Life as a Single Dad in China, Part 2

No. 35

Greetings from Chinarrative!

This edition we continue our exploration of what life’s like for China’s single dads. In the second translation installment of a story that first appeared in Chinese in Shanghai-based web publication The Paper, we meet Mr. Lin, a businessman in his 40s.

Authors Yuan Lu and Wang Nan explain the background to the piece:

A recent study by the All-China Women’s Federation revealed that among Chinese couples that divorce, 67 percent have children. Yet only one in six husbands, or around 17 percent, choose to retain custody of their children. What is it like being a single father? And what stands out in their relationships with their children and what kinds of struggles do they have to work through? We talked to three single fathers about their love for their kids and their concerns.

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The Highs and Lows of Three Single Fathers, Part 2

Credit: ImagineChina.

3.     Mr. Lin, born 1977, entrepreneur

I was born in 1977. I’m not very sensitive to age. I think I’m 42 now. I have a son. He was born in 2004. He’s 15 now. I own my business that develops and markets enterprise software to small and medium companies. Margins in this industry are quite good. I can comfortably cover my expenses and support my parents.

My son’s mother works at a bank as a low-level manager. In 2015, she and I signed a divorce agreement. Our son was 11 at the time. Because we were afraid the divorce might affect his transition from primary school to secondary school, we agreed to finalize the divorce in 2016, after our son started secondary school. We ended up finishing the paperwork after Chinese New Year in 2017.

My ex-wife and I started living separately before the divorce was formalized. We each covered half of our son’s expenses.

We had agreed back in 2015 that out of the two flats we owned, she would take the better property and I would take the old one. I bought the apartment I live in now in 2016 after taking out a small loan. I made the purchase to give my son and my parents a peace of mind. My son and I moved in in March 2017.

When my ex and I divorced, we both wanted custody. Our son was OK with that. Ultimately, in our divorce papers we agreed to splitting our assets 80-20 in favor of my ex and sharing custody of our son. My son would live with me during the week. I would take care of his daily life and studies. He would spend weekends and holidays with his mother.

Of course if my ex misses our son and wants to see him, he’s perfectly welcome to visit his mother whenever. Our son spends Mid-Autumn Festival, Chinese New Year’s Eve and Chinese New Year’s Day with me and my parents. After dinner, he heads over to his mom’s.

I felt that I would rest more easily if I was our son’s primary caretaker, but I also always believed that our son belongs to both of us. Regardless of the state of our relationship, we can’t use our son as leverage.

Inside the Walled City of Marriage

My ex and I started bickering after our son was born. As our tensions grew, the fighting became more frequent. Eventually it was pointless to argue and we would enter into “cold war” mode, ignoring each other instead. My ex would come home from work and cook and eat with us as routine dictated. Worried that our son would be spooked by the icy mood at the table, I would chat him up during meals. His mother would mostly stay silent.

The most tiring thing in the dozen or so years of our marriage was perhaps constantly having “divorce” thrown in my face. My ex didn’t really want a divorce. Threatening divorce just became a habit. My take was that if you feel there is a problem, raise it and let’s tackle it. Don’t bring up divorce casually. If you do, it eventually becomes reality.

We tried to shield our son whenever we fought, but there were also times when we failed. Our son’s response was avoidance—he returned to his room. I sat him down before making a final decision on the divorce in 2015 to get his input. Lo and behold, when I just started my speech he said he knew everything. He said he was fine as long as we were OK. He was just hoping for an amicable parting.

I felt a sense of loss about my divorce. Young men are always full of ambition. They want to make a name for themselves. But as a native of the vicinity near the cities of Chaozhou and Shantou near the Guangdong coast, I also take family seriously. I returned home from Beijing to get married with my ex. After we got married, I also turned down many business opportunities and stayed home instead. I gave up many of my aspirations and leads as a young man.

I come from a farming community. My ex is also from the countryside, but her hometown was redeveloped and her family eventually relocated to the city. Her parents were never bullish about our marriage. They agreed to it only tentatively. I believe the blessing of both parties’ parents is still important.

Our marriage of some dozen years was brutal. Going our separate ways was the only way we could reclaim the rest of our lives.

Regrets, lingering feelings or remorse? I genuinely have none. I’ve moved on.

I may simply have selective amnesia when it comes to my first marriage. That is also necessary. If an adult can’t overcome his past, then he or she won’t be able to handle his or her child, who is more vulnerable and more sensitive. Children are a powerful source of motivation that can make you stronger and hopeful.

You also have to deal with the gossip. It’s easy to get a divorce in a big city, but in a smaller city or in the countryside, distant female relatives inevitably will try to talk you out of it. The pressure is quite intense. Most are motivated by good will, but good will doesn’t always get the job done. I can’t disrespect them either. Instead, I have to explain the situation politely.

