So You Want to Teach English in Asia?
The most popular countries in which to teach in East Asia are easily China, Korea, and Japan. Each one has its pros and cons with regards to the jobs available, working standards, cultural rules, and a hundred other areas you should be aware of.
Having taught English in all three and having known many people who have done the same, we’ll provide you here with the definitive pros and cons list for China, Korea, and Japan.
**Side note: Every job mentioned in these lists does not require a Master’s teaching certificate; only a Bachelor’s degree and, for most, a TEFL certificate. We are both qualified teachers in the UK, yet the only thing that’s ever been relevant for teaching jobs in Asia are the TEFLS we earned, and we only got them because my dad thought it’d be a nice ‘feather in your cap’ Christmas present one year. Thanks Dad!
- 1 China
- 2 Korea
- 3 Japan
If you’re looking to teach adults, Wall Street English is China’s largest English teaching school. It actually started in Italy and can be found on almost every continent, but its popularity in China is borderline ridiculous. You can’t walk ten feet in Shanghai or Beijing without tripping over someone handing out flyers to prospective students.
If it’s teaching children you’d prefer, EF is the Wall Street of kid learning, with comparable popularity in every big Chinese city.
Both of these companies are typically held in high regard by their employees and students. Having worked for WSE myself, I almost can’t fault their business practise and work ethic. It is overall an excellent company to work for.
The big cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen etc.) are all also home to prestigious international schools filled with students who hail from any and every Anglophonic country. These schools are competitive, however. But if you are a qualified teacher in your own country and have a specialist subject, they are certainly worth considering. The big pros about working in an international school are the holidays and job progression; the cons are the added stress and the early starts (hence why we tried it once in Dubai and left that where it was).
We learned so much in our year in China in terms of history, food, and culture and we’re always grateful we did it.
Cost of living:
China is a very cheap country to live in. If you’ve ever spent any time in its metropolises, this may surprise you given their cleanliness (apart from the pollution), lack of crime, and wide variety of shopping and entertainment options.
But it’s true; you can easily afford to live in the centre of Shanghai for the amount of money that would get you laughed out of the dingiest rat-infested London flat. On top of this, bills cost pennies. We once left our heating on for three consecutive months in one winter and were appalled that the heating bill came to the equivalent of £15 ($20) instead of £5 ($8). When this kind of news appals you, that’s when you know you’ve gotten too used to cheap living.
If you also have any issues with plumbing or electrics, having the plumber around will set you back a whopping £3 ($5). I thought I’d gone deaf when he asked me to cough up the equivalent of a Tall Starbucks Americano for three hours’ labour plus spare parts.
Truth time, transport is outstanding in all three countries; in none of them will you find yourself having to buy a car. But once more it’s cost that gives China the advantage here.
While in the UK a train journey from London to Manchester will cost you the equivalent of two Ferraris and one of your kidneys (then the train will almost definitely break down half way, and you’ll be sitting on the floor outside the toilets the whole way like a sad, damp Jeremy Corbyn), trains in China are reliable, spotlessly clean, and can get you clean across three times the length of Britain in a matter of hours.
Trains in Korean and Japan are on par with China, but they’ll cost you three Ferraris and two kidneys each.
This one is a little more personal, because we are mostly speaking from experience (working for Wall Street English). Compared to Korea and Japan (mostly Korea), work ethics, advancement opportunities, salary, hours, and work/life balance are all better in China.
A lot of the companies you’ll find in Korea and Japan offer very little room for advancement and will leave you stagnant. This results in the job feeling more temporary and less like a career opportunity. Working in Korea, I never felt like this was a job for life; but working for WSE in China I saw people make a real career out of this job.
It pays very well; the students are kind and pay to be there; there’s so much opportunity for advancement into management, recruitment, training, even moving into specialist teaching and consultancy positions (which is what we both did).
Working in China is less for the expat and more for s/he who wants to change their life and make a fresh start abroad with a real new career. You can make a very good life in China with these companies, and that’s probably the biggest pro you can ask for.
