South Korea vs. China: Which is better for ESL teachers?

Forgive me readers, forgive me, I have been remiss. The last time I posted was months ago and I don’t really have an excuse as I’ve been on vacation for the last two months (university teacher life: winning). Anyways, I’ll present no ridiculous and false excuses and simply say: I’m sorry, here’s a post.

Right now I’m in South Korea visiting old friends and basically enjoying the first world. Tomorrow I’ll fly back to Hong Kong and then take a bus over the border into mainland China where I’ll start my second year at a rural university teaching ESL and this time…. wait for it… ENGLISH LIT! Pretty awesome, huh? Well, I’ve been in South Korea for a month and the question that has been posed to me by almost everyone has been, Which do you like better? South Korea or China? 

A temple complex in South Korea

It’s an excellent question, but it’s not one easily answered because comparing two completely different countries like that isn’t simple, and to be honest, it’s not exactly fair. But since I’m in the (not exactly unique but somewhat unique) position of having taught in both countries, I’m going to try to answer it.

South Korea was the first country that I taught ESL in for an extended period of time (I did a short volunteer stint in Japan and was a tutor in Seattle). I came to South Korea in the fall of 2013 and stayed for one year, working at a little hagwon where I taught kindergarten and elementary school. To be honest, it probably took me between 7 and 8 months to really start to fall in love with Korea but the school I was placed in was somewhat of a nightmare, and I think this had a lot to do with that.

My little munchkins at my hagwon in South Korea. Working there was heaven, it was hell, it was anything but mundane.

In May 2014, I started applying to schools in Korea, China, and Japan. I knew that I wanted to either work for a university or a public school. China started responding to my resumes right away, offering me two university positions which were tempting, but it was the third offer that I couldn’t resist. Finally, I accepted a job teaching less than 20 hours a week in rural, jungle-like, sub-tropical humid China with a group of about 50 other foreign teachers. The job offer included great perks like 12-16 weeks of vacation a year, an apartment we could use for free in Hong Kong, and free flight reimbursement, and it paid leaps and bounds more than the other university jobs I was being offered at the time because of it’s rural location.

My first day in China, jet-lagged & exhausted, I ended up at a very rural hospital after I cut my hand on accident.

The doctor that stitched up my hand looked like he was 15, and there was most definitely blood smeared on the wall above that bed. I sat on that wooden stool by the window and held my hand over the yellow trash bin as the doctor stitched. The student who came with me almost threw up.

Who doesn’t love sunlit steaming baskets? A street stall at my campus, mostly the sell really greasy tofu and french fries.

So, in September 2014, I moved from South Korea to China and began teaching university there and it’s a decision that I’ll never regret, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been easy and it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t miss South Korea; in fact I’ve been back TWICE since I left.

Now, I could talk for hours about the differences between these two countries. But because I like lists and I know my readers probably do, too, I’ve written out a list of comparisons to sort of make things simple and shorter, if that’s even possible.

One of my classes at my university in China. I taught these guys for the whole year.

One of the biggest differences for me between South Korea and China has been the quality of amenities and just, life in general in China. Despite what Western news might be telling you about China, it still is very much a second-world country. Public bathrooms, for the most part in China, are unbelievable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a bathroom and have thought to myself, I could write a disgusting memoir based solely on the bathrooms of I’ve used here; I’d title it, “The Places You’ll Go”. But, the people in China make up for the state of the bathrooms. Chinese people are AMAZING hosts and my students are so strong, fierce, and curious about life in general that just thinking about them sometimes brings tears to my eyes.

South Korea, on the other hand, can at times feel really materialistic and sometimes vapid. There are of course many intelligent and curious folks in Korea, but there’s no denying that South Korean culture is very materialistic and this effects everyone there. I always tried to look my best 100% of the time that I was teaching and living in Korea because all the Korean women I knew always looked so flawless. That sort of perfectionism is draining. But the food, dang it, the food! Does the food and coffee culture make up for Korea’s rampant materialism? It’s hard to say….

