Teaching in a foreign country can be a fun and rewarding experience, if you are prepared. In some places you can earn a lot, but the cost of living is high. In China you won’t earn much, but it is a fascinating place to live. While I have only lived in Taiwan and China, I have friends who have worked in Korea and Japan. I will try to present the facts of what I have learned. Try to remember, though, that your experience may be different.
In Japan, the base pay is around US$2,000 a month. Not bad, but not as good as Korea. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be as many jobs available here as in the other three countries. Another downside is that Japan is one of the most expensive places in the world to live. You will be able to save more by living in small cities, but that choice might not be appealing to many. Also, Japan is a very group-oriented society. From what I’ve been told, this makes it difficult to make friends with local people. It is also difficult to find a place to live. Deposits on apartments are incredibly high, so often schools rent an apartment for their teachers. That means if you don’t want to be homeless you have to keep your job no matter how bad it is. The pollution is terrible there.
I’ve known several people who escaped from Korea to come to China or Taiwan. I’ve never heard of anyone who had a good experience there. I’m sure many have, but there are lots of problems. Many schools are here today, gone tomorrow (and your last month’s salary with them). ESL teaching is a big business, but not everyone has what it takes to stay in business. Just as in Japan, apartment deposits are high, equal to a years rent last I heard. No matter how bad your job is, it’s hard to quit. I’ve known of several teachers who ended up in bad situations because of this. You can earn up to US$2,500 per month. The cost of living is high, but not as high as Japan. Also like Japan, Korea is group-oriented and can be a hard place to get integrated into. On the plus side, there are probably more jobs to be had in Korea than any of the other three countries.
China is vast and amazing place. The cost of living is very low, but so are the salaries. In China you have two choices, public or private schools. In a public school or university, you will probably live on campus and work around 18 hours per week. You’ll make around US$625 a month. In a private school you’ll work about 25 hours or more and earn up to US$900. You can supplement this with tutoring, but you’ll never get rich here. No one goes to China for the money, though. They go just to live in China. In China you will have two or more long holidays, as long as a week at private schools and three in public ones, to travel throughout the country. Bus and train service within and between cities are convenient and well run. Conditions in schools vary, but many are not well organized. It’s good if you get a TEFL certificate before you go so you’ll know what to do once you get in a classroom. China is group-oriented as many Asian countries are, but as long as you are a decent person it’s not hard to find your way into a group. Because there are so few foreigners in many cities many people, maybe too many, will try to make friends with you. Some schools are not well run. I once worked for a bad private school there, but even after quitting my salary was not withheld. If you’re not working for the money, government run schools are the best choices. Everything is taken care of, and they consider you part of the community. A private school will probably also provide an apartment for you. It is difficult for a foreign teacher to rent their own apartment as most places are not allowed to have foreign occupants. The weather in China varies widely with the place, but it can be extreme in parts. Many homes have only minimal heating and cooling. There are usually no political problems for those who do not make trouble. Pollution is bad all over.
Salaries for foreign teachers are, on average, about US$2,000 per month. The cost of living is quite low for an advanced economy. Living in the capital can be expensive, but the subways run into the suburbs where rents are cheap. I paid less than $300 a month for my share of a large 3-bedroom house. Public transportation is quick and convenient. Taiwan is small and doesn’t have the travel options China has, but there’s still a lot to see and it has easy access to other Asian countries. Chinese culture dominates Taiwan, so becoming part of the community is about the same here as in China. If anything, it is easier because Taiwan has more exposure to the west and foreigners are less a curiosity. There are bad schools, but it’s not hard to find a good one. You’ll likely work for a private school, and most have lesson plans that are idiot-proof. Schools generally do not provide housing. Renting an apartment is easy, and most renters will only ask for a two month deposit. Pollution is not very bad. The worst thing about Taiwan is the weather. It rains frequently, it is always humid, and in the summer it is blisteringly hot. Most places are air-conditioned though.
Whichever country you prefer, research it thoroughly before you get on the plane. Preparation will mean the difference between a memorable trip and a long nightmare.
Please have a look through my other articles for information about finding a job in Taiwan, going on an interview, doing a teaching demo, teaching theory, and classroom activities.