Korea and Japan offer very little by way of culture shock. Korea feels very much like America of the East, and Japan has a lot of social etiquette to get used to, but they are very forgiving and kind people. China, on the other hand, will shock you over and again.
Some things to watch out for: animals abused, caged, and sold on street corners; local men hawking up and spitting on the street at every moment of every day; queueing being totally non-existent in shops and on train platforms; pushing and shoving on the subway (this happens in Korea and Japan as well, but they are much more polite and apologetic about it); the sheer size and hustle-bustle of the place – it’s so easy to get lost and stressed out by the overwhelming amount of people, cars, and bikes; every taxi you get into will make you scream and cry with fear (as someone who has never prayed in his life, I found myself praying to survive the next ten minutes for every ten minutes I was in a taxi).
NO INTERNET FREEDOM:
I unleashed the caps lock fury for this one because it’s the biggest reason why I’m not living in China right now. The evil fascist Chinese government restricts all access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. You need a VPN to lead an ordinary life as a netizen in China. Sometimes your VPN will fail and your family back home may start to worry that the pollution has finally killed you. Which brings me to my next point…
The pollution is as bad as everyone says it is:
You’ll notice the pollution levels in China pretty much as soon as you land, regardless of where in the country that may be. You’ll find yourself asking questions like, ‘Where did the sun go?’ ‘This isn’t fog, is it?’ and ‘Why has my breathing stopped? Am I going to die?’ Beijing has by far the highest levels of pollution, but every major city has its issues.
You can certainly curtail this by picking a smaller city like Shenzhen, Nanjing, or Hangzhou (read: ‘smaller city’ in China does not mean the same as back west. Hangzhou’s population is comparable to London’s, for example).
But regardless, masks become a necessity (we love Vog Mask), coughing becomes commonplace, and you may even start empathising with China’s vehement spitting culture.
What’s that? Spitting? Didn’t you mention that before? Yes, and it’s getting its own special segment right now.
Spitting, spitting, spitting: China loves to spit. A friend who lived in Chongqing when the Olympics came to Beijing in 2008 told me the government rolled out etiquette lessons on how foreigners don’t take kindly to spitting, so please refrain while the Olympics are going on. This should be warning enough. I cannot emphasise this point more sternly: China loves to spit. Everywhere, any time, on anything; they bloody love it. You’ve been warned.
The most popular avenue for almost any English teacher in Korea is the hagwon (after school academy). Like China, Korea also has its share of international schools, and the local schools also take on teachers of EFL, but the hagwons still win out in terms of popularity and accessibility.
Most hagwons ask for little more than a bachelor’s degree in any subject, and they’re the perfect gateway into Korea and teaching culture in general. They do, however, suck. They really, really suck.
If you’re looking to teach adults, I highly recommend YBM, a school similar to Wall Street English, but with the caveat of ungodly working hours (up at 5am, work till 9am, then go home and back in again from 6pm to 9pm, plus a few Saturday mornings each month). WSE also exists in Korea, but their turnover is next to non-existent so they have few openings, and they demand a CELTA qualification, which China’s WSE does not.
Teaching children, however, is child’s play (lol). The most popular hagwon in Korea (the one we chose) is called Chungdahm Learning. Their schools are all over the country, and each branch varies wildly in its rules and teaching methods.
You may strike lucky at a chill one, or you may wind up wondering if you somehow enrolled in a military training camp by accident. When we first applied, one big positive that was lauded by ex-employees was that ‘you get paid on time’. This, of course, is a laughably pathetic positive criticism because being paid on time should be par for the course. The sad truth is, for many smaller hagwons, it is not.
The other option afforded by the Korean government is the EPIK programme, almost identical to Japan’s JET programme (mentioned below). Hosted by the government, the EPIK programme places you in a random city (you can’t choose, which does not work well for couples), and sends you off to teach ESL English in a public school.
People generally have far better experiences teaching with EPIK than at a hagwon. You’re given a co-teacher and get to enjoy all the public school holidays. The downside for many is the desk-warming (a popular affectation of Korean and Japanese work ethic) where you must go to work during holidays and sit at your empty desk in your empty classroom for the full workday, doing absolutely nothing (I’ll stop there before I work myself into a frenzy and throw my laptop out the window in frustration).
