Family of dead Hangzhou ESL teacher desperate for help getting their son’s body home

41 Comments
Distractions

I’m betting most of us haven’t thought twice about what would happen if we shuffled off our mortal coil while living as laowai here in China. Unfortunately, tragedy happens here as anywhere, and this is the situation that David Woolman’s family is now forced into dealing with — from thousands of kilometres away.

The 23-year-old from Nevada was teaching English in China up until his death about two weeks ago. None of the reports seem to have much detail in the circumstances surrounding his death, other than to say he fell off a roof.

The story hits home for me a bit as David was working for a DD Dragon English school when he died, and I also worked for one of the franchise schools in Suzhou a number of years ago. DD Dragon’s getting raked through the coals a bit, as the company has not offered to assist at all with the massive cost (nearly $13K USD) of getting David’s body home to the US for burial in the family plot.

According to this article:

The family wants to bury Woolman in the family plot. But they face the cost of getting his body from China to Nevada – $12,818 – and raising the funds to do so within the next seven days.

“In my desperation, I am asking that instead of sending flowers that a donation be made so that we can bring my son home and give him a proper burial,” Grell said. “The American Embassy in China has informed me that the sands of time are falling quickly to retrieve his body before China disposes of it.”

Garcia said the family was told by the U.S. State Department that it can request an extension on holding the body in China for up to two months; however, that comes with a $50 per day cost. If the fee isn’t paid, the Chinese government will destroy the body.

The family is doing all they can to raise money to bring their son home, and time is running thin. A small ray of hope in the form of this recent update from David’s father, on the Facebook page setup to raise funds, indicates that American Airlines may be stepping in to lend some assistance.

Until then though, it appears they are relying on the kindness of friends, family and strangers.

If you are interested in helping David’s family raise the $12,818 USD before the March 16th deadline, please refer to the following information:

To send contributions via paypal

https://www.paypal.com/

“Send Money” in the center tab

Their is an account set up at WELLS FARGO BANK. It is under Deborah Payne (grandmother) for David Woolman. The account number is: 6888140321.

The email that goes in the “to” line is slow50@hotmail.com – Walter Woolman (father)

You can also send a check to:
Walter Woolman
4213 Crater st
Las Vegas, NV 89122.

What do you all think — does DD Dragon have a responsibility to help with the cost? Should ESL teacher contracts include a stipulation for insurance covering this sort of thing? Should David and his family been better prepared for this possibility? Are you?

Talk on Family of dead Hangzhou ESL teacher desperate for help getting their son’s body home


41 Comments
  1. I’m really amazed at the actions of DD Dragon in dealing with this situation.I’ll be sure to spread the word online and here in Shanghai about what a bunch of scum they are. My condolences to David’s family.

  2. I believe the issue here is not whether the school should be responsible for assisting with sharing in the cost of returning David’s body but in the sordid way they have handled themselves after David Woolman’s tragic death. These are the questions I would like see answered by DD Dragon:

    1) Why did the school not notify his family in the first place until a Chinese family friend contacted them about this 8 days after his death?

    2) Why did they not offer to send his final paycheck until asked?

    3) Still has not forwarded a copy of his employment contract even after agreeing repeatedly to do such

    4) Why hasn’t Vivian Chang, their US-based owner, contacted the family directly to offer condolences?

    Sounds as if the school does have something to hide or does not want to part with the payout from an insurance policy on their late employee.

  3. This is also a good reminder to all the young ESL teachers that living in a foreign country brings certain risks, and that you should have a will prepared in case of such unfortunate events.

    It should include specific information about your Chinese bank accounts (there may already be a few thousand dollars in his account that could help cover the costs), your wishes in regard to what is to be done with your body (you can be sent home whole, sent home cremated, buried in China which is difficult and expensive, cremated and scattered here…), and other requests.

    Hopefully this family will manage to get their son home.

  4. I don’t think the school is at fault here. Being transported half-way around the world to be buried in “the family plot” is a luxury, not a necessity.

    In my own family for example, there are two family plots, or rather there were. It’s true that those locations retain some sombre significance for me when I visit, but I know that I will not be joining them when my time is up. The plots are are full. I could no doubt start another plot somewhere, but they come at a high price, and it doesn’t really seem worth it.

