Teaching in Korea vs. China: Some Observations
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.