There’s also the malignant speculation, like folks saying with authority that I had an affair and had a bunch of kids. When such accusations are made within earshot, I typically respond in jest. “Where are my kids? Please help me locate them. We’ve been separated for years. I really miss them,” I say. There’s no point in arguing with these people. If I do, the accusers simply feed off of it. If these accusations are made behind my back, I just laugh them off.

I am worried, however, about the potential emotional impact the gossip will have on my son. So I’ve warned my own relatives and my ex’s that they are not to discuss the divorce in front of my son under any circumstances. But things still happen. I can’t control other people. All I can do is do my best and check in with my son frequently.

My Son

I always tell my son that regardless of what’s going on between his parents, his father’s and mother’s love for him is constant.

A child becomes attached to whomever raises him or her. My mother lived with us and took care of my son when he was young. My ex was involved in academics, but it was mainly me in the driver’s seat. That included deciding on extracurricular activities. I run my own business—I majored in accounting, then became a programmer—and I’m a night owl. I tended to code at night, so I could spend time with my son during the day.

My ex has a quick temper, which my son is rather sensitive to. That’s why he consciously avoids her tantrums. In reality, my ex treats him very well and the two of them are very close. It’s just that their interactions have a different dynamic. My son watches what he says carefully and is always well-behaved. Maybe it’s the fact that my ex wants him to grow up a gentleman. As for me, I want him to be courteous and polite to outsiders. When it comes to those closest to him, he can be more playful. He doesn’t have to be so tight.

Mindful of the feelings of both parents, he’s never explicitly stated his displeasure about either of us. He never briefs me after returning from his mother’s. He said he “doesn’t want to take sides.” “If something is going on between you adults, you should communicate directly and not try to scope each other out through me.”

I also never ask him about his mother. When I do on occasion, he always gets by with vague comments like “she’s doing OK” or “she’s fine.” He does the same when my ex asks about me. His mother once asked him directly how he felt about the two of us reuniting. He responded, “I’m fine either way. You decide on your own matters.”

My son started reading the ancient Chinese philosophical texts Dao De Jing and Xunzi in third or fourth grade. He seemed above it all at a very young age. For example, when he received a letter from a classmate who had a crush on him in third grade, this is how he handled it. He said he didn’t read the letter and returned it to the girl’s desk after tearing off the portion where she had left her signature. I asked him why he tore the bit with his classmate’s name on it. “I returned the letter because I don’t need love. I tore the bit with the name because I didn’t want to hurt her. If other classmates saw her name, they would have made a big fuss out of the letter,” he said.

He’s also quite serious. He’s a stellar student. Even though I’ve never demanded specific results since he started junior high, his teachers do because he is considered a good student. Not to mention the fact that if he doesn’t do well on his senior high entrance exams, it will be blamed on the divorce, which will cause tension in our family. I think he’s fully aware of that.

The junior high he attends is one of the best in the city. His workload is quite heavy as it is, his homework typically taking until 11 or 12 to finish. Yet he takes the initiative to do extra work. Even though he has already secured admission to one of the top senior highs in the province in advance, he still prepared for his general senior high entrance exams meticulously. I think he wanted to show gratitude to the important people in his life and silence his doubters by working hard and earning strong results. It’s like if he does well on his senior high entrance exams, it will answer folks who doubted my ability as a single parent too.

The divorce did affect him. Take the external pressure it brought, for example. Some of our relatives and friends, especially the elders, asked him to play peacemaker and urge my ex and I to reconcile.

The divorce went through after Chinese New Year in 2017. That’s when my son started the second semester of seventh grade. His final academic ranking dropped from first to third. Typically, he finishes several dozen points ahead of No. 2. It was a rather significant drop. His mood most certainly played a role.

All I could do at the time was spend more time with him. For example, I would read in his room while he studied. We’d also chat—about anything but the divorce. I know my son. If he wanted to know something about the divorce, he’d ask. If he didn’t, I’d simply keep him company silently.

One of my junior high classmates happens to teach at my son’s school. When my son’s grades started dropping after the divorce, he told me: “Don’t worry. There’s no need to sweep things under the carpet. It’s more productive to air the issue and confront it.”

After I briefed my son’s homeroom teacher on the divorce, his teachers started paying closer attention to him in class, gauging his emotional state—whether he was in a good mood or joking around. The homeroom teacher is a man and quite level-headed, whereas his English and math teachers are women and more sensitive. If my son didn’t smile for two days straight, the latter would report back nervously to my classmate. “What’s wrong? He hasn’t smiled in two days!”

The math teacher even broke down in tears in my classmate’s office on several occasions when briefing him about my son. She’s probably quite empathetic and felt bad that such a smart student didn’t seem happy. The fact is the absence of smiles might just come down to personality. My son has always been polite to fellow students and his teachers, but he doesn’t like to smile. Still, he’s quite playful in private with both his classmates and with me.

