Should you go to Korea or China to teach? It’s a tough question that depends on your priorities and circumstances.
To give you some background about me: I’ve taught in Korea for nearly five years, and I’m currently doing my second year in China. I started out teaching at language academies in Korea, then took a job teaching subjects (Science, Social Studies, English Language Arts, Math) at an elementary school whilst pursuing certification. Once I finished that, I ended up heading to China from Korea. China was *not* on my radar at all but a good opportunity came up—so I took it!
I’ve noticed that a lot of misinformation gets tossed around about both places, so I wanted to spell out many of the differences that I’ve noticed.
I’ll write about Korea and China in general as much as I can, but in essence I’m comparing Seoul to Shanghai. I spent most of my time in Korea either in or around Seoul. Even when I didn’t live in Seoul, my entire social life was there. I’ve traveled around China a bit, but I live in Shanghai. I do talk to people who don’t live in Shanghai regularly.
I’ve taught EFL and I’ve taught at an international school. I’ll try to cover both—although I haven’t taught EFL here in China. Again, I am regularly interacting with people who do.
In either place, location matters. But it matters even more in China. It’s well known that taking a job in the sticks makes for a tougher life in general. I’ve heard countless people say, “Man, I really hate Korea/China!” Many times, their location is the issue and not necessarily the country itself. If you’ve looked at a map lately, you’d have seen that Korea is tiny compared to China. It goes to say that one of Korea’s strengths is that it is smaller. You’re never too far away from anything. If you end up in a “small town” in China, you have a bigger problem if you’re not into that sort of thing. It will take a much bigger effort to get anywhere else.
So make sure you know what you want. Do you want the comforts or the conveniences of a big city? Do you want to be in a place where there’s a large expat community? Do you want to be where the party is? Or are you more interested in being immersed in the local culture or language? Do you prefer a slower pace in life? Is it your first time abroad or are you a seasoned expat who can take anything? Choose your location wisely.
The locals. How are they? Yes, it’s Asia, and there are many cultural points that the locals in each country have in common. In both China and Korea you have a more collectivist culture. In both places, women are under pressure to get married and have children. In both places, they are concerned about how they look to other people. However, here are some differences that I have noticed:
- In Korea, the locals tend to be more insular and are more focused on being around other Korean people. As a result, I’ve found it more difficult to make genuine friendships with Koreans that don’t involve them getting free English practice. In general, Koreans are more conservative. They are also more religious. Also in Korea there is one ethnic group so they see themselves as being one rigid, distinct culture. While appearances are important in both countries, Koreans take this to an extreme. They tend to be more vain. They’re far more concerned about their physical appearance and are more likely to take more drastic measures to reach perfection. This looks like plastic surgery, wearing stilettos on a snowy day, men wearing lots of makeup, women wearing very short skirts no matter what, wearing formal clothes to what should be casual events, etc. As a note, some foreigners see this and take away that Koreans are hotter. The culture of appearances even reaches far beyond physical perfection in ways that can make your head spin. Keep in mind that not every individual is the same! There are people who are different than what I just described, and I’ve met fantastic Korean people. I’m just saying that you’ll have to dig harder to find these people.
- In China, the locals are also somewhat focused on being around others like themselves, but they are generally more open-minded and tolerant of people who are different from them. On average, they tend to be friendlier and won’t mind talking to you, provided that you are able to communicate with one another. China has different ethnic groups, so it’s not as homogeneous. They identify themselves more by where they come from within China, or even if they’re from Hong Kong or Taiwan. The core culture of China is conservative, but there are plenty of people who don’t live the way they’re “supposed to” and are perfectly happy with it. They are generally nowhere near as worried about their appearance as their Korean counterparts. So in a place like Shanghai, you won’t see as many people inappropriately dressed for the weather, for example. I haven’t seen any women in Shanghai wearing sky-high heels with their feet bleeding in the back. This is what I mean. I’ve found it far easier to connect with Chinese people without an ulterior motive. I don’t feel people trying to forge a friendship with me here just so that they can practice their English. Chinese people are mostly not religious, and this is enforced by the government. As a result, there is basically no preaching and nobody knocking on your door to tell you the “good news.” A big note is that in China there is plenty of debauchery going on, and you can join in if that’s what you’re looking for. I’ll leave it at that.
If you ask me—if you want to have FUN with CHILL people, then China is a better bet. If you are more religious, more conservative, or really into things like fashion or makeup, Korea is a better choice.
