Before I left the UK, I decided to ship some items to Korea on the basis that if I wanted my life in Korea to eventually feel more like home, I should save at least a few of the possessions of my former life before the rest hit the bins and the charity bags. A few items had sentimental value, some of it was purely practical, but many were simply things which would be hard to replace in Korea, such as books and DVDs. For example, I had a backlog of twenty-three books I hadn't read, and if I didn't have them sent to Korea I had the feeling I would just end up repurchasing them from Amazon.com, with all the extra expense and inconvenience that importing from the US potentially entailed. The downside of living in a country where hardly anyone speaks English is that it can be quite hard to shop for products in your own language.
None of this is to say that one can just liberally transport one's life from one place to another internationally. My house in England had a basement and an attic, and while I never knew the square footage of the property I would estimate that it had at least three times the amount of space that my Korean Mother's four-bedroom apartment has. That's very much a comment on the compactness of what is typically considered to be a larger property in Korea, rather than the largess of my home back in the UK, which was a averagely-sized house. Even if we had been initially moving back to our own apartment in Korea, there would have been very definite limits to what we could have shipped over given the lack of living space, but given that we were initially moving in with Korean Mother, plus of course the costs - around £20 ($33/38,000 won) per box - and practical size limitations in sending items anyway, choices were very limited. It wasn't long before everything I owned in the world - aside from the contents of my suitcase and hand luggage - was contained in five 51x41x31cm boxes which alongside four boxes of other things would later earn the pithy official description 'used personal effects' on the bill of lading.
Women's Clothes and Other Rules
It wasn't quite as straightforward as packing the boxes, however. We had to ensure we complied with the company's rules and more importantly, Korean Customs Laws, which are unsurprisingly numerous and esoteric. For example, one rule stated that while women could import men's clothes under their name, men could not import women's clothes in a personal capacity. The conclusion is that this is not the right country for male cross-dressers to ship their wardrobes to. The practical problem for us was potentially my importing two boxes of my wife's clothes under my name. You can assume that in the end at a Korean Customs warehouse, common sense would prevail, but overestimating the common sense of Government officials has cost me a lot in the recent past. As it happens anyway, the more we got into the rules the quicker it became apparent that everything should be done under a Korean national's name if possible. Even that didn't promise to be easy at the Korean side, but it looked very much simpler than doing it as a foreigner.
The company I used to ship the boxes operated a door-to-door service in many countries, but Korea wasn't one of them. Instead it was only door-to-port, though since the port in question was Busan, it didn't seem too big a problem, especially since we had a friend with a van.
It wasn't going to be quite that easy. We had no firm arrival date beyond 'several weeks', and when the ship carrying our 'used personal effects' arrived it was four days before our friend with the van got married, which meant he was going to be on his honeymoon by the time our boxes had gone through Customs and were ready to collect. At least, that was the theory - in practice our role in the matter became increasingly uncertain - were we merely picking up, or would we become actively involved in the inspection process? Phone calls were made, and nobody could give my wife a consistent answer as to what the procedure was, where our boxes were, or even which company in Korea was now responsible for them, given that by this time our original shipping company had subcontracted the job at the Korean end to a company that may have subcontracted it again. We finally found someone at an entirely separate company who was kind enough to check the Port database system to find out which warehouse our boxes were in and possibly therefore, which company was responsible for them.
So when we arrived early one very cold morning at the offices of the appropriate shipping company near Busan's main docks, we had already exerted a great deal of effort in just reaching this point. But this was just the beginning of our day. There were forms to be signed, and then we'd have to go to the satellite Customs warehouse where our boxes were - which was around 30 minutes drive away. Not having any idea at this point where we were going, a staff member helpfully took us to a taxi outside the offices and briefed the driver, who dropped us off at the side of a rather desolate road with instructions on which car to wait for next. Eventually a car pulled up to us driven by an employee of the company which was now responsible for our boxes, and from there we went to the Customs Office nearby. For all the problems we'd had on the phone, at least now we were dealing with people in person they were quite willing to assist us
By this time we'd been given the impression that the boxes had cleared Customs, which was a big relief; the last thing we wanted to be doing was emptying out our carefully packed possessions, potentially for individual and exhaustive scrutiny. It didn't even occur to me until later that I was probably over the limit for vitamins and supplements, several containers of which I'd packed. The big problem was the DVDs and other items which could conceivably be passed off as less than three months old and therefore new, which as such would then likely incur an import duty. Our shipping company back in the UK had advised us to bring receipts with us for as much as we could to verify purchases earlier than three months ago, but we probably only had proof for around half of the items.
And when we reached the Customs desk it appeared they hadn't been cleared after all, so I was beginning to feel pretty miserable as we trudged up and down between one office and another filling out forms and paying various charges. By the time we'd finished, the original cost of shipping - around £180 ($300/345,000 won) - had increased by 111,309 won (£58/$97) for the Korean shipping company, and another 50,000 (£26/$43) in Customs payments. Fortunately though, that was the end of it - the customs officers didn't want to check the boxes after all so we were cleared to go.
We'd managed to come to an arrangement with the local shipping company we were now dealing with, to have someone with a van who they used themselves to take us back to our apartment for a fee of 50,000 won (£26/$43), so we were soon standing in a sparsely filled Customs warehouse besides a pallet with our boxes on it and a small Bongo truck. The few other isolated pallets hinted that there were a least a few other ex-pats who had also tried their hand at the shipping experience, but what really grabbed my attention were the new and expensive foreign cars sat at one end of the building. A couple were obviously severely damaged - one had the metal surface of a rear door rolled back as though it were tin foil, another ended at the rear windscreen. It didn't take me long to realise that they were all quite badly damaged. I know things can get fairly rough on container ships, but I think there are going to be some very disappointed people in Korea when they see what's left of their imported car dream.
With our boxes on the back of the truck, and us squeezed into the cab at the front, we began the final leg of our journey home. I wasn't particularly surprised by the very thick crack several inches long across the windscreen in front of me, nor to discover that our ageing driver travelled all over the country doing delivery and moving jobs both large and small. Korea seems full of people like this - making a modest living with less than ideal equipment, in less than ideal financial circumstances.
Plans, Farces and Results
The plan to ship items to Korea seemed like a good one at the time, but it was one I began to regret as the situation began to descend into utter confusion. There was a time in the process when I genuinely wondered if our boxes were going to have transpired to have vanished into a Korean warehousing black hole, and even though we didn't end up going through several years of shopping receipts with the customs officers, there was the worry for a time that we were going to find ourselves answering endless questions with them. When we got the boxes home and unpacked them, it seemed worth the effort - and certainly despite the expense, it has saved a lot of money in replacement costs. It would not be an experience I'd be in a hurry to repeat though.