The dreaded desk-warming could strike in any job in Korea; there’s not much you can do about it except try and do something useful. This website was born out of too much time desk-warming.
Out of the three, Korea will give you the most fun for your money. Living there is not as cheap as China, but it’s still more affordable than the UK and you’ll find yourself saving money even if you eat out every other day and take trips on the weekend.
In fact, Korean people have the highest amount of disposable income on the planet. It’s not a hyper-rich country, but everyone does well enough; you don’t often see people in Seoul struggling for money.
Korea’s biggest positive is its fun factor. It’s got a massive drinking culture, and there is so much good food here from every country. Travelling around is inexpensive and the people are typically kind and helpful. It’s very easy to live happily and comfortably in Korea.
If you’re coming to Asia to explore, Korea is the perfect travel hub. It’s nestled between China and Japan, making flights to both very affordable. You can even catch a ferry from Busan in the south to Fukuoka in Japan. Travelling around Korea itself is also easy given its compact size, and there’s so much gorgeous countryside to hike and explore. Each city has its own distinct feel, and trains and buses are cheap and easy to get your head around.
This is a weak spot for me, given that I’m a massive Japanophile weeaboo loser, but from what I’m told K-pop is a big deal globally, and Korean dramas are also watched the world over. I will say that Korean films are for the most part outstanding; there are so many great Korean horror films to sink your teeth into. For this reason, it’s very cool being at the centre of it all.
If you’ve spent your whole life searching for Korean beauty products, they’re in every store in Seoul for half the price back west. If you like playing PUBG, it’s made in Korea and every teenager and twenty-something is playing it.
If you like K-pop, you can stop any stranger in the street and tell them as much. Boom, friend for life. I mean, maybe. I haven’t tried it. The point is, Korea is a very young and vibrant place full of impassioned youth and colourful pop culture.
What was a pro in China is a con in Korea. This, for many is obviously a make-or-break issue. During my own time working in both Shanghai and Tokyo, I had colleagues who had worked in Korea and fled to one of its neighbours due to atrocious work ethics.
Statistically speaking, you’re likely to end up at a hagwon if you want any say as to where you end up. The independent ones commit constant illegal acts, withhold pay and vacations, and treat employees like disposable dirt. The larger, well-established ones are hardly any better, with vacation days being snatched away for every day you dare to get sick, and managers avoiding paying out for your health insurance to pocket a penny here and there.
You might get lucky, or you might not. Read the reviews on sites like Glassdoor, go through your contract with a fine-tooth comb, argue anything you’re unhappy with (they usually give) and go in with your guard up. Hagwons in Korea get sued. A lot. You’ve been warned.
This is an issue in all three countries (in fact, many people in Japan have never come across the word ‘feminism’) and it’s not something you notice on a quick holiday but becomes very obvious the longer you’re living here.
Women are treated as second-class citizens in most of Asia, and the laws regarding rape in both Japan and Korea are disgusting (look them up).
That being said, the treatment of women is most despicable in Korea specifically. If you spend ten minutes looking up the statistics regarding abusive boyfriends and husbands, hidden cameras, stalking, and date rape, it is very distressing.
Western women are often targeted, believed to be more ‘easy’ than local women. There is also far more of an importance placed on women in Korea to look ‘perfect’. Men can look as distressed as they please, but if a woman has a hair out of place at work she is ostracised and pressured to work harder on her appearance.
There is an obsession with beauty to the point of being uncomfortable; even farcical. As a foreigner you’ll experience little of this directly but if sexism bothers you the way it bothers me (and it should) this will wear you down.
The pollution nobody talks about:
These days so much attention is given to Korea by koreaboos who omg just love k-pop like so much. But the harsh truth is that Korea is as polluted as China (why does nobody talk about this?!).
Living in Shanghai was a real struggle because of its hazardous pollution levels. Yet before arriving in Seoul there was no mention online of similar levels there as well.
