Teaching ESL Overseas
I’ve lived in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Mainland China over the last 5 years. Recently I’ve been getting a lot of emails from friends and friends of friends asking me the differences between the four main stops for English teachers overseas. Teaching English overseas is quite a daunting experience. As jobs become more scarce in North America, recent graduates will be opting to teach English in Asia. I have spent 16 months in Osaka (Japan), 12 months in Seoul (South Korea), 16 months in Taipei (Taiwan) and now currently live in Beijing (China). I have seen or experienced nearly every possible scenario you can have teaching English in Asia and I would like to share my knowledge and experience with the rest of the world. Teaching ESL overseas is a big step and I will impart on you my 5 years of knowledge so you can make the best decision possible when choosing your overseas destination. I will be breaking the Pros and Cons of each country into five categories…………..Money, Teaching, Nightlife, Language, Landmarks.
The main reason, other than gaining a life-changing experience, for most people coming to Asia is to make a little change ($). Each country has its pros and cons for earning wages and I will outline them in this post. Obviously, depending on the city you live in, the cost of living will vary. If you live in a bigger city, expect the cost of living to be higher, like everywhere else in the world. For me personality, I like the comforts of a big city so I am willing to sacrifice a few dollars to keep sane.
In Japan, you can expect to make anywhere from 2-3 thousand USD a month (230,000 Yen) as an ESL teacher. On average, its one of the best salaries you can get teaching English overseas. BUT Japan is also EASILY the most expensive place to live in Asia. I lived in Osaka and I was pulling in $2500 USD/month but it seemed like $1500 USD/month. I lived in a room the size of a shoebox, 6 stops away from the downtown Osaka and still paid over $550 USD/month for rent. I have friends that live in Tokyo and it’s even worse there. If you are frugal you can save around 1000 USD/month but it will be hard. Your money won’t stretch very far in this country. From food to transportation, everything is expensive. Be prepared to spend most of your salary in everyday life.
In Seoul, you can expect to make from $2000-2500 USD/month. Your money stretches a lot more here when compared to Japan. I made $2500 USD/month and it was more than enough to get by. My company was prompt on payments and I was able to live very comfortably after I paid off the advance from my school. The prices for taxis and public transportation are decent. Food is delicious and affordable.
In Taipei, the average salary you can expect to make is from 1200-1600 USD/month. But, when based on actual hours teaching it’s a pretty good deal. Taiwan is cheaper than Seoul and Japan so your dollar will go very far on this tropical island. Transportation is cheap. Most teachers buy a scooter but you are perfectly capable of zipping around the city via bus or subway. Food is much cheaper here than in South Korea or Japan so that won’t be a large part of your expenses.
The typical salary for an English Teacher is from $15000-2000 USD/month in second-tier cities (Hangzhou, Ningbo, Xian) and from $2000-4000/month in first-tier cities (Beijing, Shanghai), the highest of the four most popular English teaching destinations. The cost of living in mainland China is extremely low. The average salary for a Chinese person in Beijing or Shanghai is $1000-2000/month. So, as an English teacher, you will be making a lot more money than the average Chinese person. The cost of food and transportation is ridiculously low. In Beijing, you can take the subway anywhere in the city for around $1 USD. You can get almost anywhere in the city via taxi for around 20 USD.
Money Winner: Mainland China
If your main objective is to make money teaching ESL, Mainland China is the best option. If you teach in an international high school or middle school, the school will usually pay for your accommodation. Many schools also offer an end of the year bonus as well as paying for a round trip plane ticket. I have friends that have saved over $20,000 USD in one year in Mainland China. If you want to make some real cash, China is the place to go.
Teaching ESL overseas can be an intimidating idea to wrap your head around but all you have to remember is YOU ARE AN EXPERT IN SPEAKING ENGLISH. That’s what the recruiter for the first company I worked for said to me and it has made me a more confident teacher.
Teaching in Japan was a great experience. My company was prompt when it came to paying my salary, well, until it went bankrupt! I haven’t heard too many stories about companies being late or not paying their employees in Japan. There are many different avenues to teaching in Japan. You can go the public school route (safest bet). A good program to look into is the JET program. It is offered by the Canadian and United States Government. They will place you in a public school in Japan. The downside is you can’t choose the location of your placement. If you teach at a private school your odds for living in a big city are higher. I have friends that teach private lessons and do corporate training which are also good options.
Teaching in South Korea is a great choice. It’s pretty easy to find a public school job if you don’t mind living outside of Seoul or Pusan. I chose the private school route because I don’t like teaching kids. I was always paid on time and the working environment was very professional. One downside to teaching in South Korea is the government frowns on private tutoring. I’m not exactly clear on the rules but I’ve heard that you can get fined for being a private tutor. There is actually a program set up where apartment building doormen get a reward for tipping the police off when people teach privates. Foreigners still teach private lessons but you have to be more cautious in South Korea.