The expat populations are different in each country. When it comes to expats, Korea is more America-centric. There is a large US military presence in Korea. Korea also hires many American English teachers. Next to Americans, you mainly have other folks from English speaking countries like the UK, Ireland, Canada or South Africa. Korea does have expats from different places doing different things, such as studying, working as engineers and they have refugees, etc. However numbers wise, you’re looking at a lot of Americans. This is great if you are American or from another English speaking country because you have a more comfortable “home like” atmosphere in a way. Chances are, they’re either in the military or they’re an English teacher. Walking along the street you can easily point people out and be able to connect with them automatically on a cultural level. If it’s your first time abroad, this can be more convenient. In China, the expat communities are great and more varied. If you’re American like me, you’ll feel more apart of a “tribe” of Americans which is one tribe of many. People literally come from everywhere and speak every language under the sun. They work in all kinds of different professions. When I see people on the street, things aren’t as simple because those people might be Polish or German or Ghanaian or whatever. And they probably aren’t teachers like me. Just about all expats can communicate with you in English, though you’re still dealing with different cultures.
The workplace culture is interesting in both countries. In both places, it’s more hierarchical and decisions tend to be made from the top down. Often times these decisions don’t make any sense at all, but you still have to roll with it. It’s important to understand how your workplace operates and act accordingly. As a teacher, chances are things are running more like a business than you might be used to. In both countries, you still get a lot of last minute surprises or changes so it’s important to be patient. In Korea, you may see disorganization or incompetence in the workplace, but they can have high or unrealistic expectations of you. If you take a sick day, the boss will lose his/her mind. I’ve only worked at one job in China, but here is what seems to be true: In China, they might drop a stack of books on you at the last minute and say something like “Oh, okay you can do it tomorrow since you don’t have time today.” You can actually take sick days without a giant freak-out. Teachers tend to have more power in China and they seem to get away with more than they would in Korea. Now, here more EFL teachers work on the weekends, which can put a bit of a damper on your social life. So you’d work Saturday and Sunday during the daytime, and have two days off during the week. In China, anyone teaching on the Chinese calendar has one danger—having to make up for holidays. This means that after a long holiday, you might have to work on a Saturday and/or Sunday to make up a couple of those days. For example, after our October holiday, we had to work the next 7 days in a row. Very annoying, but everyone else has the same problem. Exceptions are those working for foreign companies or international schools on a foreign schedule. Obviously actual workplace conditions depend on your employer.
So you have your main job, but what about side gigs, or setting up your own business? Is it possible to transition out of teaching? This is easier in China, hands down. Lots of teachers tutor to make extra cash, and this isn’t as big as a problem as it is in Korea. Also, expats come here and start businesses all the time. I’ve got American friends that have successfully started many businesses in China. Starting their own school. Education Consulting. Bakery business. Selling plus-sized clothing and shoes. Selling lingerie and sex toys. Western beauty salon. Starting a music company. Selling human hair and wigs. Starting a wine delivery service. It seems like everyone else has a side gig but me. And for some of them, they only have their business(es). These are real Americans I know in China right now -- all but one started out teaching. I also know some people who taught at first, but now have non-teaching positions they enjoy at different companies here in Shanghai. Chinese language skills are majorly advantageous, but are not a requirement. If you want opportunity and you’re the kind of person that can hit the ground running, China is the place. In Korea, some expats do have companies, like restaurants, food service and others. However, everyone I know that has a business in Korea has a Korean spouse. All those people I’m talking about in China? None of them are married to Chinese people. In Korea, there are strict laws about who can start a business, who has to own half of it and so on. This is why just about anyone who owns a business in Korea has a Korean spouse. Transitioning out of teaching in a place like Seoul is also much more difficult. I might even say nearly impossible without exceptional Korean language skills (even then, it's still challenging finding non-teaching work as a foreigner), or a hard skill like engineering. If you want a business and don’t want to marry a local, then China is the clear choice. If you want to start out teaching, then move on to something else, then China is a better place to do this.
When it comes to language, it’s a good idea to know at least some of the local lingo in either place. For a native English speaker, both languages are difficult to learn but in different areas. Korean is easy to read and write which is great because it’s easy to have basic literacy. However, the grammar is tough with the sentence structure and all of the particles. It’s also not as useful once you leave the country. With Chinese, the grammar is easier for native English speakers. But it’s harder to pronounce with the tones and difficult consonants. And with all those characters, it takes major effort to learn how to read and write. However Chinese is a more useful language to throw on that resume, and it’s more useful when traveling. For instance, if you’re traveling around Europe then French or German would be more useful than say, Dutch. Chinese is like that when going around Asia.