Masks are a necessity, especially in the springtime, and Korea also suffers from something called ‘yellow dust’, which is a dangerous fine dust that drifts east from China’s deserts and mingles with the pollution to create something that can hospitalise you if inhaled in large amounts.
When the dust levels are high, only a mask can save you (and they really do work). Seriously, more people need to talk about Korea’s pollution problem.
If you’re not from the UK and thus unfamiliar with the word ‘chav’, give it a quick Google search. Once you’ve secured a mental picture of one, try to get your head around the fact that Korea’s chavs are four-foot-tall middle-aged ladies wearing mismatched colours and oversized blackjack dealer visors. They wear their hair in a tight perm and will fucking kill you if you look at them funny. (This also holds true for some of the older generation in China.)
In Korea there is a saying, We have three sexes: male, female, and ajumma. The word ajumma simply means married or middle-aged woman, but it details a specific kind of woman. You’ll know them when you see them. But they will cut in front of you anywhere, even where there are no queues, just to make your day worse.
They’re also very likely to pull stray hairs off your back, tidy up your coat belt, let you know if your clothes are fraying, or alert you if your cleavage is showing a little too much. This doesn’t quite match with the image given above but an ajumma is nothing if not mysterious.
Japan’s language school opportunities are a mix of what’s on offer in China and Korea. There are the after-school academies similar to Korean hagwons, known in Japan as eikaiwas (they also carry with them the same terrible reputations as hagwons, so stay alert and peruse Glassdoor).
Eikaiwas teach mostly children with some teaching adults too. There’s also Berlitz, who operate similar hours and work ethics as Wall Street English and have a generally strong reputation, though one big criticism is that they have little to no opportunity to advance.
The most popular way to get to Japan in the JET program, very similar to Korea’s EPIK. JET places you in a random location in Japan as an ALT (assistant language teacher) wherein you work alongside a local teacher to co-teach English classes.
The JET program has a very, very high reputation; I have a friend who has remained part of the JET program for over three years now. A great thing about Japan is that its countryside is as wonderful and interesting as its cities, so if JET drop you in the middle of nowhere you’ll still have an unforgettable experience.
A big company who exist all over Asia but carry special prevalence in Japan is AEON. They teach a range of children and adults, but I have to confess I did my research on them and was intimidated by the sheer level of formality and professionalism demanded of staff. This isn’t to say I’m averse to being professional; rather they demand teachers welcome students in the fashion of a butler and the hours are impractically long. AEON has never taken my fancy, personally.
Your final option in Japan is the prestigious Westgate Corporation, which is the route I went down. Westgate are a kind of agency who hire teachers and post them at universities around Tokyo and Yokohama (They also hire elementary and online school teachers). It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to teach at universities without having to have a PhD and fifty published journals. It also does work in your favour if you want to take the university teaching route.
Westgate provide accommodation and fully-paid bills. They also reimburse your flights to and from your home country. The biggest catch (but also a massive pro for some) is that contracts are only three months long. You work a semester, then take an unpaid break, and return for the next one; this essentially means you are employed, working, and being paid for only six months out of the year.
If you’re hoping to live in Japan permanently, Westgate is a tough choice. However, they do provide you with a year-long visa, so a cheeky thing to do is work a single semester and find another job and accommodation during your three months, taking your university experience with you.
Regardless, Westgate is an outstanding company to work for; the students are attentive and the work is fulfilling. I personally adore working for Westgate.
Most of what I have to say below must be taken with a pinch of bias. Although I’ve lived in all three countries, I am an unashamed Japanophile.
That being said, Japan is just so pretty. China is exhaustingly large, polluted, and choked with people (that sounds overly harsh; China is arguably prettier than Japan but it’s so damn hard to travel around, due to its size and the time you need to see everything). Korea is on the small side and excessively mountainous.
Japan is the perfect middle ground, catering for every kind of person’s kind of travelling style. The south has gorgeous beaches; the north has snow-covered vistas; the middle has breath-taking mountain ranges; the smaller cities are cultural beauties filled with hot springs, temples, and shrines; the metropolises are the pinnacle of neon city life. Japan is aesthetic perfection; there is no better country on Earth to travel around.
