I’m no longer tutoring on the side. The demise of the relationship between me and the tutoring center, which shall remain nameless, was drawn out and painful.
My contact at the tutoring center, who we’ll call L, originally found me on LinkedIn after I moved to China. I met her in a cafe on campus (with Andy discreetly nearby, just in case), and we worked out my first contract, which was with C, a lovely 9-year-old who, I would later learn, just couldn’t sit still for any of her tutors.
You may remember me describing C in a blog post from January. By that point, I had three tutees: C (age 9), R (age 37), and P (age 14). Later on I lost P because she passed her exam to go to school in the U.S. and her parents didn’t want to continue tutoring (sad face), and R got too busy to meet. I had picked up additional clients–H and A (brothers; ages 10 and 6) and Y (age 4; C’s cousin)–and had been begged to take on more students, but I adamantly declined. (I was afraid to take on too much. Turns out, I had already taken on too much.) Total, I was tutoring between 6-8 hours a week in addition to my normal teaching workload, a flagging social life, and trying to keep up with friends and family in time zones at least 12 hours away.
Back in April, I received bad news about family back home and it triggered a depression. We had just moved to a new apartment, so I was reconfiguring my daily routine. I was in the middle of a crazy, life-sucking semester, and I could barely keep up. My physical, emotional, and mental health were all out of control. Before Easter, I met with a therapist and we talked about me taking a break from tutoring to take care of myself.
I wrote a formal email to L asking for a few weeks away from tutoring, but her response was unsettling. She made a very big deal about me taking time off. She insisted I meet with my students and their parents to say why I was taking a break (which, to me, was none of their business). Because I wanted the tutoring off my plate with as little fuss as possible, I complied. I told the kids I would come back.
The relief was palpable. I didn’t have as much running around to do. I spent more time with Andy, more time at the gym, and less time worrying.
But each week I was off, L contacted me via WeChat. She started off by asking how I was doing, which was fine. But if I answered honestly–that I was struggling and feeling badly–she chided me to improve my mood. It felt like she was telling me I could just think myself out of depression. That if I just stopped thinking about my very sick grandparents that I would feel better. That if I just returned to tutoring and put on a happy face, all would be well.
I know better than that.
She kept asking when I was coming back. I said June, after I was done teaching at the university. She persistently asked why I couldn’t return sooner. I started ignoring her messages because when I read them I felt like I was doing something wrong when I knew I wasn’t. It was her persistent nagging that invented, or augmented, my anxiety.
One day when I received a WeChat message from her, it hit me that I hadn’t been paid for the time I worked in March or April. The contracts state that payday is each month for the prior month worked. I should’ve been paid in April, despite taking leave, for work done in March. And I should’ve been paid in May, despite taking leave, for work done in April. But it seems they were content to leave me unpaid.
I should point out that the extra cash from tutoring was never a main source of income, but rather a nicety to give me and Andy some flexibility. That I didn’t notice being unpaid wasn’t really surprising, considering everything else going on, but the total owed to me was ¥3500 or a little over $500.
So I messaged L back asking for payment for March and April. I was kind about it, assuming they had just forgotten to pay me since I wasn’t in the tutoring center each week as I had been in the past. She wrote back saying that they were holding my payment until I returned to tutoring. So not paying me was planned?
First I was confused, then I was livid. Why would they hold payment for hours I already worked? The parents had paid them, I had worked, so now it was time to pay me. It was the beginning of June and here I was asking to be paid for hours I worked in March and April… why wouldn’t they just pay me like normal?
I asked, and I was told that they were holding my payment because they had had a bad experience with another foreign tutor who took money for time he *hadn’t* worked and then never came back. (One bad apple…)
I reminded her that I intended to return, that I am trustworthy and upstanding and had given them no reason to believe otherwise, and that I was rightfully due to be paid according to the contract. Unlike the situation with the other person, I had actually WORKED already.
She said their accounting people would not pay me until I returned.
After much yelling and angry reading of contracts, I decided to write my resignation. I emailed it to L, later receiving capricious WeChat messages begging me not to quit. She said they would pay for taxis to transport me to and from the center now that I had moved farther away. She said the children would miss me. She said I was their best tutor. She reminded me that I said I would return in just a few weeks. Why did it matter if I wouldn’t be paid until then?
(Oh, I don’t know, principles of honesty, perhaps? Following your own written rules?)
Her sycophantic mashup wasn’t swaying me. I didn’t respond. I had resigned–that was final. Later that week, I received an email from an accounts person in reply to my resignation. She gave an explanation for not paying me, wrote a revised clause of the contract stating that they would henceforth hold a deposit of ¥400 (~$50) for foreign teachers to ensure they kept their promises, and asked me to please return to tutor.
I drafted another resignation letter, responding to the revised clause by stating that I would not abide by a contract I didn’t sign, that the original contract was voided because they had failed to pay me on time by the terms of the contract, and that, no, I would not be returning to tutor. (Did they really think I’d reconsider? I don’t write resignations flippantly…)
WeChat messages poured in. When I ignored them, I got text messages. When I ignored them, I got phone calls. It was bordering on harassment because I truly considered changing my phone number… She was begging me to meet her in the cafe like we had when we first met so we could talk about the “misunderstanding.”
I resigned twice. In one week. I don’t think that’s a misunderstanding.
Basically I cut my losses. It’s a sizable loss: $516.09 based on today’s exchange rate. That’s half of an airline ticket home. That’s an entire month’s worth of food. But I decided that resigning was probably the better choice. Fighting for the money I earned would have led me nowhere–I have zero rights as a foreigner. There is no “better business bureau.” The laws they have here change all the time, and the layers upon layers of systematic bureaucracy would’ve had me chasing ghosts of justice.
(Remember all the hoops I jumped through to get the work visa? That’s when a Chinese company actually offered me a job and wanted me here… I can’t imagine trying to work through the caverns of their legal system when I’m the one who has been wronged and they don’t want me to be right.)
I still get angry about this. I worked. I worked honestly and faithfully. I was not paid for work I did. I’m also angry that the kids I was teaching are the ones who really get the short end of the stick. They didn’t do anything wrong. Their parents paid the tutoring center, who was supposed to pay me, and the tutoring center didn’t keep up their end of the contract or communicate about any policies that affected on-time payment. The kids lose and I lose. But I’m standing with my principles. If I didn’t, I would lose whatever credibility or strength I have in their eyes.