationery and notebooks, pictures, my mug collection, clothes, dresses, plush toys, books, and souvenirs. I kept things that I figured would fit in my suitcase, I still needed, or that I would be okay leaving behind.
Things I needed to rehome I took pictures of and talked about with friends as soon as I was planning to leave. Like my printer, my air fryer, air purifier, fan, and heater. Electrical things and housing items that I’d gotten good use of but didn’t make sense for me to lug home. Though I do miss a lot of it. I had friends come by off and on in my last months to pick up the items. A friend and I lived in the same apartment building and she was moving the same day I was, so I didn’t live long without my air purifier which she’d agreed to pay me for. I didn’t end up selling anything online, since I had a lot of friends moving to different apartments or newer apartments that needed things I had. But there are Facebook groups for these things. Which is what a friend did. While she worked her mother came to stay with her and took over making sure everything was sold and out of the apartment. But I know finding buyers for big items got more difficult the closer it was to the move out date. If you are a NET (Native English Teacher) who will have a new teacher after you, you may be able to leave things behind for them. But it depends. My last co-teacher wanted everything out of the apartment before I moved in, meaning if my predecessor left anything for me my co-teacher threw it away. So double check so things don’t get wasted. And if you want money for things start planning ahead to try and sell it.
Months before you leave
You have to tell your job before you leave. Usually, there is a time frame in your contract. So read it over, especially the parts pertaining to your exit. Mine required letting them know a couple of months in advance, so we talked about it in November/December. It ended up being a moot point of if I’d stay because my district cut all funding for the English program meaning they couldn’t keep me. No one would be coming after I left. This meant everything in my apartment, desk and computer had to go.
Clean your computer. Whatever school computer you use, log out of everything, clear your search history, and anything the person after you might not need. This is for your security as well as sometimes requested by the school. My predecessor stayed logged in on Chrome after she left which upset my co-teacher. So I had to go through and log her out of everything. When I left I deleted the browser so that my co-teacher didn’t have to worry about logging me out of anything. Everything that was mine on the desk I took home. Slowly minimizing what was left. Some of this I did further in advance because our classroom was to be renovated over winter break. So as we were winding up camp I cleaned everything up both in the shared classroom and in the computer. Do not forget your school shoes.
However, at my previous school, I was to be replaced. So I left a helpful guide for getting around the area, notes on where everything was, and how to troubleshoot technical errors that I had gotten used to. I also met with the teacher replacing me and went through everything and answered his questions. Essentially all the things I wish I had known before I’d started. I’d also already deep cleaned the classroom a couple of years ago as it was mine and not shared. Aka getting rid of things with permission that had been there for nearly a decade or more. So everything was well organized for my replacement. And I could leave things behind for him because the school was okay with it both in the classroom and my apartment.
After your school is made aware you’re leaving and you know your last day, book your flights. The earlier you can book them usually the cheaper it will be. S. Korea changes its English program benefits and cuts more and more of them as time passes like flights start to diminish and the rules change, especially depending on where you work. So the cheaper you can get it the better. And knowing when you’re going to leave with a receipt for your purchased flight will help you with other paperwork. There’s paperwork your school has to do and paperwork you should do. Double-check your contract as well if you want to stay a little bit longer after your contract ends. If you stay too long you cannot get reimbursed for your flight. I left the first day I was able to, which was March 1st. Nathalie, who also left around the same time I did, however, got permission from her school to leave early and left mid-February. Talk with your school and make sure everyone is on the same page. If for some reason you are concerned LOFT is super helpful. I mention LOFT, which is legal advice because too many teachers have horror stories, including those when it’s time to leave. Usually pertaining to getting the money you are owed. So if you’re concerned about how it’ll search the group for advice and if there’s no answer from someone who went through something similar go ahead and ask. But read the rules first.
Use your points!
I spent 4 years living in a small town where everything was NH. My bank was NH. My only grocery store was NH. So that meant when I used my card to pay for groceries I racked up points. I didn’t understand how it worked and didn’t want to deal with the additional stress of trying to communicate to use my points and figuring it out so I didn’t. When I moved to Sanbon in Gunpo I shopped at Kim’s Club and got a point card there. I also had Happy Point and so many other little point cards. So before I left I took stock of my points and started using them. This meant free ice cream at Baskin Robbins and free groceries for me, souvenirs, and gifts from NH mart. I also took Korail a lot so it meant I had a lot of Korail points to use up. You’ve spent time racking up your points so don’t forget to use them.
