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Teaching in Korea vs. China: Some Observations

December 16, 2009

As some of you know, I left Korea after four years and moved to China to enroll in a Chinese language program. After being in China a month, I began to teach English, both privately and at a Korean-run language school (hagwon). I’m going to highlight some of the differences between living and teaching in Korea and China.


In Korea, you can eat a meal as cheap as 4,000 won if you know where to go. More typical is 6 or 7,000 won. In China, I know where to get a basic meal for 5 yuan (1,000 won). More typical for me is a meal for 10-15 yuan (2-3,000 won), though. I rented an apartment in China. I had a room mate. We each had our own bedroom, we shared a kitchen and bathroom. We had a washing machine and air conditioning. Our rent was 1400 yuan a month (280,000 won), split two ways.  My half was 700 yuan (140,000 won) a month. The deposit was one month’s rent (no key money). I had to pay for six months all at once. Some places give you a discount if you pay for a year.


Working as an English teacher, you will see full time jobs advertised for as little as 5000 yuan (1 million won) a month. You will also see jobs in some cities for double that. I myself worked part time (2 hours a day, 5 days a week), but I made about as much as my room mate who worked full time (4-6 hours a day, 6 days a week). So it really varies. If I was teaching private lessons full time, I could have cleared 4 million won a month. That was not possible with my study schedule, and I didn’t come to China to work as an English teacher anyway, so I wasn’t really interested.

Visas and “the System”

In Korea, the Korean Immigration Service tightly regulates English teachers, actively seeking illegal teachers and deporting them. The Korean government also works hard to regulate the employers. As a result, teaching illegally in Korea is risky. Teachers who teach private lessons don’t advertise that fact. Teachers who apply for the proper visa go through a rigorous screening process, with criminal background checks, drug tests, etc.

In China, the government doesn’t regulate English teachers at all, sometimes not even following its own regulations on the local level. For example, foreigners have to register within 24 hours upon arrival to China. When I appeared at the police station to register, the cop on duty didn’t feel like dealing with me and told me to register when I got to the next city I was going on to, in 3 days. “But that’s not the regulation,” I said. “I don’t want to get in trouble.” I was told “not to worry about it,” and then told to leave.

Most foreigners teaching English in China should be on a Z-1 (foreign expert) visa. However, this visa is not easy for many schools to get. So it is common for schools to tell the government that the teacher in question is actually a student studying Mandarin Chinese at their school. They get the teacher an X (student) visa. Half the time the government knows what’s going on, but the owner of the school knows someone at the Public Security Bureau, and “its all good,” as they say. In fact, I know a school that outright sells visas to foreigners. You want to come to China and teach private lessons? For 4,000 yuan, they’ll get the government to issue you a one year student visa, as a student at their school. They don’t expect you to show up for classes. I’m guessing half the money you pay goes to a government official in the form of a bribe.

Now, the “working culture” related to visas and regulations in China is totally different than in Korea. Most teachers in China are technically working illegally. Many of them are on the wrong visa, either because of their school, or deliberately. When I say the working culture is different, I mean that there is no value judgment associated with working illegally, to the point that it isn’t seen as a crime–by teachers or police. Every bureaucratic process in China is circumvented one way or another, and this is another example. A friend of mine who works in a non-teaching position can’t for some reason get the right kind of visa, so her employer, who has a friend at the Public Security Bureau, takes her down there monthly to have her tourist visa extended. He goes in with her, then goes into the back room behind the counter with her passport, then comes out 30 minutes later with her new visa. They’ve been doing this for almost a year now. Another way that the working culture is different is that the government doesn’t really care about English teachers, and so they are not monitored. People advertise for openly private clients, and potential clients advertise for teachers at English bookstores and other places foreigners are known to congregate.

Foreigners One May Meet

I lived in Qingdao, which is on the coast, relatively close to Korea. I also spent a month living and working in Haining, which is a small city close to Hangzhou, in the south. In larger cities like Qingdao, it is not uncommon to meet other foreigners. Conversely, in Haining, I met just two or three foreigners not connected with my workplace, the entire time I was there. The foreigners you do meet may be much more diverse than in Korea. For example, when I saw a foreigner in Qingdao, my first question (if I choose to talk to him/her) was “Do you speak English?” because knowledge of English was not a reasonable assumption for any random foreigner there. I met scores of Europeans while I was there. Many do speak English, but not all. If you go to a club or bar that is frequented by foreigners in Qingdao, expect to hear English, French, German, Russian, and other languages spoken.

Another difference I noticed is that foreigners in China are there to do a lot more than teach English. 95% of the foreigners I met in Korea were English teachers or with the military. Not so in China. About half the ones I met were students while some were in business, and some were teaching. Very different mix. Also, it is more common to meet a foreigner who speaks the local language passably in China than in Korea. And not just people married to locals. My room mate in Qingdao was fluent in Mandarin and had been in the country just three years. There were several hundred students at the university I was enrolled in, studying Mandarin Chinese full-time. I assume there are several hundred more at the other university programs.

That concludes part one of my observations on the differences between living and teaching in Korea vs. China. If you have specific questions for part two, let me know and I’ll be sure to answer them.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2009 11:48 am

    Great post – I’d always wondered about the differences in terms of money.