A meal FOR ONE at a little restaurant on the very tip of the Korean peninsula.

Patbingsu- dessert shaved milk/ice. Probably one of my favorite things about South Korea. Excuse my sad face, I had no idea I’d be traveling back to Korea to see my Korean teacher in absolutely no time.

Waffles at almost every coffee house in Korea.

Coffee houses everywhere in Korea. Not all of them do latte art, though.

닭갈비 or duk-galbi- spicy chicken stir-fry. One of my favorite meals in Korea. I’ve learned how to make this now so I can have it in China but… it’s not the same as having SOMEONE ELSE COOK IT FOR YOU.

Another factor to consider when you’re thinking about these countries is that they draw different crowds in terms of expats. Of course, I can’t speak for the WHOLE of China, as I’ve only had experience in one small slice of the country. But for the most part, I believe that China’s looser rules regarding visas and the fact that they’ll hire older people, make for a more diverse community among expats in China when you compare that to South Korea.

A huge majority of teachers in South Korea are very young and very inexperienced. Blame this on the fact that it’s no secret that South Korean schools are extremely superficial with how they hire teachers. The younger you are, the prettier you are, the more stereotypically white you are, the better chances you have of getting a good job in South Korea. Now, China’s not immune to this kind of behavior but I don’t think the problem is nearly as rampant as it is in South Korea. As a result, and I hate to say this but I’ve often felt and have friends who’ve agreed with me when I’ve said that South Korea’s expat population feels like it has a huge Neverland-complex.
Teachers come to South Korea, and it’s easy to eschew growing up and being responsible for partying and living paycheck to paycheck. South Korea is often a temporary stop-over for kids in their 20’s who are looking to escape their parent’s basement and bide their time until something better comes along. As someone who is a career-teacher, I came to Asia not as a stop-off on my way to adulthood, but as serious career choice because I love teaching. Being around people who don’t take their position as teachers seriously can be really annoying.

Traveling around China with amazing Chinese hosts and cool teacher friends.

In contrast, China jobs pay a little less on the whole and the lifestyle there in general is less cushy. I feel like, as a result of this, China draws more teachers who are genuinely interested in teaching and in Asian culture, and not just an easy job with good pay. But of course, I’m painting broad brushstrokes here and really generalizing things. You can find both sorts of people in both countries, and indeed, sometimes they inhabit the same body. We’re all changing and evolving people and our motivations and our lifestyles vary from year to year.

So which country is better for ESL teachers? Isn’t that the question I set out to answer here? The answer of course is that it depends on what you’re looking for and also what you can handle. China is a much dirtier, grittier, more challenging place to live than South Korea; but it’s also over 96 times as big as South Korea.

For me, I plan on being in China for at least another year. I have an opportunity there now to teach English literature at a university level and that’s seriously a dream come true for me. I couldn’t have landed a job like this in South Korea, where you need to have an MA to even get a bottom level ESL university job. Right now, I’m planning on eventually returning to South Korea with an MA to teach university. Despite my love for China, my love for the first world and abundant coffee houses is greater, and at the moment, I don’t see myself settling down there.
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This post only scratches the surface of the differences between these countries. Of course which part of the country you live in will also play an important factor. I live in a really hot, sub-tropical part of China where we get no autumn; no changing leaves, no scarves, no pumpkin spice latte. I would be lying to myself and the world if I said that this hasn’t had serious consequences on my psyche. Also, I live in a rural area, which also affects things. In the end, only you can make the decision for yourself, but I hope this post helps a little.


2 thoughts on “South Korea vs. China: Which is better for ESL teachers?

  1. This is a great comparison. I’m currently teaching English in Spain as an auxiliar de conversacion, and I love it here. But I’ve never been to Asia, so perhaps after one more year in Spain, I’ll head out that way. I’ll probably go with China just because learning the language will be beneficial, but you’ve given me a lot to consider!

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