Many of these details were relayed to me by my son’s classmates. I’m also very grateful toward his teachers. I really don’t know what to do beyond sending them greetings on important occasions. We natives of the Chaozhou and Shantou region like to drink tea, so I bought tea leaves for his teachers. But the teachers were embarrassed by even the few catties of tea leaves. It took a few attempts for them to accept them. And even after they relented, they kept sending me text messages saying it was too much.

My son initially wasn’t aware of all these happenings in the background. I finally briefed him after he completed his senior high entrance exams. I told him that his teachers had been paying special attention to him over the past few years and that he should thank them in person by paying them a visit at home. I also relayed the anecdote about his math teacher. When we finally got around to making these visits, my son was quite reserved. On one visit, when the teacher walked us to the elevator, he suddenly turned around, bowed to her and said thank you. The teacher broke down in tears again.

Two Men Under the Same Roof

After a transition that lasted about an academic term following the divorce, father and son started to get along more easily. The two of us became even closer.

I’d try to console him when he’s in a bad mood. Naturally, as a kid, he’d retort: “I get all your major life lessons.” At that point anything I said was futile, so I typically sent him a small gift of electronic cash on his mobile phone and his mood usually improved. He also sometimes occasionally claimed expenses from me, saying that I needed to pay for his meals and spending because I’m responsible for supporting him. When he treated his classmates to meals, he used his own pocket money.

The cash gift was more or less foolproof. It’s just incentive for him to be happy.

He’s never been a big spender. Sometimes he’d buy books and have me cover the cost after the fact. For example, he’d buy a book that’s originally priced 80 yuan (around $11) but marked down to 56. I’d pay him 80 because he was honest about the discount. It’s a testimony to his character. Sometimes I might have even given him 100.

On a typical day, I’d go to work he to school. Our alarm was usually set for 5:50 am and he got up at 6. I make breakfast and then roll back into bed for some more shuteye. He’d read for a bit on his own, then bike to school. If there’s a typhoon or rain or if he’s simply feeling lazy, I’d drive him to school. I usually show up at work between 8:30 and 9. I own my own small business, so my hours are more flexible.

My son usually got home at around 6 p.m. after school finished for the day. As long as I didn’t have any evening engagements, I’d make dinner for him. He likes my cooking. Cooking for me is so straightforward. As long as I have the recipe and the right ingredients, I can make anything. Even if I’m attempting a new dish, it’ll definitely be edible. Most of the cakes and dessert my son has had his whole life were made by yours truly.

I demanded that my son get up early and sleep early, that he’s organized and purposeful. Sometimes he’d slack off. On occasion he’d sleep until 10 or 12 on weekends and during summer vacation. I was a stricter parent when he was younger. Kids are always a bit rebellious. I didn’t want to use coercion. Instead, I explained the logic of my demands and presented him with the facts repeatedly. This definitely took more time and energy. By fourth or fifth grade, he was deciding his own schedule. By junior high, I was more or less giving him free rein.

During summers, father and son often travel together. My son was quite upset about his communist ideology class one term last year and refused to comply with the model answers. To educate him on the complexity and diversity of world issues, I took him on a trip of southeast Asia. We started in Malaysia, where we lived in a local bed and breakfast, walked around Chinatown and chatted with ethnic Chinese Malaysians. Then we headed to Sri Lanka, where we also stayed at a local bed and breakfast and I also asked him to talk to locals. You can’t just indoctrinate kids. You have to expose them to different scenarios and train them to think for themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with our life now, although buying clothes is still an insurmountable challenge. I have no idea how to color coordinate and I’m very insensitive to size. I have been shopping for my own clothes exclusively for many years at Uniqlo. Most of my pants and tops are plain black or plain gray. I even buy multiple numbers of the same color and design. But kids should dress more colorfully. I know my son’s style. He likes to be trendier. Now he’s into manga style. But bottom line is I’m quite clueless about buying clothes. The two of us never browse at actual stores either. We do all our shopping online and we can be quite off when it comes to estimating sizes.

My son is currently in his third year of junior high. He signed up for the entrance exam for one of the top senior high schools in the province scheduled for May. Some 1,000 students sat for the exam—the cream of the crop from across the province—competing for about a dozen slots. The competition was very fierce. He was accepted in the end. He and I were ecstatic and felt a huge sense of relief. After he was accepted, my son told me, “Dad, I was just winging it.” I joked back, “Well, you winged it better than 1,000 other students.”

After my son was accepted, we had to visit the school in person for an interview and to pick up the official offer of admission. I had a long chat with him on the high-speed train ride over. As we were nearing our destination, he turned over to me and said: “Brother, we’re almost there. I have eight words for you. You’re a free man. I’m a free man.”