    My granny was recently cremated rather than buried for just such a reason. My grandpa isn’t rich, and in typically frugal Scottish style he was insistent that he didn’t want to pass the cost of buying a plot onto my parents, so my grandmother has no plot, just a small headstone in a “rememberance field” behind my town’s municipal crematorium. The fact their body isn’t actually there doesn’t make a lot of difference. My mother and grandpa still go to visit the crematorium field to add flowers just the same as if it were a grave. All that’s really necessary is a focal point for rememberance. If this guy’s family needs a coffin and a grave for religious or cultural reasons, well that’s their choice, but it’s a luxury which not everyone has, and it’s unreasonable to ask his Chinese employers to fund that luxury, especially since cremation is the only choice most Chinese will have, with the crowdedness of China and the high price of land.

    Given that this unfortunate chap won’t be needing the return flight written into his work contract, the school should at least perhaps offer to cover the costs of a return flight for a family member to come and collect the urn full of ashes. His family can then hold a proper ash-scattering ceremony back home.

    Difficult circumstances call for flexibility. But of course try telling that to a grieving family…

    • Being buried at home is a luxury? That’s pretty callous. Try putting yourself in the family’s position.

      Maybe the school doesn’t have a legal obligation but common human decency would cause most companies to lend a hand for a former employee.

      • Yeah, I don’t know about luxury, but it would be much less expensive to have your loved one cremated and then sent to America. I found out that this request really perplexed the Chinese school leader because in China everyone is cremated. Cultural difference. There are still many questions of course about the breakdown of communication. I agree common human decency would lend a hand, but here is a question to ponder. How many of your employers would give any money to your family to transport your body home if you died while not on the job (even just across the U.S.)?

    • Agree with practical and environmentalist view on cremation. Anyone who has lived here knows that holding Chinese companies to Western business standards is foolish. They’re shrouded by the veneer of “development” and the government backs up the Chinese business owner 100% regardless of the circumstances. Also, the article did not explain how he died. “Falling off a roof” is not enough information to understand where liability lies–not that it would matter here anyway because the government will put all reponsiiblity on the foreigner. Sad story. Best wishes to thje family.

  5. It really is such a nightmare situation for his family. It must be unbearable.

    I’m surprised at how the school are handling it, as this kind of response is only leading to their name being dragged through the mud. If they did the decent thing and helped out, even a little, that wouldn’t have happened. The opposite, in fact.

  6. Great article. I am right in the thick of this being a teacher from the Binjiang Branch in Hangzhou, owned and operated by the same man who runs the Xiaoshan school where David taught. I’ve been actively trying to gather information for the family such as the much contested contract, and adding what information I know on forums. However, the main office made contact with me saying Steven, the founder, wants to talk. I am a little worried as to what his reaction will be to my activities.

    As for your questions, after seeing how this situation has been bungled I think schools should include insurance for this sort of thing. I mean they have decent accident and disaster insurance (but what bigger accident or disaster is there than death?)

    Maybe there is more families and teachers should be doing to protect THEMSELVES (we shouldn’t rely so much on schools (businesses) to take care of us). As for DDDragon, I think they should help with the cost a little. Initial reports were that DDDragon refused to help with the costs in any way. Now it appears $4000 will be donated. Terrible situation and a massive communication and PR nightmare.

  7. inhumanity is the issue, not money. DD should do SOMETHING, seeing as they did make cash off of Woolman’s work. But that’s the whole “Chinese have no empathy” thing (which they in general don’t) and … not much you can do about that really. I feel for the family and hope all goes well in the end.

    • Profile photo of

      Well, the parent company is foreign-owned (Steven’s from the UK I think and his wife is from Taiwan, I believe — this is going from a 6-year-old memory that generally forgets to put on pants). The franchise was probably Chinese-run. The one I worked for in Suzhou was Taiwanese run by some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. So, there’s at least a chance that this isn’t a “Chinese have no empathy” issue.

      I was out of town, so slow on approving comments so you wouldn’t have seen the comment above about DD coughing up $4K — which I think is pretty decent of them, pressured by bad PR or not.

