I know a thing or two about teaching English in Asia. After all, it was an ESL gig in Shanghai over a decade ago that allowed me to level up into the lifestyle I now enjoy.
More about that—and me—in a second. The purpose of this post, to be sure, is to help you decide if teaching (and, more broadly), living in Asia is right for you.
Whether you’ve considered teaching English in Korea at the recommendation of a friend, or are coming here without much of an opinion either way, I think you’ll find the next few paragraphs valuable. Certainly, teaching English abroad is a great way to ride out the Covid crisis!
My Past as an English Teacher in China
Teaching English in Asia quite literally changed my life. It began in November 2009, when I flew to Shanghai after nearly a year on unemployment benefits—I had been a casualty of the Great Recession, for those of you old enough to remember it. Although I was reasonably good at my job (I taught adults, which made it a lot easier), I knew it was a means and not an end. Doing so allowed me not only to survive the financial crisis, but to vault out of it into a much better position.
If you’re considering teaching English overseas now, whether to escape outbreaks of Covid-19 in your home country or the economic ruin they’ve left in their wake, my advice is simple: Do it. Don’t look back, but don’t rest on your laurels either. Part of the reason I was able to parlay an ESL gig into a popular travel blog after just eight months in China was that I used my off days to built my resume (and discipline) as a writer. Whatever your desired next step is, work toward it when others are sleeping.
Popular Asia Destinations for English Teachers
I can tell you, from experience, that teaching English in China is a double-edged sword. This was true, even before the Communist nation unleashed the Wuhan Coronavirus on the world, imprisoned Uighur Muslims in concentration camps and reneged on its promises to Hong Kong. If you do decide to teach in China anyway, move to a major city—and install a VPN!
Korea is probably the most popular destination for teaching English in Asia, and with good reason. Schools here pay well and generally provide housing for you; South Korea is an ultra-modern, vibrant democracy with amazing food and lots of interesting travel opportunities. On the other hand, locals can be famously chilly with foreigners, so prepare for that.
Teaching English in Japan is more difficult than in any other countries, as it’s generally restricted to participants in what is known as The JET Programme. Acceptance JET is notoriously difficult, and was even before Covid-19. The program is on hold as of August 2020; I imagine it will be even more competitive when it opens up. Read more about traveling in Japan.
Taiwan, as is the case with travel more broadly, is not an extremely popular destination for teaching English in Asia. However, this country is underrated for a number of reasons. While you won’t enjoy as high a salary as you would in Japan, Korea or even China, the cost of living here is much lower. Additionally, Taiwan is a much livelier country that its East Asian neighbors.
Teaching English in Thailand is a dream to many people, though mostly because of the “Thailand” part and not the teaching or working bit. To be sure, whether you teach in Thailand or Vietnam (or less popular choices like Indonesia or Myanmar), you will need to contend with very low salaries and unprofessional or even unstable work environments as a price for living in paradise.
FAQs About Teaching English in Asia
How much do English teachers make in Asia?
Teaching English in Asia is lucrative by the standards of most Asian countries, but you won’t be rolling in dough. When I lived in Shanghai in 2009, for example, I earned 12,800 RMB per month, which was around $2,000 at the time. Salaries in Korea and Japan tend to be a bit higher; in Southeast Asia and Taiwan you’ll get paid a bit less. Generally speaking, jobs that offer “free” housing pay you less a a result.
Can you teach English in Asia without a degree?
Most ESL jobs in Asia require a degree (and that you be a native speaker), but this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Well, at least not if you want to do it the “legit” way. From China, to Thailand, to Vietnam, schools of—shall we say—questionable quality will employ foreigners without a degree, if you’re willing to jump through a few hoops and work for less. You also run the risk of turning up to work one day and the school being gone. Asia gonna Asia!
Which countries pay teachers the most in Asia?
As I referenced above, the ESL salary in Korea tends to be the best in Asia, second perhaps to Japan; you can expect to earn between $2,500-3,000 per month as an entry-level English teacher. With this being said, it’s not about how much you get paid, but how much you can keep. A gig in a cheaper country that pays less could end up being more lucrative, depending on how you manage your cost of living.
Which is the best country to teach English in?
This is very subjective. While teaching English in Indonesia might not be so different, in the classroom, from teaching English in Indochina, your decision is about more than your job or your pay. It’s about the country and city where you’re going to have to build your life, not to mention the people who end up being your colleagues (and your students, although this is more relevant if they’re adults). A more objective answer is that people seem to really like South Korea (and Japan, if you can get a job there).
Let Someone Else Sweat the Details
It’s easy enough to find a job teaching English overseas. But when it comes to the nitty gritty of getting your butt over to Asia (not mention, vetting a given school to make sure it’s a legit place to be for a year or longer), you don’t want to take any chances. Becoming an English teacher can change your life for the better if you play your cards right. If you don’t, it’s easy to see how things could get worse.
The Bottom Line
Teaching English in Asia isn’t for everyone, but you can make it work for you. I certainly did: Eight months of teaching English in Shanghai allowed me to create the life I’ve always dreamed of, but never could’ve manifested in my home country. Regardless of your long-term goals, I hope (and trust) this post has helped you address short-term matters, such as where in Asia you might want to seek out jobs—and, more fundamentally, whether you should go at all. If you still have questions, please feel free to leave a comment!