If you plan on staying in either place long term, I recommend starting on the local language right away. That way, when you’re on your 4th or 5th year, you’ll be really good at it. I didn’t do that in Korea and I regret it. Now, how do the locals react to language learners? Koreans tend to be far less patient with foreigners learning their language. A common complaint among expats is that sometimes locals totally shut down and don’t even try to understand you. I’ve had that experience as well and it’s really discouraging. You have to fight through that and be dedicated. Chinese people tend to be pretty patient with foreigners using Chinese. They’re more likely to appreciate your efforts. If you screw up, they will work to try to understand you. At the same time, they have a higher expectation that you speak the local language. Chinese folks will push you to speak Chinese more than Korean folks will push you to speak Korean.
Cleanliness is about what you can take. If you’re looking for a place that’s totally clean, then go to either Japan or Singapore. In China, the air quality can be quite terrible, but you already knew that. Some places in China have better air than others. Beijing’s pollution is off the charts… it is unbelievable on certain days. I’m talking near zero visibility. For this reason Beijing has more trouble attracting teachers, and you will be compensated accordingly. I see people throw trash on the ground somewhat more often in China. They also hack and spit way more. It’s nasty and no, you will never get used to it. In China, toddlers wear split pants so that they can urinate and defecate where they please. However in Shanghai they tend to wear diapers. The worst I’ve seen was a 10 year-old girl peeing in the middle of the subway station. WTF? Aside from this, the good news is that places where you are going to live, work and go out are likely to be clean. You’re not intermingling with these “interesting” types on a day-to-day basis. Korea has some of the same issues, but all babies/toddlers are wearing diapers at least. The air can be bad at times, but not nearly as bad as in China. People spit, even indoors, but not as much. They throw trash on the ground, but not as much. In Koreans’ defense, the government doesn’t seem to believe in placing trash cans outside. Popular gathering spots often end up filthy and sometimes even smelly because again, no trash cans. Koreans drink more, so instead of baby poop you have more piles of vomit. You’ll be grossed out in both places but China gets quite a lower rating here.
When it comes to weather, all of Korea and the north of China can get pretty cold in the winter. Summers are hot. In Korea, a city like Busan doesn’t get quite as cold as a city in the north like Uijeongbu. But since it’s a small country there isn’t a whole lot of variation. Hot, rainy summers and cold and dry winters. It snows in the winter. China is very big, so the weather varies a bit. Everywhere has four distinct seasons I believe. It just gets freezing cold in the north, whereas in the south winters are milder and you don’t have the snow or ice. Summers can get oven-hot in the south! Shanghai is rainy like Seoul, though rainy season seems to be more late fall/winter.
Services can really make the expat life great! Now here I’m really comparing Seoul to Shanghai. Location matters when it comes to services available for expats.
- Internet - For instance, Korea has fantastic internet. Oh, how I miss that! You have lightning fast connections at home and on the road. Korea’s internet is mostly open and free, unless you’re trying to hit the porn websites. Porn is illegal and they have folks that just sit around and block porn websites. There are ways around this if that’s your thing. Koreans use different services than your average American, but this isn’t a huge deal. You’re probably still going to be able to connect with your new Korean friends on Facebook or whatever. They also have websites and apps for things like ordering groceries or hailing a cab, though these tend to be all in Korean and it’s always a headache to sign up. Life in Seoul is pretty convenient in general. China’s internet services are definitely worse, but not unusable. Too many websites are blocked, and the blocking seems so random at times. So imagine Korea’s porn blocking force but exponentially larger. Their Chinese counterparts sit around blocking websites, news stories and social networking groups that they don’t like. Even this very blog is blocked. Getting a Virtual Private Network (VPN) subscription is essential. A VPN allows you to bypass the blocks and access the websites you love. Don't worry... this isn't illegal and the Chinese government is well aware, but isn't concerned. However, messing around with a VPN can be a real drag when you’re out and about and your internet isn’t so fast. So in China you’re not likely to browse Facebook as much (maybe that’s a good thing?) but you cope. Most expats interact on WeChat since it’s a million times more convenient. Your average Chinese person doesn’t use websites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And no, they don’t want to or care. The big players here are WeChat and Weibo. If you don’t speak Chinese, you probably won’t be hanging out much on Weibo.
- Banking – In Korea it’s pretty convenient, though it’s advisable to ask others which bank is the best to sign up for. Walking in, there will be at least someone that speaks good English. Internet banking services are available in English. Irritating to sign up for but worth it. They can give you debit cards that can be used abroad and you’re able to wire money home quickly and easily. In China, this part is more of a headache. It’s harder to find bank tellers that can speak English. Most banks won’t give you a VISA because they want to promote Union Pay. Step 1 before wiring money home is converting money into the desired currency. The government has a strict limit on how much you can convert into foreign currency per day, which is inconvenient. Don’t panic about this because there are ways around it. I don’t think there is a bank that provides online banking in English. So many folks go inside a bank to get things done. I don’t because I do the same thing just by using PayPal.