  8. Seems like the DD people have skipped town. No answer from any calls? No longer in China as well…
    They are still hiring people for their franchises as well… So happy to take your money but then not care.

    Clearly they dont care about the PR, both the owners and the Hangzhou school.

    • Profile photo of

      Why would they skip town though? I mean they didn’t do anything wrong. And the press, while not positive, isn’t close-up-shop damaging. The only way I could see all this ending with DD closing in Hangzhou or anywhere else is if they were hiring teachers with inappropriate visas and this death and related exposure drew that to the attention of authorities.

      If such is the case, let that serve as warning to other dodgy schools — one mistreated teacher hired on the shady side of things can bring down your whole business — is it worth screwing your teachers around?

      • Are you sure they didn’t do anything wrong? Your article said, “None of the reports seem to have much detail in the circumstances surrounding his death, other than to say he fell off a roof.”… what if they do have something to hide and that’s why they tried to stay so mum on the issue. It’s nice to assume that they weren’t at fault, but it is their very action (or inaction) after the issue that is making them look guilty and making me wonder what they did/could have done differently help the Woolman family deal with this tragedy. At the very least they should have given the final paycheck right away and helped the family contact David’s bank about collecting his savings. That’s common decency.

        • Profile photo of

          From the sounds of this comment, DD had trouble contacting David’s parents as he left no emergency contact number (note to expats — give your friends/colleagues/employer here a number to call, just in case).

          It’s easy to get creative with what DD may have been involved with… but it’s a big jump to say they were involved in any way with the circumstances surrounding David’s death. I have worked at a fair-share of schools, and known a good sum of ESL teachers, and never have I, nor anyone I been with been asked to teach ESL on a roof. In the countryside, in the centre of a city, in a park, in auditoriums, on the side of a road, in small rooms, in big rooms, in the dark, under the sun, even on a beach… but never on a roof.

          That their actions make them look guilty does not make them guilty. And frankly, their actions don’t really make them look guilty — it just makes them look a bit insensitive. I tend to agree with Graeme above, my feeling is DD’s responsibility towards paying anything is negligible. As for David’s last paycheque and all that, I would imagine it’s all a bit more complicated than them just not coughing it up to the first person that calls and says they’re related to David. I’m not trying to make excuses for DD, but ultimately (assuming there was nothing criminal going on, and I haven’t read anything that states that there was) I think this is just a tragic situation and as with all tragic situations we look for someone to blame so as to make sense of the tragedy.

  9. After reading this article, my eyebrows have been raised is how the details of death seem to be hush hush. Unless I read the sentence incorrectly about falling to his death from a roof, why is nothing more known?

    Not try to sound conspiratorial or making more than this tragic death has become. Anyway my condolences to teacher’s family and hopefully he will be able to be returned home.

  10. Whether or not DD was slow in contacting his family, whether or not David’s entire family – father, mother & sister – knew of the circumstances of his death, it is unbelievable that “a representative” from the school who joined HZExpat’s forum yesterday morning under the name DDDRAGONFO would post a thread titled “David Woolman’s Suicide” before the official report of David Woolman’s death had been released by the Hangzhou’s PSB. They even went so far as to post the exact same article on their website!

    Never in my life have I seen anything as despicable and disgusting as that post, especially given that David’s mother was on the forum daily & stressed after the fact that she had no knowledge of the events surrounding her son’s death. DDDRAGONFO went on with additional, even to the point of spreading contradictory, misleading & outright slanderous posts before the forum locked all related threads down pending release of the official police report.

    Considering all of DDDRAGONFO’s posts were written in perfect British English, one can only presume it was Steven who was the author, & undoubtedly the same one who had called David’s mother pretending to be one of their teachers from “Georgia”.

    This man & his team have absolutely no decency or compassion when it comes to dealing with the lives of his employees & their families.

  11. Sympathy and condolences to the family. Some questions for all expats working in China:

    Do you have contact details (next of kin) in your passport?
    Do you have your own medical insurance that covers repatriation of your body, should you die here?
    Do you have a Last Will that has been deposited, (sealed), with someone you trust, or your employer?

    China’s new Social Insurance Law is supposed to be implemented by all employers of expats. Are you aware of the provisions?