Teaching in Taiwan is a little more laid back when compared the other Asian countries. I was able to teach in golf shirts and shorts which really made me feel like I was living in paradise. My students were pretty relaxed but serious about learning. Taiwanese students (as well as South Korean students) are a lot more serious when it comes to learning English than their Japanese counterparts. Japanese students look at studying English more as a hobby whereas Taiwanese students look at it as a necessity to be successful. Most ESL teachers in Taiwan have two or three part-time jobs. There are some bigger schools that will offer you a full-time salary but for the most part, you will be scrounging around for teaching hours. When I lived in Taiwan I had three jobs. I taught kids at an elementary school, adults at a private school and was also a private tutor. It sounds a little hectic, and it was, but this is a very typical experience if you teach in Taiwan. Most schools will offer you 10-15 hours a week which will be enough to get by on but if you want to save money and live well you should find more hours. Teaching privates is the best way to go to make extra cash and it isn’t looked down upon by the Taiwanese government.
I have spent the least amount of time teaching in Mainland China but my experience has been positive so far. The company I work for is very professional and I haven’t had a problem with being paid on time. I work for a bigger company and I would recommend doing the same if you come here. There are many different teaching avenues to explore in Mainland China. It’s easy to find a university teaching position if you don’t mind living outside of Shanghai or Beijing. You will work around 15 hours a week but only make $1200 USD a month. A lot of teachers that live in big cities teach children. If you don’t mind teaching kids it’s pretty easy to find a job. I don’t hear much of people teaching privates but there is definitely an avenue to do that.
Teaching/Work Environment Winner: South Korea
I haven’t really heard any horrible stores of people losing out on wages or companies being shady with paying their employees in South Korea. Most of the teachers I met in Seoul didn’t have a problem with their companies and most people said their schools were very professional. Furthermore, there is an abundance of jobs where you can make a great salary and, as I’ve stated before, most companies will pay for your accommodation which is a huge plus.
If your objective is to go out and party you can’t really go wrong in Asia. First of all it’s extremely safe. Secondly, there is no last call. Third of all, most bars don’t close until 4-6am. Asia is a great place to let loose and party into the morning.
Japan has a very vibrant nightlife. There are various types of venues to cater to your nighttime entertainment needs. Japanese people like to go out. Their culture is of the work hard, play hard variety. When I was in Osaka it felt as if every night of the week was a great night to hit the town. Every night of the week you can find clubs that play music from every genre. The thing I like most about Japanese nightlife is the concerts. In the other countries I’ve lived in, concerts with North American acts were few and far between. But it seemed like in Japan at least once a month a great artist was having a concert in Osaka or Tokyo. It is more expensive to go out in Japan but it’s worth it.
Osaka’s Top 5 Hip-Hop Clubs:
1.Sam & Dave’s (Shinsaibashi)
2.Ghost Ultra Lounge
4. Pure Osaka
5. Club Circus
The nightlife in Seoul is also excellent. There are tons of bars and clubs go to on various nights of the week. The best nights to go out are Thursdays and Saturdays. There are three main areas where people go to party in Seoul. Hongdae (Younger Crowd), Itaewon (Foreigner Crowd) and Kangnam (Business Crowd). Because of the US army base, many of Seoul’s night clubs are foreigner friendly. Some bars go as far as letting foreigners in for free. My favourite place to party was in Hongdae. Hongdae is located in the North-West region of Seoul and, due to its proximity to several universities; there are around 50 bars within walking distance of each other. This makes bar hopping quite convenient. One stop away from Hongdae is Sinchon Subway stop. It’s more laid back than Hongdae but also a great place to party.
Seoul’s Top 5 Hip-Hop Clubs
3. TinPan 1
I had a lot of fun in Taipei but I have to rate it the least exciting place to go out of the four cities. It does have some great clubs but they’re all spread out. It’s difficult to bar hop because of the distance between clubs. There are a lot of all you can drink spots which are fun but the majority of them serve fake alcohol. The next morning you will have the worst hangover in your life. The best place to party in Taipei is in Xinyi district, near the 101 building. As for music, most clubs will play Top 40 songs from the previous year. There is not a lot of variation when it comes to the DJ’s playlists’ which makes the music scene lame.
