Life as a Single Dad in China, Part 1

No. 34

Greetings from Chinarrative!

This edition we explore what life’s like for China’s single dads. This story first appeared in Chinese in Shanghai-based web publication The Paper. Authors Yuan Lu and Wang Nan explain:

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.

This is the first of a two-part series.

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The Highs and Lows of Three Single Fathers

Credit: ImagineChina.

By Yuan Lu and Wang Nan

1.     Mr. Qin, born 1973, car designer

I moved to Shenzhen for work in the 1990s. That’s also where I met my ex-wife. We had a son.

We got divorced in 2004. My son was only 5. It was an uncontested divorce. Already in my early 30s, I was concerned about quite a few social trends. I didn’t trust my ex-wife with my child. She didn’t seek custody either. Maybe she felt I would be a more reliable parent.

My parents took care of my son during his primary school years. He had a rough time too, becoming a boarder in third or fourth grade. It was a decent school, but it was an hour’s drive away.

I was very worried about my child being on his own, so I decided to return from Shenzhen. In 2011, I relocated to Chongqing—the biggest city near my hometown—when my son graduated from primary school and moved him from the countryside to the city for secondary school.

I made about 6,000 yuan ($838) a month in Shenzhen. When I returned to Chongqing I started at 4,500 yuan a month. I didn’t have much in the way of savings. We lived in a rental apartment for a year.

To earn more money, I worked a second job at a vocational training center on weekends for four years. Before I left for work on weekends, I ordered my son to mop the floor and tidy our flat. I ate out for lunch, returning only for dinner, which my son prepared.

When I accumulated some savings after getting a raise, I bought a bigger flat. In 2016, my son was in his third year of senior high school and due to take his university entrance exams. His fellow boarders were frequently visited by their parents, so I spent some 80,000 yuan on a car as well. Every weekend I prepared meals at home to share with him at school.

Money was tight those few years. My son felt it too. I took out a 200,000-yuan mortgage for our flat. I repaid 150,000 yuan over the course of the next year and took care of the remaining 50,000 yuan over time. I nagged at my son on occasion, saying that it was hard to make a living and asking him to watch his expenses.

But I never held back when it came to essential daily expenses and meals. My son was a boarder from junior high onward. I prepared at least two dishes for every meal, often splurging on seafood. We rarely ate out, maybe once every one or two months. I also limited our travel expenses.

When my son graduated from high school, I gave him 1,000 yuan to travel in the vicinity of Chongqing. This was his first major trip and the first time I gave him so much money. I’m not interested in travel. I also want to save money. Even though I make some 10,000 yuan a month now, I still haven’t been to any of the major tourist destinations near Chongqing.

“I Really Want to Be His Friend”

I rarely went out on weekends after gaining sole custody of my son. I also tried to return home early on weekdays. My thinking was this: my son didn’t have any other family in Chongqing. He’d feel very lonely if I left him at home alone all the time. Even if we didn’t talk, he wouldn’t feel lonely as long as he saw me wandering around at home.

My son was my center of attention during his secondary school years. I only graduated from a vocational high school. My grades weren’t great. In particular, my English is very poor. When I helped my son with his English homework, I would read out the Chinese translations of his vocabulary terms and he would write them out in English.

I was rather strict. For example, I didn’t let him watch too much TV. He had to keep a regular schedule, bedtime at 10:30, unless he had to study. What I couldn’t stand the most is gaming. Once in a while was OK, but long sessions were not. After every exam period, he had to report his scores and ranking. This was a must. I don’t believe in too much freedom or being too laid-back.

I beat him up a few times in junior high. On one occasion, when I got home I felt the computer and it was still warm. My son had secretly played computer games before my return. I told him that a man must act honorably. If he wanted to play, he should have just played openly.

I asked him to find five thin bamboo branches in our complex. I drew our curtains and asked him to pull down his pants and lie on the couch face down. I aimed for his buttocks, which were sore by the time I was done. It broke my heart too. Then I gave him a lecture.

I got the sense my son was scared of me. When I think back now, I wonder if I was too strict. His mother probably would have been more relaxed about the minutiae of his daily life and habits.

In junior high, my son’s homeroom teacher asked every student to write their parents a letter. My son wrote about how much hard work it took for us to move from our rental unit to our own apartment and how I expected him to thrive as a student. He said he would focus on making money when he grew up, so I didn’t have to work as hard.

He seemed to be able to empathize with me. Yet he didn’t say much at home. We’d chat for a bit for half an hour or so and that’s it. I asked him if he took issue with me. He said no, that he just respected my authority as a father.

As a father, there are areas where I want to improve. I’ve always had a quick temper. For example, if I summon my son and he doesn’t respond, I get anxious and start yelling at him. Also, I’ve been a tidy person since I was a kid. I prefer that things be kept in order at home. I can’t stand how he leaves things lying around. He’s taken his fair share of verbal abuse over these issues.

I started getting worried after noticing that he seemed a bit introverted and didn’t like to talk nor talk back. For example, during meals, he would be in the middle of reaching for food with his chopsticks when I’d ask him to serve me a fresh bowl of rice. He would stop midway and give me a refill. Most kids wouldn’t do that. They would finish grabbing their own bite first. It’s not a good thing for boys to be too obedient either.

Yet when I asked his junior high homeroom teacher about his personality, the teacher said my son was an extrovert. I also asked his classmates. They all said he was a lively person. I even secretly observed my son in class. I peeked through a window. I was afraid he’d see me and feel uneasy.