    • Most importantly, send copies of all these documents and your work contract to your emergency contact so that they do not go through what I am going through. Make sure that you have a contact, other than your work, which is a conflict of interest, to sign power of attorney over to if something were to happen to you. Give that contact information to your emergency contact. If my son had done these things, it would have saved his whole family a lot of heartache. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.

  12. The cause of death is just a rumor, and it is false, but I will not into the specifics of it until the police investigation is complete and the report is released. To be very clear, DDDragon had no part in David’s death.

    I have talked to both sides in this situation including witnesses, Steven, Peter, David’s mom, David’s dad, etc. Many of the accusations can not ever be verified because it is a case of she says/he says. Here are some facts that have been verified by multiple parties:

    A teacher from the Binjiang branch contacted David’s emergency contact (his step-sister). He also eventually contacted David’s father. At the time, the school and this teacher did not have any contact information for David’s mother. David’s mother says she found out about David’s death the same day from her ex-husband. She was upset that she did not directly receive a call from the school, but this was impossible with no contact information.

    At this point, the school felt they had made enough contact with the family and supposedly there was an understanding that a family member or legal representative would come to China to claim David’s body. After talking with Steven, I still felt there was a communication breakdown at this point, since it seems no more contact was made for a week. The teacher says he was in contact with the family, but this does not and should not count as the school keeping in contact and staying on the same page as the family.

    David’s mother had a Chinese friend of the family phone the school and the Chinese boss. Here is where it becomes a case of she says/he says. The Chinese friend presumably explained she was calling on behalf of David’s family and requested a copy of David’s contract, his last paycheck, and help raising the necessary funds to repatriate his body. Peter, the school boss, however, did not know who this woman was and could not verify she was actually representing the family, as no one from the family had notified him of this. Both parties then claim that the other became very rude.

    In my opinion, at this point communication had just fallen apart and wasn’t where it needed to be.

    I will continue to present my perspective of the situation in a future post, since now I have to go to work.

    Please try to keep an open mind and not make knee-jerk reactions against either side in this situation. When I was first made aware of this situation, I may have overreacted myself and went into suspicion/attack mode against DDDragon, but it is impossible to know exactly what is going on behind the scenes and what is ACTUALLY happening and has happened. There have been many mistakes and lapses in judgment made on both sides and this whole situation seems to have grown out of a complete collapse in communication.

    • I agree that until an investigation is complete, that no one should be making conclusions before all the facts are in. My point was that when a person or organization is acting suspicious especially when it involves the death of another person. Ask any police officer or detective and they will tell you there suspicions are aroused when a story is changed more often than a spin at the roulette wheel in Las Vegas. However it is commendable that you know about what has happened than anyone else and that you are providing some information about this situation.

    • Thank you for shedding some light on this situation. I agree that at this point it is becoming a question of he said/she said. I think that it is best for the parties to talk directly.

      However as you may be aware the family does NOT have either Vivian Chang or Steven Molteno’s contact information.

      DD Dragon has threatened legal action upon David’s mom on the HZ expat website. If so the least they should do is to provide a contact information to David’s family. Perhaps if they had done this honestly from the beginning it would not have escalated as it did.

      David’s mom email is all over the internet. If Mr Molteno and Mrs Chang have nothing to be concerned about they should send her a private email with all their contact info. Once it is done I would ask either David’s family or Mr Molteno to update this blog to let everyone know that a direct contact has been established.

      Then it is up to all of them to decide how they want to resolve this argument legally or otherwise.

    • This is a tragedy. Let me make this very clear. I never blamed DD Dragon for my son’s death. I just want a copy of David’s work contract. DD Dragon Front Office Vivian Chang told me that David never signed a work contract. She also said that she only worked in the office and was not a co owner of the company. They also started harassing me and releasing slanderous information, when they found out that I did not give power of attorney over to the school, but to my church.

      David’s body is being flown home sometime next week. The school did not make a donation to his return trip, but his friends, teachers, and parents of the students did. I have signed statement of this.

      I just feel that if David worked for a Chinese company, he deserved the same treatment that Chinese culture and customs offer. I was not being unreasonable.

