Teaching in Korea or Taiwan: Which is better?
Every year, thousands of recent grads, experienced ESL teachers, and others looking for a fresh challenge take to the web to decide where to teach English . To the inexperienced, teaching in Korea or Taiwan may seem very similar with salaries and conditions not so different from each other. They’re both small, developed and very liveable Asian countries. So, it may seem like the choice is an insignificant one. But actually once you’ve lived in both, you’ll see huge differences between them and picking the right one for you might just mean the difference between a very good or very bad year abroad. In trying to decide which is right for you, you’ll need to consider not just your short term aims but also your long term goals and plans, as well as your personality type and how you want your social life to be. So, let’s get to it.
Teaching in Korea or Taiwan
Convenience vs. Control
The biggest and perhaps most obvious difference between teaching in Korea or Taiwan is that when you teach ESL in Korea, everything is taken care of for you. The process will likely go like this: you’ll receive a job offer while in your native country and process your visa there; your flights will be paid for by your school or you will get reimbursed when you arrive; you’ll get given a free furnished apartment, which will be close to your school; and your school will sort out all the documents you need to get your alien card (temporary residents card). Easy.
By contrast, Taiwanese schools rarely pay for flights nor do they help you with your visa, although this is simple to do within the country; some find their job while in their native country, but many go to Taiwan first and then go job hunting; and you have to find your own apartment, which means having a bit of cash available for the deposit. Sounds bad? Well, there’s an advantage to all of this—it gives you total control over your situation. For example, you can check out a school in person before deciding to work there, and you can choose where you want to live.
Salary vs. Vacation
Salary and vacation are also very different in the two countries and a big factor when deciding whether to teach in Korea or Taiwan.
In Korea, you generally get paid a set monthly salary for teaching up to 30 hours per week. Of course, this varies between different types of jobs; academy ESL teachers will likely work somewhere between 25 to 30 hours per week, while public school ESL teachers will work around 22 hours. Again, vacation varies depending on the type of job you get—but it will likely range from 10 to 25 days, as well as public holidays. All ESL teachers get a severance bonus equalling one month’s salary at the end of their contracts. This is a great incentive for staying the whole year.
On the other hand, Taiwanese schools usually pay an hourly rate. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect to be overworked unless you choose to be. However, in some cases the reverse may be true—you could find yourself with not enough hours and unable to save as much as you’d expected. You’ll generally get more vacation time, but with the exception of national holidays, it will be unpaid.
Even something as simple as the weather could make a big difference to your enjoyment and be a deciding factor for many ESL teachers. Korea experiences four distinct seasons, two of which are pretty extreme. For a Brit, I found winters to be almost intolerably cold, while summers are very hot. I got sunburnt a lot! Spring and Autumn are the best seasons.
Taiwan, being a tropical island, has a very different climate. The winters are very mild so you can often walk around in a T-shirt or sweater; spring and autumn feel like a typical British summer; and summer feels like you’re living in a jungle with intense heat and humidity.
So, while the former has a lot of variation, the latter feels like one long holiday in the sun, which is great for weekends but isn’t always pleasant for working in.
Types of ESL Teachers
Now for some nuanced analysis, the kind of things you only notice at the very end. So on average, I found the typical foreign teacher in Taiwan to be more relaxed and outgoing. They generally seem more at ease in life and take on the laid back vibe of the local people they work with. In many cases they’ve stopped reading the news; what matters to them now is on which beach or mountain they will drink this weekend and who will be there. In the case of short-termers, they’re just there to have a good time. For the lifers, they’ve managed to make this their whole lifestyle—it’s no longer a phase to grow out of, it’s who they are now.
By contrast, Korea offers a lifestyle similar to that found in most major western cities, only more convenient, affordable, and liveable. ESL teachers can eat out most nights and watch every good movie at the cinema. It’s a more professional place to be, so they generally work hard but still have time to socialise over a Korean BBQ or a beer. Korea for many is a place you go for a period of time; you’re likely saving for a Master’s degree or paying off debts or looking to buy a car back home. Basically, Korea is often a journey to a better destination. I noticed that teachers in Korea were generally more ambitious. Many either take teaching seriously or have bigger plans for the years ahead.
This opinion piece is by Jonathan Paul. Jon, a veteran in the field of TESOL, has spent the past several years teaching English in England, Korea, and Taiwan. Here he hopes to help new ESL teachers by comparing and contrasting his experiences in Korea and Taiwan.