- Hospitals/Pharmacies – In Korea, hospitals are nice, shiny and clean. They take this seriously. They are known for their doctors, especially in the plastic surgery arena. All doctors and pharmacists can speak basic English. I believe this is required in their schooling. There is a national insurance scheme, but you have to make sure your employer actually enrolls you and you pay into it. This is good for outpatient services, but covers jack shit if you get really sick and you’re hospitalized. If this is a concern, get supplementary insurance. In China I haven’t visited many medical facilities yet, but the common public hospitals aren’t as nice as they are in Korea. However, you have to note that there are public hospitals and private ones. This distinction is important. Public hospitals are cheap, but are like an open cattle call. Good luck if you don’t speak Chinese. For more comfort, visit private hospitals. They're much nicer, less crowded and have much better language support. You’ll understandably end up paying a premium for these. You have to sign up for some kind of insurance scheme, and you can shop around if your employer doesn’t automatically cover you. Doctors and pharmacists in public facilities probably don’t speak English.
- Conveniences in General – Services heavily regulated by the government in China (like banking) will really try your patience. Having said all that, China’s diversity in its expatriate population and its business friendly atmosphere make life even more convenient in a place like Shanghai. Everything you will ever need seems like it’s just a click away. Need groceries? Scratch that… need foreign groceries? There are several grocery chains that will deliver to your apartment with same day service. No going to the store, scratching your head at labels you can’t read or waiting in line. Just click and you’re done. Want to buy tickets for whatever cool event is happening? A couple of clicks and they’ll deliver them to your job or apartment. Hungry? There are different apps for that where you can order food in English. Need someone to clean your apartment? There are apps for that… just click on the day and time and they’ll show up to your house. Need a ride? Getting one is easy with apps like Uber or Didi…never stand outside waiting for a cab again. On a date and need wine fast? There’s an app for that too. Fresh bottle delivered ready to drink within an hour. Need to get something delivered to a friend (or stranger)? Call a delivery service… a guy on a bike will take whatever it is to the recipient. Don’t have cash? Just say it with me: WeChat and AliPay. WeChat seems like just another WhatsApp, but it is extremely powerful if you take advantage of what it has to offer. I hardly pay cash for anything these days. I just whip out my cell. Seoul has some conveniences too, but the difference is sharp and clear. As previously stated, in Korea the government is more likely to stifle innovation, and it’s more difficult for expats to set up shop. When Uber showed up they swiftly got rid of it, for example.
- Getting Around – Both countries have excellent public transportation systems. They have inexpensive taxis. They have buses and subway systems that make announcements in English. In both countries, the buses (and where they go) are more difficult to figure out when you’re new to the country. Once you’re familiar with the corresponding language, they have apps for that. Both countries have high speed trains services and airlines of course. However, in Korea the subway and trains are easier to figure out. The subway is also nicer and doesn’t get as crowded. Older people push, shove and elbow you to get in front, which is a common complaint among expats. In Korea, landmarks are used to get around. Trying to get around by address will confuse everyone--only the mailmen seem to know those. Their airlines are nicer and people queue up more. Incheon airport is consistently named among the best in the world. In China, subway trains get more crowded during rush hour, but not terribly so. When it comes to figuring out where you are, there is small learning curve. In China, they use street names, corners and addresses to get around. Chinese people push too, but after living in Korea they’re easier to handle. They also don’t queue up as much. Don’t be afraid to speak up if someone jumps in front of you. (Mainland) Chinese airlines are good enough for short trips. I would avoid them for longer flights, however. Also remember that China is bigger, so it takes longer to travel domestically.
- Being Refused Service – In Korea, sometimes establishments will refuse service to foreigners. These can be places like bars, clubs, bath houses, gyms, etc. This is relatively rare compared to the places that will serve you, but this is a thing and you’re likely to run into this issue yourself or have friends complaining about it. The reasons they do this never make sense by the way, so you’ll have to just deal with it. Perhaps this could happen in China too, but I’ve never seen this or heard anyone complaining about it. As stated above, as long as you’re friendly, patient and trying to communicate then Chinese folks will at least be willing to meet you halfway, language barriers be damned.