      I did some research on this company and this is what I found on one site: http://forums.eslcafe.com/job/viewtopic.php?t=70333
      There are many other sites that give statements from other teachers that worked there, this is just one of them and there are many others.

      It makes me sad that this company would release so many cold and cruel things about my son without the official police reports and the death certificate. I just want to see what the offical reports say, that is all, and then I can form my opionion.

      • It is illegal in China for any company to hire a foreigner without a work contract. If DD school does not have a work contract, then they are in violation of Chinese law. I am sure that they have a work contract, but have not produced it. Also, they are required by law to provide insurance.

        I do not know if the school is responsible or not. But I do know that they have given you a very typical “Chinese Response.” The school in Hangzhou likely just wants this to go away, are fearful and not sure how to react.

        You need to contact an attorney in Shanghai immediately. Make sure that the attorney is recommended by the USA Consulate. They seem to be a bit more reputable (barely). They may find away to take civil action against DD schools / parent company. Either way; it’s the only hope you will have for getting answers. You may not get any. Chinese are not culturaly forthcoming regarding these matters.

  13. I do not think an employer is responsible for returning remains of a foreign employee to their family abroad. I do think wages earned before passing should be given to the next of kin and it would be very decent for the employer to lend practical logistical assistance on the ground to the family of the deceased. Beyond this, I think the most an employer could be expected to do would be extend the coverage or compensation provided by any insurance they have on the employee and/or offer the regular airfare allowance.

  14. So happy to hear that David’s body will be returning home. Many prayers for his family and their continued support during this difficult time.

  15. There is absolutely no legal basis for any claims against the employer in case the employee dies in a non-work-related accident under Chinese law. There is no obligation to pay any burial costs (and certainly not the very expensive international transport of a body), there is no obligation to inform relatives, etc. I would be surprised if there was such a claim under US law, either.

    It may be difficult to deal with an issue as this, but this is in no way the fault of the employer. It certainly does not reflect very kindly on them if they fail to express their sympathy to the familiy of the deceased as is customary, but apart from this, I can not find any fault with the employer’s actions. Including withholding the paycheck for as long as there is no legal documentation as to who the deceased’s heir is.

    If anybody is concerned about such a situation: Get insurance. It’s readily available and quite cheap, often even included with overseas travel insurance.

  16. I don’t see the school at fault here and it is not obliged to pay for the shipping costs. Unless he died in the school due to unsafe environment, then I do not see why the school is required to pay. Did he fall off the roof of the school? How did he die?

  17. I agree that the school shouldn’t have to pay a dime for sending his body home unless it’s a work-related incident. I don’t know anything about his workplace, but my impression of chinese businesses are that they do not and will not measure up to ‘western’ standards. Record-keeping is sloppy, agreements are verbal and not well hard coded if they are. As most of the other posters said, best is to be prepared for the worst and is a lesson to be learned for all. This is a tragic situation for the family and unfortunately, these injustices are something that will never be addressed and may never be corrected

  18. Excuse me for using this thread for my own personal reasons. I am very sorry for what has happened to this family.

    I am not here to go on a long rant. I am here to try and get out information which I think is very important. I was deported from China last week, and it is not clear when/if I can go back. I worked for DD Dragon in Shanghai. Everyone who worked for the schools run by Andy (2 Hongkou branches, 1 Pudong) was deported. There were 7 teachers in all I believe. Although far from perfect, working at the school was tolerable, and I was planning on finishing 1 year and moving onto something else. We were promised working visas, but were never provided them. It seemed the management’s norm was to ride out the tourist visa for as long as possible, and then get a business visa working for some ‘fake’ company. The police caught onto the school, conducted an investigation interviewing everyone who worked there, then issue us a new visa saying we had to leave China within ten days. I have contacted the Chinese embassy in NYC, and they have told me for a matter like this, I would need to come in and explain what happened. It may be a long time before I am allowed to go back to China.
    You need to be extremely careful if you are considering working for this school. The police are clearly already onto them. Once again, my intention is not to go on a rant and say horrible things about this school. My intention is to try and prevent this from happening to other people.