    For your second part, I’d love to hear about perceived / actual discrimination – are you yelled at for cutting off the ajosshi otherwise blocking the subway? Are there any specific legalities foreigners need to watch out for? Just because the visa system isn’t well-regulated doesn’t mean some portions of life are. Does life get easier after awhile, or after you learn the language?

  2. Jacob in China permalink
    April 12, 2010 1:27 pm

    While this post is informative you have left out quite a bit:

    5 yuan meals aren’t normal and aren’t healthy to eat. With scores of stories being told of how both expensive and cheap restaurants alike are buying cooking oil fished from the sewer, it’s safe to assume that 5 yuan meal is much more expensive than you think. Which leads you to think about everything else you eat. The lead in the cups, plates and cooking ware. The drinking water having extremely unhealthy levels of metals in them (you can’t boil that out). Everything could be considered dangerous to eat. The milk being poisoned, fake liquor causing blood clots, and whatever makes people grow those things near their ears all are concerns to think about.

    Being cautious of eating out I usually cook at my apartment. For groceries I usually spend around 100 yuan every 2 weeks for cooking at home and when I eat out I spend around 20-50 yuan. If it’s a date expect to start paying around 100 yuan. Beer averages around 30 yuan a bottle at almost every bar. For clubs, expect it to be 30-50 yuan.

    I have a question about living in Korea. Do the locals stare at you? When I arrived even in a large city like Xian everyone stared at me. At first it felt as though my zipper was down or something like that. Then it got to the point I thought something was wrong if they weren’t staring. I was at a club last night and when a girl pulled me onto the dance floor everyone started cheering. It’s a great ego booster but sometimes may lead a person to act however they want and get away with it, as so many foreigners do in China.

    Personal life regulation: To foreigners, it feels as though we can do anything: Pee outside, carry an open bottle of beer outside, be publicly drunk, receive special treatment at restaurants, get VIP seats in a club and so on.

    How is life in Korea? Is it similar in this way to China?

    • April 12, 2010 4:07 pm

      The healthfulness of a 5 yuan meal is going to vary. I don’t think it is fair to say every meal that costs 5 yuan is unhealthy. The place I used to go for 5 yuan meals had lines that went around the block at lunchtime, so I also wouldn’t say it isn’t “normal.” It is obviously normal to all the people that used to line up every day. That place sold to the working class and middle class alike. Also, grocery expenses and restaurant expenses are going to vary widely depending on where you are, which I know you know, but am stating for the benefit of the other readers.

      Locals don’t stare so much in Seoul, and staring seems to be inversely proportional to the size of the city. I get a little in Busan and Daegu, a fair amount in medium size cities, and tons of it in small towns. Its really supply and demand. The more scarce we are, the more curious they are.

      I’d say a lot of foreigners in Korea do things they wouldn’t do back home, but certainly not all. We also get “special treatment” in Korea, but not usually the positive kind. I think the confusion and culture shock is similar. I think the way the Chinese and Korean governments operate and treat foreigners is very different. Also the way locals view foreigners in China and Korea is very VERY different.

  3. Collin permalink
    August 13, 2010 3:12 am

    Tony, could you elaborate on what you meant when you said locals view foreigners in China and Korea very VERY differently. What exactly are those views like in both countries? Positives and negatives?

    • August 13, 2010 12:14 pm

      There is a lot of negative opinion about foreigners in Korea. There is a stereotype that foreigners in Korea are either ignorant Southeast Asian factory workers or hookers, or White English teachers that are here primarily to spread their loose sexual morals (and diseases), do drugs, take money out of the country, or commit crimes. All these opinions are easily verified by reading local newspapers.

      There is very little of this in China. Foreigners are considered interesting by the Chinese, or as one Chinese friend of mine put it, “Foreigners are popular here!” There is little to no negative reporting of foreigners in the media. I saw little to no stereotyping of foreigners, either.

  4. March 2, 2011 6:13 pm

    CCP vs Korean Capitalism. I prefer Korea. In Korea they know your name. Your just not a number like CCP.

  5. Chris permalink
    May 9, 2011 3:40 am

    how does the salary compare to the cost of living in both countries. Or is there a balance for disposable funds?

    i.e. China has a lower living cost so the salary there balances out to the same as in korea as this is considerably higher living costs there

  6. Snow permalink
    June 6, 2013 9:24 am

    What is the comparison between Korea and China as it relates to how much is required for income taxes? What is the difference in CDC recommended travel vaccinations between S Korea and China? What is the difference between China and Korea as far as weather is concerned? What is the difference between China’s standard teachers housing units , and classrooms versus South Korea’s in terms of classroom and household heating and hot water regulation? Which is generally colder between China and S Korea, and for the longest period of time? How should teachers pack for weather related issues for each of the two countries? Which country between Korea and China is more likely to be recommended by the CDC for travel vaccinations such as Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, and the daily Anti-Malaria medications, which tend to have side effects such as a lot of stomach and digestion issues? I am asking because I have heard mixed opinions on these subjects.

  7. melanie permalink
    June 21, 2014 12:57 pm

    Interesting. I taught in Korea for four years and now I’m about to head to China in Sept (Hefei City) for ten months. I’m looking forward to teaching privates as I will only be paid 7000 RMB at my University.

    What is the best way to go about getting privates. Business cards? Making friends and then trying to teach their kids? Putting up flyers?

    Any thoughts about the differences in the food? I was never a huge fan of Korean food! I hope I enjoy Chinese food more.

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