I wasn’t too surprised by the comment. I knew what he was talking about. He wanted to move on from the status quo. I’ve already turned over the day-to-day operation of my company over to two employees while retaining a stake in the firm. I’m planning on moving to a different city. Where exactly and what to do next are still up in the air. I’m at a disadvantage both in terms of age and academic background, so I’m starting to feel some real pressure.

I just got back from a trip to Thailand. I wanted to bring my son, but he wanted to stay behind to prepare for his general senior high school entrance exams. Since he already has an offer, his results don’t matter as much, but he still wants to do a good job. He called me every day. I asked him what was wrong. He said, “I’m just bored and want to chat with you.” I responded, “You’ve never been like this!”

I asked him if he was going sissy on me. He said no; it was just that he had never shown much affection toward me all these years and he was about to leave home.

When I got back from Thailand, as was his custom, he grabbed my bags and started rummaging through them to see if I bought him any gifts. Later that night, he told me he wanted to save energy and use only a single air conditioner. He laid out the mattress we use for camping on the floor of his bedroom and asked me to sleep there. I complied.

He had never thought about cutting our energy bill before. When I lied on the mattress, he would jump on me from time to time, say it was a comfy perch and then leave. Sometimes I would respond by slapping him on the butt and saying, “Gross, get out of here” and he would leave.

The Happiness the Future Holds

Naturally, I feel down from time to time now that I’m living alone. After all, I have parents and a child support, as well as work pressure. But I never let myself linger in the depression, otherwise it will affect my parents and my son.

I go running to lift my spirits. I like running along the river downtown while looping the same song repeatedly. I’m a big fan of The Hill, the hit song by Taiwanese singer-songwriter Jonathan Lee. My thoughts no longer wander when I’m out of breath. When I’m done, I take a shower and fall asleep. Or my son interrupts me with a call from his dorm room proposing a game of online chess. The game usually improves my mood.

I also have two very close male “bosom buddies.” One is a childhood friend from the same village and the second a junior high classmate. When family issues are weighing on my mind, they are my go-to people. They also share their challenges with me. When I’m done sharing, they don’t console me. All they say is, “Are you done? Hungry? How about a bowl of clay pot congee? Or “Done? You can’t drink because you’re driving, so how about a cup of tea?” The most important thing is having an outlet where you can vent your toxic emotions. You’re not necessarily counting on the other person to solve your problems.

Meanwhile, I also go backpacking spontaneously when I’m free. Plane tickets originating from my city are a perennial bargain. Flying to major Chinese cities and southeast Asia is very cheap. Last April I covered half of Sri Lanka. I stayed at bed and breakfasts located inside old fortresses. I sat on fortress walls that measured some 7 or 8 meters high and took in the Indian Ocean. In the early evening, I took strolls near Galle Fort and admired the sunset while listening to the Hong Kong rock band Beyond. The coast was usually quite packed. The sunset at Galle Fort is gorgeous, a blazing red because of the town’s proximity to the equator. It’s as if the clouds have caught fire. The space above the sea surface is also glowing. But sunsets there are quick. I remember on one occasion closing my eyes for a brief moment of contemplation when the sun hit the horizon and before I knew it the sun would be gone.

After sunset, dusk settled in and suddenly the fortress grounds were empty. It was very quiet and there were few lampposts to be found. The lighting was dim. I found a dark corner, sat on the edge of a battery and started playing the harmonica. The harmonica was gifted to me by the owner of a bed and breakfast in the mountain city of Nuwara Eliya. He also taught me some basic music theory. I pulled the harmonica out from time to time during that trip to kill time. All I could play were the nursery rhymes Orchid Grass and Two Tigers, the Chinese version of Frère Jacques.

The moon wasn’t very bright that night and the sea was dark. The sea surface shimmered slightly at a distance. Vessels trudged along while others moored at the port. All I wanted was a quiet moment to myself.

When I turned I noticed a young white woman standing behind me. We had a basic conversation in English. She said my silhouette looked very melancholic and reminded her of one she had once seen in a dream. For a split second, I thought we could have a decent chat. Eventually I realized she was too romantic for my taste.

My son and I have chatted about romance. On the train ride to pick up his admission offer from his senior high school in May I asked him if my personal history would affect him and dissuade him from believing in love. He responded, “Dad, I’m still going to find a wife and have kids.” He said compatibility was a priority for him, that he wouldn’t force the issue if the right person hadn’t come along. But if she did, he wouldn’t fight it on account of my divorce.

As for my love life, my son said that that’s my own business and that I need to be the master of my own happiness. He has his own life. He said whomever I fell in love with definitely won’t mistreat him. He trusts my judgment. As far as I’m concerned, everyone yearns for companionship, but spiritual connection is key. Otherwise the relationship will be too exhausting. I’ve been set up several times but none of the women were good matches. When serendipity strikes, no one can stop it. Before it does, there’s nothing you can do.

Translator: Min Lee