    • Wow, that exactly is what I am afraid of, though everyone surrounding the school says there is nothing to worry about! I suppose it is nothing to worry about until the police decide they don’t want to look the other way anymore. This is important information, I hope other teachers see and put the heat to their respective “employers” to be open about what they are doing. Shoot. Did the head office in Shanghai have anything to say about it?

  19. I did not have any direct contact with the head office. This was an investigation that had been going on for weeks. No one ever thought that it would go this far. However, the schools are still open (I forget to mention another branch in Jing’an, which I believe is/was the main branch for DD, very big school). I believe they are bringing in DD teachers from other schools, and still actively hiring more on the internet. The 7 of us getting deported left 7 immediate openings spread across 4 different schools.

    • Really? The schools are still open? So they investigate the schools, deport you, but then let the schools continue to illegally bring in teachers? That doesn’t even make sense.

  20. It doesn’t make any sense to me, that’s for sure. I’m sure there is parts of the story that I don’t know, as far as what deal was made with the police. What I know for sure is 7 teachers were deported, and classes are now continuing with substitute teachers.

    • Thank you for posting this information. I think the tragedy of the original post as well as this deportation situation are important warnings to all of us living and working here. Have your proper visa, papers in order. Don’t tolerate places that want you to work on an illegal visa! The schools will only pay a small fine (they will be ok) but you can be deported. I find the people who say “Don’t worry” over and over again are the ones that you have to worry about the most!

      Also make plans for just in case, and be sure the important people in your life have the documents they need. Be safe out there, fellow laowai!

  21. First, people should get insurance for things like this.
    I believe Chinese school is only required to get local health insurance.
    Only then is about 50-80 percent paid. You pay the rest.

    For the family to rant about that the school should pay is not right. They can ask and hope they receive some financial help.
    Had that happened in America the employer would offer no help as well.
    A similar situation of taking a collection would happen.

    I agree, cremate the body and ship it back to the States. Very selfish of David’s family to make friends put out money when there was a cheaper solution to get David’s body back home.
    David was very young and I don’t fault him for not getting life insurance, and I hope he is resting at peace.
    Any time you deal with ANY government it is difficult and expensive.

    For all the teachers out there please use your head!
    This is all over the internet.
    You do NOT qualify and will NOT get the proper Z visa if you don’t have a Bachelors (or higher) degree.

    This is Chinese law!

    Schools like DDDragon that advertise ‘No Experience’ ‘No Degree Needed’
    will NOT and CANNOT get you a legal Z visa.

    Listen to Bob, you can get deported.
    The Chinese authorities know about schools like DDDragon because they blatantly advertise ‘No Degree Required.’

    Everyone look out for yourself and learn from David’s and Bob’s stories.

    Something similar happened to me in Tibet and to the Chinese we are all rich Americans! What is the worst that can happened?
    We get to come back to rich America!
    Poor rich kids on ESL Holidays!

    RIP David!

  22. Was the police report ever published ? I have heard from a source in China that the death may have been suicide or at least accidental. It did not occur in the workplace.

    There are a lot of cultural barriers in a case like this.

    The DD Dragon schools are independently operated franchises and there are differences between different operators. My relative in China once worked without a degree on the business visa loophole but now that he has gone back and is managing some schools, he has made an effort to put the organization on a proper legal framework. That is true for his partner’s schools but YMMV for other schools. He wants the stability brought by legitimacy.

    One unstated side of this is the religion of the family. Cremation is not acceptable in their faith and that is the reason that they wanted the whole body shipped back to Nevada. This is the reason for the high cost.

  23. Insurance should always be taken out either personally or organised by the agent or organisation you teach for, insurance should cover the return of the deceased. However, I have to say I have had my own personal bad experiences teaching in China where I believe that the universities and organisations I studied with and taught for had visited and health & saftey checked the Chinese accommodation (chinese government college) I was sent to. This was not the case and i received immense amounts of insect bites and an electric shock in an uneatherd shower in the accommodation leaving my legs in a mess. I now suffer with neuropathy. I didn’t persue a legal case but had I known then what I know now I would have. teaching in China is great fun but I think International Organisations need to start taking some accountability and legal responsibility for those brave enough to venture out and stop covering up after all they have a ‘duty of care’

  24. Pingback: Scary things can happen… | Avast!

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