If you have any gift cards do this too. Working with Korvia I had a couple free movie tickets and I’d also gotten Starbucks gift cards from friends for Christmas. These things don’t work outside of Korea so use them!
What are things you enjoy about Korea? Is there something you like that you want to take home to remind you of your time there? If you haven’t already bought it do it. I thought I needed to fill my suitcase with my favorite snacks and teas. After returning to the states I went to a few asian markets. One was general and had a lot of Korean ramen, cookies, and snacks. The other was Korean specific and had almost everything I had wanted to pack, except the fancy O’sulloc tea, but teas like 3:15 which are Taiwanese but I’d get in Korea, I could find. So I would stick to things you think you might not find. Unless you’re going somewhere without a large Korean population.
Like I mentioned in the previous section I had NH bank in Korea. It was kind of a pain to use to send money home but a friend told me that NH has an account called NH One where any money going into this account goes directly to another account. You can hook it up to your home country account. I did this several months before I left on a day off so that flight reimbursement, final paychecks, my returned key money or other things my school had to get to me later would just pop up into my account in the states. It also meant I could slowly send money home and then later even, once my co-teacher confirmed all bills were fully paid I could transfer whatever was left into my account into my NH One account. I did this because, despite paying all my bills before I left my co-teacher was super stressed about me missing a bill I was supposed to pay, and then I’d be gone. (I left very neatly, organized, and without incident and all bills paid ahead of time.) So check and see if your bank has something like this that you can set up.
Because I had the NH one set up I was able to use my card at the airport to pay for souvenirs and lunch because I hadn’t closed it. I also did this because you can only send so much money home at a time and there is a limit to how much cash you can carry on flights without getting in trouble.
Through the Korean National Health Insurance, which most teachers have, you can get a free health check. It depends on the year you were born. If you were born in an even year then you get a free health check every even year. If it was an odd, then in an odd year. Before you leave use this service. Most teachers leave in late February early March. So get it before the year changes or after the year changes, whichever is free. Just make sure you do it before your contract is up and your insurance is gone.
Dental care is also somewhat covered. There are free things, as well as other things covered, but it depends on when the last time you went was and what you had done. Check with a dentist and book something before you leave. At the very least it’s a lot cheaper. The one I went to while in Korea was in Seoul, though a friend told me after I moved to Sanbon there was a good one there too. The one in Seoul I went to is called A+ Dentistry and is mostly frequented by English speaking immigrants and expats. They tend to fill up their appointments the closer to March you get. So schedule in advance. Some of them know how busy they get and that you should get your exam before you leave and lose your health insurance. So make sure to talk with them (whoever your dentist is) to schedule something.
Talk to your admin office/financial office
There’s a couple of things your school will need from you: your flight information, your home bank info, and other misc information. My leaving was something that my co-teacher really really was stressed about so she micromanaged the process. Depending on your situation, you may need to jump-start this conversation with your admin office at your school to make sure everything is done. Mine wouldn’t talk to me because my co-teacher was so stressed that everything had to be done through her. But it’s worth a shot. They’ll have a list of things they need you to sign and paperwork that needs to be done. My previous school talked me through it. But I was just moving so it wasn’t as big of a deal. If you want to do the NH One type of thing make sure you have the new account ready before you have this meeting. They will need it to send money home. Or else they’ll need your home bank information. Also make sure to get paperwork from them that you might need for your taxes back home.
For taxes in the USA you need to get your 소득금액증명 and 근로소득 원천징수영수증(근로소득 지급 명세서). You can read more about filing US taxes on the Korvia website here. There is also an H&R block in Itaewon that can help if you want to go somewhere in person to get it done and there are also other companies in S. Korea specializing in helping USA expats do their taxes including a Facebook group. If you need to do it when you get back and want help H&R block has an online expat service. They will need those files previously mentioned. So make sure you get them.
Bills Bills Bills and ending your utilities
This is the thing that stressed my coteacher out a billion times more than myself. You can call the companies you use for gas or other services and request to pay your bills early and schedule to have these services turned off.
In my apartment complex, there was a management office. When it was time for me to leave I went down and chatted with him. I agreed upon a time that I’d be out by and when I’d pay for the last of my stay. My co-teacher also worked with him to schedule a walkthrough to see if I’d get my whole key money (deposit) back or not. I however moved out beforehand because my move-in had been so chaotic, stressful, and hectic. I just did a walk through with my co-teacher and then took pictures of everything so I’d have a reference if there was anything wrong. There wasn’t. If you are concerned you can make sure you are there.