The local foods are very different than they are in the west. Both countries have good foods, and dishes that you’re not likely to eat. Yes, in both countries a small amount of people eat dog. Despite western media outlets focusing on dog eating, most locals in both countries prefer to keep them as cuddly pets. In China, the local population and the expat population is large and varied with different ethnic groups. As a result, Chinese food is much more diverse. That doesn’t mean you’ll like all of it, but there are more options to choose from. China has a wide array of street food, but you’ve probably heard of food safety issues. Many expats avoid it as a result and stick to restaurants with high standards. Food poisoning is a thing here and it sucks when it happens. In Korea, there is one ethnic group so they’ve got a smaller amount of dishes. However they have some good dishes and their BBQ is universally loved. There is good street food and it’s great to try it out! You don’t have to worry much about food safety there.
In both countries, shopping can be good or bad, but that depends on you. It depends on your clothing size or shoe size. As you may know already, Asian sizing runs small. I’m small, so shopping has been excellent for me in general. However if you are bigger you will have to do more digging or importing in order to find the things you need. In Korea they have good shopping districts with locally made clothes and shoes for cheap. The quality tends to be decent and the clothes trendy. You can also buy clothes and shoes online from Gmarket (in English). This is quite convenient and they deliver within the week. Aside from clothing, there are nice malls and shopping districts around. You can also utilize Gmarket to buy what you need. In general, people go out and buy stuff more in Korea. In China, most street markets don’t sell fashionable clothes that your typical expat would wear. They have all kinds of western brands represented in traditional brick and mortar stores, so you do have the option. If you’re bigger, you can buy from private sellers and specialty stores. Expats even enjoy taking advantage of fabric markets because you can get clothes tailor-made for good prices. I’ve seen amazing outfits put together this way. Aside from clothes, you can buy just about any damn thing from Taobao or Tmall. (Baopals is a service that helps you to shop from these websites with an English interface.) You know everything is made in China right? So anything you could possibly need can be found on those aforementioned websites. China might be huge, but delivery is quick! Very impressive. The amount of shopping that Chinese people do online is astronomical. So online shopping is taken very seriously, with special sales and holidays centered on clicking for items online. Get in on the action!
The housing systems are different. In China, you obtain housing by consulting with realtors, finding a place you like, and putting down about two months rent and one-two months security deposit. Then you pay the agent a commission. Now, is housing expensive or cheap? It depends on where you are. Housing is much more expensive in Beijing and Shanghai. In other places it is a LOT cheaper. The real advantage is that you have options. There is a range of housing prices. If you want to live in the hottest neighborhood in a swanky apartment—but can’t afford it—you can just rent a room. Realtors/landlords will show you around so you don’t have to already know people. If you want your own place, you can still have that too if you’re not rolling in the dough. Just search for housing outside of the party districts. I personally have affordable housing with brand new everything, in an apartment with rooms (i.e. not a studio). I’m still downtown, just not in a “cool” neighborhood. In Korea, the system is different than you might be used to. They use a key money system—basically you would need to pay thousands of dollars upfront to even get the chance to rent out your desired place. Most people heading out to Korea don’t have that kind of cash, so employers usually secure a place for you, or give you the needed key money. Employers are likely to put you up in a studio apartment.
Of course, there is racism in both places. This is a worldwide evil. So how does this affect teachers? It can make it easier for some teachers and harder for others to find work. But here’s the thing. Schools and academies that take academics seriously are going to be looking more at your qualifications. It tends to be smaller mom & pop setups or franchises that discriminate to satisfy ignorant parents. In China, you’ll see Russians (for example) teaching English when they can barely speak it themselves. In Korea, some folks aren't only looking at resumes, but are just looking for pictures of young white females. If you have the experience and qualifications, look for employment at serious institutions only.
Oh, and the government. Despite what I have written above, China is still a communist country and a one-party state. What does this mean for you? This can bleed into your daily life in ways (like running into blocked websites) but for the most part this isn’t an issue. Just stay away from certain topics that could anger the government, or you’ll get your E-zine or WeChat group shut down quickly and unexpectedly. Don’t be political and don’t mess around with government officials. They will put you in jail and you can say goodbye to life in China. I’ve seen this happen personally. Outside of that, they are pretty hands-off. So enjoy yourself! Western news outlets imply that local Chinese people are repressed. But it’s important to know that your typical Chinese person doesn’t see themselves that way. In their point of view, they have everything they need available in their own country. They’re not thinking about Google being blocked. Their standard of living has improved tremendously in a relatively short amount of time. So, Chinese people generally support the government and how their country operates. Understand that when interacting with Chinese people. You won’t make many local friends by being patronizing or paternalistic.
That’s it! Wow, that was long and exhausting! I hope this is informative and allows you to make a wise decision for yourself as you move abroad. If you’ve also lived in both countries, do you agree with this? Let me know.