Show Me the Money!
By Paul Gaasenbeek
Is coming here to Korea to teach a good choice for you or not? Before you even think about coming here I suggest humbly that you ask yourself, “Why would I want to go to work and live in Korea? Is it for money, for an interesting kimche experience, or is it to get away from someone or something back home?” Not knowing the answer to this question is like picking a major to study at university using a roulette wheel and a square cube. Know why it is you are thinking about coming here… and if it is for the money…here is what you need to know:
When I first arrived in Korea in 2002, two million WON (WON is the Korean currency and this was a normal starting wage), after the exchange, was worth around two thousand five hundred Canadian dollars. Now, the same two million (which is about what you would get paid per month still) is worth around one thousand eight hundred. Perhaps $1800 a month is good for people-especially those just getting out of university- so coming here may be a good option for you? I do not know if this is the case or not so let us look into making money here in Korea a little deeper as I do know about this.
There are many different routes one can go when coming to teach here in Korea. You could teach at a public school, a private school or perhaps even a university-if you have at least a master’s degree or are in fact a real teacher back home. But most people only end up teaching at universities after being here for some time, meaning a few years, so, I will only look at the first two options.
I will say, as an aside, I work at a university now and it is definitely the way to go as far as jobs go, but it took me a few years of working and networking to land my current job. Things are not different here in one respect and that is it never hurts to know the right people. This universal truism may be even more applicable here than back home. The pay at a university, however, is, perhaps surprisingly to you, actually less than you can make at a public school or `hagwon’ (private institution or school in Korean). Two advantages of teaching at a university, though, are you work about half the amount of time you would at any other type of school, plus you get five months off a year. So, without a doubt, university gigs are still the best kind of teaching job you can get here. If you plan on staying here for a while, keep this in the back of your mind, do your homework and when the time is right, make your move.
Anyway, teaching at a public school sounds great to some, but if you are here to make money, taking this route could leave you feeling tired and poor and here is why. Working at a public school usually means you are working from nine to five on average. This also means you are up early and home around dinner time every day. This may seem okay to you but the only way one can make money here is if you get other work on the side. This is illegal (sometimes) but just about everyone does it if they can. People pick up other morning jobs teaching at schools for kindergarten kids or at other private schools in the afternoons to make extra money. The problem with trying to pick up part time jobs at private schools is most start around two or three in the afternoon, so you are out of luck if you are finishing at five.
Generally speaking, those working at public schools do not have the time or energy to work else where, so you are looking at making around two thousand a month if you come and that is it (some schools do pay a little more but I have already factored that in to my $2000 a month total). Yes, your apartment is paid for as is your airfare, but is teaching in Korea is not what it used to be regarding the amount of money you can make and save, so be prepared for that. You can save around one thousand Canadian dollars a month working at one school if you live within your means (no shopping at Channel and so on). You can still afford to go out, eat, and have fun with friends, but you used to be able to save more doing the exact same job someone else did a few years ago.
Now, if you decide to work for a private school, one thing to look for is what times your classes start and finish. This is important for those looking to try and make extra money on the side as some schools start classes in the morning and then run all day while others just begin in the afternoon. That said, I will only talk about the schools (which is most common anyway) that start their daily mayhem in the afternoon. If the school you did work at had you teaching kindergarten in the morning and then elementary students in the afternoon, you would be working similar hours as a public school teacher, so the same problems would arise for you as for public school teachers. So, never take jobs that run all day long as they pay too little and just run you down. Stay away from the all day hagwon!).
You could work at a school in the afternoon that runs from three until nine or ten. With this type of job and situation, many people, if they want to try and make extra money, would take a morning kindergarten job on the side or an early morning job teaching at a company. This is legal if your school allows you to work there (a second job). You can ask the school for permission to do so and if they say it is okay, you can get a joint E2 working visa. However, most do not get the permission and just work illegally (getting caught teaching without a proper visa usually gets you deported but it is like the Wild West out here-anything goes). You can make decent money this way, though.
Most who come here to make money do work two or more jobs illegally. With these (illegal) jobs it is usually cash in hand so you pay no taxes on what ever your wage is. One great thing about Korea is the national tax rate is only around 4% anyway, so that is good, but, do not get too excited as there is another problem here other than the poor exchange rate and that is, INFLATION.
Inflation here is one of the highest of all OECD countries. Loaves of bread that used to cost 600WON (like 60 cents) are now more than double that. Yoghurt used to be four for about 800WON but now those same four cups of dairy are over 2000WON. Bunches of bananas will run you a few dollars on a cheap day. Get the picture? And while this is happening, the wages have actually stayed about the same since 2002 (up about 2000000WON but this is all lost and more due to the exchange rate, the bills you pay to heat your home, inflation, getting around town and so on). So, now, when you factor the inflation in, your take home pay is much, much less than it used to be, and when you think about your take home pay ( ie: back to Canada) what you have saved also takes a beating.
One final dagger is, if you decide to pay taxes on your income here back in Canada. You can file for non-residency status, which allows you to keep what you have made, but most people just do not claim it. Canada does not have access to your banking records here in Korea so this is generally safe. Now, if this is okay for you, come to Korea. If working legally is something that is important to you, and making less than $2000 a month is acceptable, then come on down.
There are always pros and cons to everything. I am sure some are wondering what I am doing here if things are not as good as they used to be, which is a fair question, so I will answer that for you. In all honesty, I would not still be here if I had not met my current wife. Being married to a Korean gives me a different kind if visa-one that allows me to work where I want and as much as I want. I do not have to sign one year contracts or anything like that. I am totally free here now. I still would have come of course as I thought at the time it was a good idea, I just would not still be here-which of course is the same for most teachers who come.
Leaving your home is always a good experience and I would not put a price on that. What better way to gain amazing memories is there than going to live in a country very different from your own, playing with kids to make money, and hopping over to places like China, Thailand and so on with ease. I mean, those living in Toronto or Halifax, are you really going to fly all the way to Asia for a vacation or are you going to Europe or down south? I love the fact that I came here. I wish the exchange rate was better, but if this is my one complaint, well, life must be pretty good then.
So do your homework (where you live and the school you work for can make or break your year). Pack your bags and come for a wonderful experience you can’t find with any job back home and save money at the same time. The money may not be as much as it used to but when you factor in what you are doing here (literally playing with kids which is what I plan on talking about in my next article-day to day life in schools) I think the experience gained outweighs losing a few bucks that you never know existed. I mentioned all of this-the money issue-because I came here expecting to make at least $2500 as my friend was already here and he told me to expect as much. Schools have seminars back home (come to Korea to teach…) and I was told by one new recruit here that they were still saying you can make over $2000 a month so that is why I though it was prudent of me to talk about money. Too much information or just a different view is never a bad thing.
Anyway, until next time-and I am hoping it will be sooner than later this time, teach well and have fun! I hope to see you soon!