Friendliness & cleanliness:
Nothing can annoy you in Japan. The entire country has been painstakingly fashioned over the past fifty years to provide an easier life for those in it. Every street and alley is spotless, every train runs like clockwork, every person on the street is kind and helpful. Japan will not let you have a bad day; life there doesn’t work like that. It is a well-oiled giant machine of organisation and kindness. This can certainly give the whole country an edge of the dystopian, but at least you’ll never have anyone spit on your shoes or call you a wanker for not stopping to sign up to their charity (I don’t miss Britain).
The old culture and the new:
Japan has never given up on its history. There’s the more apparent side to this, as evidenced by all of its meticulously maintained temples, shrines, and torii gates, as well as the retained popularity of Japan’s ancient arts and customs (kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling, taiko drumming, onsen hot springs etc).
Then there’s the subtler side to Japan’s intact history: its city planning. Japan has designed its modern world around filling in the gaps of its ancient one. Little of its history was lost in the development of its modern cities and its economy today.
As for its new culture, this point is similar to the youth culture pro for Korea: if you love Japanese stuff, you’ll love Japan. For me, everything I adore is a product of modern day Japan, and can be found on sale in Akihabara (video games, anime, and manga). In short, whether a history buff or one of today’s otaku, there’s something amazing for you in Japan.
Cost of living:
What was a pro in China is a con in Japan. Cost of living is pretty high in the land of the rising sun. I have defended this point a little in the past; it is cheaper to be a resident in Japan than a tourist. But one thing that really stings is the transport. The bullet trains, known as shinkansen, will demand a month’s salary off you to get from Tokyo to Osaka. Living in Tokyo is ludicrously expensive, but of course you don’t have to live there. And if you do, your company may pay your rent (as Westgate does). Regardless, Japan is still easily the most expensive country of the three to live in.
It’s a bit too clean:
This is an odd point, but bear with me. For some who like to travel and see something different, Japan can disappoint. My pro about it being clean and friendly can be a negative for those who want to get down and dirty, as it were.
Living in the chaos of China can be so exciting and enthralling. It’s exhilarating just to survive in China. You don’t get that sense of challenge in Japan; everything can be a little too easy and the whole society just works a little too well.
Like I said, this is an odd point for some, but those who get it, get it.
Big city loneliness:
Most people who want to live in Japan will be drawn to the big cities. But in these cities it can be tough to make local friends. Japanese people are renowned for being closed-off, not wishing to express their true feelings, and keeping others at a distance. This is less true in rural areas, but for city-dwellers it’s definitely a thing. Basically, they’re all Londonders. You’ll find it far easier to mingle with locals and make local friends in Korea and China than in Japan.
Living in Star Trek TOS: For thirty years Japan has been celebrated as a land of innovation and design, the pinnacle of technological advancement. While this is true, it’s also really not. When it comes to technology, Japan is so far behind the times that every office still uses a fax machine. The subways may run like clockwork but the ticketing machines and ATMs are giant metal monstrosities ripped right from the deck of the Enterprise (and not the new shiny one, but the one from 1968). Japan very much lives by the mantra, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Wall Street English China. (With China it’s useful to pick a city and then look for the local expat site, such as Smart Shanghai or Shenzhen Party These will also be useful if you need to find an apartment of your own).
Need a TEFL?
Do you need a TEFL Course? We love Premier TEFL due to their wide range of courses/internships/scholarships to suit every learner and budget. They have their own quality assured job board for after and you can choose to do an online course or blended learning where you do part of your course in another country. The staff are friendly and always available via the chatbox.
We’ve always had the very basic online 120 hour TEFL and found that prepared us enough. There are lots of options though so pick one that suits you 🙂
Share Your Experiences
Do you know any more useful sites for would-be teachers? Please drop them in the comments below or let us know your experience teaching in these countries.
If you found this article useful we’d be very grateful if you shared it.
Thank you for reading.
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