Taiwan’s Top 5 Hip-hop Clubs
1. Room 18
4. Club W
Beijing’s nightlife is ok. Most of the bars fall into to the same trap as Taiwanese clubs, only playing Top 40 music at every venue. There is a little bit more variety in Beijing so I would put it a couple of notches above the nightlife in Taipei. There are a few areas that are great for parties. Sanlitun (Young Professionals, Students, and Locals) Wudaokuo (Students) and Nan lu guo xiang (Older crowd) are the main spots to hit if you are ever in Beijing. It’s really cheap to get around the city and the drinks are the most affordable out of the three cities I’ve discussed. Many bars don’t have an entrance fee which is another huge plus.
Shanghai’s Top 5 Hip Hop Clubs
2. Juicy Spot
Nightlife Winner: Japan
Some Japanese clubs play top-40 music but at the vast majority, you can find any genre of music. Rock, Dance, Hip-hop, Reggae, you have it all in Japan. Even though it’s more expensive, I enjoyed the nightlife in Japan the most because of the diversity of music.
First and foremost I have to say all of these languages are really hard. I know a couple of people who have mastered them and it took years and years of study and practice to reach fluency. If your goal in teaching English overseas is to go back home with a second language there are many different ways to accomplish that. I have studied each of these languages and here is a break down of each one.
It is made up of three different types of script. Chinese characters called kanji (漢字?), and two syllabic (or moraic) scripts made of modified Chinese characters, hiragana (ひらがな or 平仮名?) and katakana (カタカナ or 片仮名?). The Latin alphabet, rōmaji (ローマ字?), is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when entering Japanese text into a computer. I studied Japanese for 8 months and I progressed pretty quickly. The level of English proficiency for Japanese people in Osaka wasn’t high and I dated a Japanese girl who helped me progress even more rapidly.
There are about 78 million Korean speakers worldwide. In the 15th century, a national writing system was commissioned by Sejong the Great, the system being currently called Hangul. This makes reading Korean a lot easier than other languages. It has something of an alphabet which took me less than a week to learn.
All Chinese people are taught Mandarin but each region has its own dialect which makes Chinese the most difficult language to learn out of the three. The government has tried for thousands of years to standardize the language but their efforts have been unsuccessful. Many Chinese people from the North have difficulty understanding people from the South. If Chinese people have a difficult time understanding each other, imagine what it’s like for a foreigner! To make things even more complicated, Chinese people use two different sets of characters, traditional (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau) and simplified (Mainland China). A well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 5,000–7,000 characters; approximately 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; fewer than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.
Language Winner: China
If you want to learn another language why not learn the one that a fifth of the world speaks! Even though it’s the most difficult of the languages to learn (the tones are ridiculous), it gives you the opportunity to open doors that can only be opened through the art of language. As China continues to develop, more and more businesses will be attracted to hire Mandarin speakers.
Coming to Asia you will be bombarded with cultural landmarks. Many of these countries have been around for thousands of years so a lot of history comes with that. There is a lot to see and do so if you want to learn a little bit about Asian history it won’t be difficult.
Japan has a very long history with many cool places to visit. Living in Osaka gave me the opportunity to be around many historical landmarks. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting such landmarks as the Golden Temple, Osaka Castle, and Tokyo Tower, etc. Another advantage of living in Osaka was its proximity to Kobe, Nara, and Kyoto. With all of these cities within an hour train ride, it made it a breeze to check out many ancient temples.
Korea has a long history as well but I wasn’t too interested in its historical landmarks. Most people visit Seoul to shop or to see a friend. The most popular places to visit are Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul Tower, Insadong, and Myeong-dong. There are all ok but are not of the mind-blowing variety.
I could really copy and paste what I said about Seoul and put it into this space. There is not much to see in Taipei either. My Taiwanese students said for cultural landmarks Tainan would be better because it used to be the old capital. 101 is the biggest tourist attraction because it used to be the tallest building in the world. Now it has been surpassed by a building in Dubai so it’s lost its claim to fame. Other popular landmarks include CKS Memorial Hall, Danshui and Sun-Yat San Memorial Hall.
Beijing, capital of China, has numerous historical landmarks including the Great Wall, Summer Place, Forbidden City, and The Temple of Heaven. I could go on but for you history buffs you would be hard pressed to find a place that could rival Beijing’s history. The Great Wall is probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen in my life. It just keeps going. It’s unreal. With over 5000 years of history, Beijing takes the cake.
Landmarks Winner: Beijing
Beijing has the Great Wall and The Forbidden city and many other world-famous landmarks. With all of them being in the same city, it would be really hard to top Beijing.
That is my rundown of the four cities I’ve lived in Asia. As for the best place to live, that’s up to you. It depends on your reasons for coming here. Your ESL experience in Asia will only be as good as you allow it to be. Come here with an open mind and you will get everything you put into this place.
Here are some websites to get you started on your job hunt. There are thousands of sites but these are the ones I found most useful.