When I moved out of my first apartment my co-teacher came by and looked at everything. But that housing was owned by the school so the management was a coworker. Very different situation. Very chill situation.
I paid my bill, took a picture of where in my bank book it showed I’d paid, and then kept the receipt to show I had paid. I had to send this to my co-teacher. Be strategic about it if you don’t want your co-teacher to know how much is in your account. Because it was awkward when I didn’t think about it and my co-teacher commented on it. Your co-teacher/office staff might not ask for it, but it’s good to have just in case something arises later.
In my apartment in Sanbon gas was the other bill I got monthly in the mail. My co-teacher called them to try and figure out a way for them to let me pay before I left. This ended up meaning turning my gas off early. It was fine because they were able to wait till I was closer to leave to do this, and I could eat out in town or with friends if I wanted to cook. You could also call or have a friend who speaks Korean well help with the call. Keep your receipts and pictures that you’ve paid.
This is the one that made me annoyed with the micromanaging. I was fine without gas. I was fine with paying my bills early. But my coteacher set it up without consulting me that my internet would end earlier than I wanted it to. I had set up my schedule so that I could go in person and cancel things and pay my bills but my coteacher did it without telling me what she was doing and the text message I got from my internet company was confusing to me and my Korean friends. But it’s turned out fine, if not just frustrating. My internet turned off and I went to hang out at a friends or a cafe when I needed internet and I still had my phone. They came by and got the router and pieces they needed and I kept screen shots and pictures and receipts to prove it was done.
Now I’m not going to put phone in this section. You can do that before you leave. A day before or the day of.
Take all of your information. Your flight information, your passport, ARC, your home bank information, and your contract to your local pension office. I went with friends right after making my NH One account since that’s what I was using to transfer money home. I assumed I’d need assistance with the Korean, but the lady working spoke English and was very easy to understand. Note that if for any reason your flight is cancelled or you change your mind on your flight you have to contact the pension office/the person you worked with ASAP or else you lose it. You also can’t leave and return to Korea or you’ll lose it. You can return to Korea later, like months later or years. But there’s a minimum you have to be gone to collect it.
Receipts and photos
Get a folder to keep your contract, printed paperwork of cancelled contracts (i.e. internet, gas, and housing) and other receipts in it. Take photos of your apartment when it’s empty and clean to show that you did that. Make sure you have a copy of your flight home and prepare to take pictures of your boarding pass, and your luggage tags. My school required these to reimburse me for my flight. To prove I had actually left. I kept everything and took pictures of everything just in case.
Say your goodbyes.
Your school will almost certainly have a goodbye dinner that they’ll want you to attend. For my school since I wasn’t being replaced and was in the way during construction, I was allowed to go home for several weeks before I was meant to leave. But it was required that I attend the final dinner. They’re usually quite fun. They want you to give a speech and usually if you like to drink you will have many coworkers and your bosses who will want to pour you a drink. Afterwards it might be requested to continue to hang out, either for a cafe or at a bar. That’s less required but still can be fun. You’re also usually given a gift. Flowers or something small as thank you from your coworkers and school.
This is also a good time to say goodbye to friends. Every year towards the end of it from November through February I found myself attending goodbye dinners for friends going home or moving somewhere else.
Before you leave/day of
Cancel your Phone plan and pay the bill
Do this at the last possible minute. In my case I’d moved out early and was staying at a hotel near the airport so I could leisurely make my way there rather than from my apartment after stressfully being micromanaged in my empty apartment. I stayed at my favorite hotel in Unseo, the Hotel Air Relax Incheon Airport. As often as possible when I had a flight out of Incheon I stayed in Unseo. It’s a short distance from the airport and there are a ton of hotels and hostels in the area at varying prices. The Hotel Air Relax Incheon Airport that I stayed at I found after a rather unsuccessful sleep at hostels on the other end of the train station. It’s an easy walk from the train station and offers, like almost everything else in the area, a free shuttle to the airport.
I left my apartment early so I could stay there and do my final errands like cancelling my phone plan. I went to a KT Olleh store with my phone to cancel my plan. You need cash in order to cancel your phone plan, so make sure you have some. I didn’t since I’d paid all my bills up to that point on my card, so I had to go to the NH atm and withdrawl some. So just have some on hand.
Return your ARC
At the airport before leaving there is an office to drop off your ARC, ask for directions from one of the information desks. You have to do this. You can’t keep it. So make sure you get to the airport early enough to do this so you have enough time if there is a line or you get lost trying to find it.
After your return
My coteacher requested photos of everything after I returned to the states. I had to send pictures of my boarding pass, the stubs for my luggage tags and my luggage tags taken at the airport as well as the itinerary and ticket receipt so that I could qualify for my exit allowance. It took about 2 weeks or so to arrive.
You may be able to apply for this in your home country before you get home. But the way the USA works, which is a mess, is something you should prepare yourself for. You have about 60 days to apply through the ACA for health insurance. If you don’t make that deadline for some reason then you cannot get health insurance unless it’s through a job within the USA. It’s been this way for quite a while. My aunt who lived in Japan for almost 10 years found herself rushed to find a job when she returned and that was nearly 20 years ago. Health Insurance companies within the USA will not cover you if you’ve been outside of the country for over a year if you don’t apply through a job or within that 60 day period through the ACA. Each state is different so if you know where you’re planning to be for a while start looking into it. However, the health insurance landscape within the USA is a constantly shifting monstrosity. I say this because a year or so before I came back if you didn’t have any insurance you were penalized. I spent 11 months of 2020 without health insurance because I didn’t know about the 60-day deadline and missed it. Thankfully the penalization is gone. (It’s monetary and I think effected your taxes) So if you can contact someone who will be able to help you through the process and find what’s best for you I highly recommend it. The ACA has an option to reach out to someone local to ask them questions, and I recommend this. Because if you just start blindly searching online and try to see what you qualify for they want all of your information, so expect to have your phone ringing every 5 minutes with a robot or someone in a call center. (I made this mistake.) I got help from a person who was either an agent or a broker who helped me figure out what I could apply for 2021.
If you do not have a job lined up right when you land I highly recommend doing this. Just in case. You can adjust it later, when you get a job. But with the pandemic and the job market the way it is, if you can afford it it’s better to be safe than sorry. Though the health insurance in the USA is a huge culture shock in comparison to S. Korea. So do what you think is best for you. But if you wait too long you can’t apply until it reopens in October. *Pending changes in the USA health insurance landscape.
Brace yourself for reverse culture shock
My aunt has always told me that when she returned from Japan she felt like she left part of her soul somewhere over the ocean. When talking to friends who’d returned before me they harped upon the importance of a good support system when you return. You need steady ground beneath your feet because it’s a rough landing to return to your home country after being gone for such an extended period of time. Usually this is all considered reverse culture shock.
Sometimes it hits right off the plane. Suddenly seeing faces that look like yours, more diversity than you’d seen in a long time, familiar accents, and being able to immediately understand what most people say around you. It can be overwhelming. When visiting home I found it difficult to read in public places. I spent so much time in Korea letting Korean wash over me that whenever I heard English I instantly tuned in. It was like having sound on high and then when I landed somewhere where it’s spoken often by hundreds of thousands of people it was overwhelming and I struggled to figure out how to turn down the volume. I still haven’t remastered being able to read with someone or something happening nearby.
You also have to readjust your identity. I was so used to being a foreigner. It was a part of my identity. I was a foreigner. I wasn’t Korean. I was an immigrant. And then suddenly I wasn’t. But I still internally viewed everyone who wasn’t a Korean as a foreigner. It’s been hard to switch that off. Which has led to some awkward slip-ups in conversation. Korean slips into my language, leading to confusion, and double confusion because I’m used to the community of English speakers in Korea understanding me immediately in my broken Korean. Since sometimes I can switch to Japanese faster than English for some terms I find myself doing that around my aunt as I’ve forgotten what the term translates to in English. I also still bow and I’m sure if there wasn’t a pandemic and I was thrust into society more often I’d find more. However, because of the pandemic, I’m unsure whether I’m slowly adapting or whether I’m pushing back more shocks and if those shocks will be double and along with a shock for everyone else when the pandemic is over.
Food is something I was so excited about. I was excited to have salty comfort food and more options. But after being gone for 5 years and then returning in the midst of a pandemic where I stay home like a little hermit crab 99% of the time my body has had a rough adjustment to American food. I’m slowly relearning what affects my stomach and what doesn’t. And I miss Korean food.
I miss Korea. It’s like looking back at something with rose colored glasses. And some of it is logical. I miss my Korean health insurance, independence, my steady job, and the feeling of safety I had. But I am so glad I’m closer to family even if I can’t see them. We’re at least only a phone call away, rather than me having to do the math to see if it’s a good time to call, or worry they might be at work or asleep. And I’m sure I’ll get hit with more waves of nostalgia the longer I stay. So just stay patient with yourself and prepare for it to be a rough time. If you can keep busy, do it.