He refuses to add me on the instant messaging program QQ and I think he’s blocked me on WeChat. Judging from reading his status updates on my nephew’s WeChat account, he’s a pretty funny kid. I get the sense that he gets along fine with his classmates and that he isn’t a loner or socially inept as I may have feared.

My favorite pastime is reading at home. My son doesn’t like to read, so he tended to putz around in the apartment. I get the sense that he felt quite restrained. He wasn’t keen to express his feelings either.

When I was sick, like when I had a cold or a headache, he never asked me how I feel, whether I needed him to get some medication or see the doctor with him. I’d say I’m too tired to cook and ask him to cook instead. He’d oblige, but after he was done he’d eat alone while watching TV and not care if I ate or not. That made me sad.

In his eyes I’m still a father, but I really want to be his friend.

My favorite memory is from when he was in junior high. We had separate bedrooms then. One night he had a nightmare and came running into my bed clamoring to sleep with me. That’s probably our most tender moment ever.

“My Biggest Fear about Raising a Child Alone Was Screwing Up His Life”

I only have a single child, so I have treated him as my biggest hope.

When my son was in the second year of junior high I read all the cram books on how to score high on the university entrance exam and choose a major strategically. I took extensive notes. I decided I wanted him to become a teacher.

When it came time to pick a major, I vetoed his idea of majoring in software engineering because I thought he could have trouble getting along with many types of people, given his personality. And if he ended up flunking his exam and becoming a factory worker, that would be too stressful.

My son was very upset about not being able to choose his own major. He returned to his room and told me to fill out his preference list for him. In the end, I forced him to become a binding education major, which meant he had to commit in advance to teaching after graduation.

He was upset the entire first semester of his freshman year, but his attitude shifted in the second semester. He said he enjoyed his major and career direction. When he was a sophomore, he set himself the goal of finishing as one of the top 15 students of his class, which comprised 48 students.

He came 25th. Even though he missed his target, I still gave him 2,500 yuan, so he could start learning how to manage his own finances.

His school issues him a monthly stipend of 600 yuan. We agreed to add another 600 to his allowance, sometimes 700 or 800 yuan. He never asks for money casually, so when he did, I always agree.

These days I like to nag my son about his love life. I always tell him to only start serious relationships that may end in marriage and to avoid divorce at all costs because second marriages have a profound impact on everyone and their children. 

My biggest fear about raising a child alone had once been screwing my son’s life up. Luckily, my son has become my pride. It’s a great source of happiness for me that I didn’t mess up his life, that he didn’t go astray.

“I’m Under Less Pressure Now, But Dating Is Harder”

After the divorce, I lost contact with my son’s mother. She also started a new family.

In 2017, when my son graduated from high school and received his university admission offer, I called his mother. I felt a sense of accomplishment. I told her he chose a binding major and would become a teacher on a permanent contract.

My ex-wife never visited after our son became a boarder in junior high. He has kept the same cell phone number since junior high. So has she. His mom calls him two or three times a year. Each call never lasts more than 3 minutes. He never calls his mother and has never visited her.

My son never asks about his mother. I sometimes joke that when my son earns some serious money, he can buy his mother an apartment. He says he will definitely do so if he can afford it. The bond of blood is natural. I always tell him that he wouldn’t exist if not for his mother.

I’ve dated three women in the past dozen years or so. The first relationship came when my son was in sixth grade and lasted about half a year or so. She treated my son quite well.

She also had a daughter from a previous relationship around the same age as my son. Kids warm to each other quicker than adults too. Our children started playing together the afternoon after they met. He was very happy back then. It felt like he was having a normal childhood. He goofed around a lot, even climbing trees from time to time.

But I ended up breaking up with that girlfriend. I haven’t seen my son as happy since then. I still feel guilty about the split when I think back to it.

I dated another woman when my son moved to the city to attend junior high, but I gave up the relationship because of him. I was terrified that dating would affect him. I resolved back then to make my son my priority during his secondary school years and hold off on dating again until he graduated.

We had a bit to drink when we got together for dinner on Labor Day last year. He said I should find someone. He said that he wanted to teach at a far-flung location after graduation and therefore he wouldn’t be able to take care of me. If I meet someone right, I should settle down, he said.

I’m under less pressure now, but it’s actually harder to find someone.

My spending and living habits are already set in stone. Some women might look down on me because they find I’m a bit stingy. As far as I’m concerned, when a relationship isn’t steady, it’s impossible to spend too much money. I actually prefer to increase my savings.

If it’s a good match and we plan on spending the rest of our lives together, then it’s OK to splurge. My concern now is that that kind of trust is hard to build in a year or two.

A second marriage brings up many issues. Both parties might already have children from previous relationships. Only if you can balance the interests of all sides and manage family ties well will you have a happy life.

My job is quite stable. I don’t run into too many challenges or ups and downs in life. It’s just that I get a bit lonely and mentally tired sometimes.

Ideally, I would find a partner. We’d go for a stroll after dinner and enjoy the breeze. We’d watch TV at night and then shower and go to bed together. Our grown children would have their own lives. On weekends, we’d shop for groceries and do a bit of cooking.

2.     Mr. Li, born 1966, real-estate agent

I started raising my daughter alone when she was 4. When I split, I wasn’t mentally prepared to raise a child alone. I also didn’t think that far ahead.

I was a big reason behind the divorce. I let down my daughter’s mother to some extent. I was in my 30s, in the prime of my life. I was determined to make my mark. I also wanted to provide a better life for my daughter.

I started shipping timber from the Lesser Khingan Mountains in northeastern Heilongjiang province to Beijing in the early 1990s. Business was very good. In 1993, on impulse I decided to try my hand at the border trade in Russia. Land border crossings between China and Russia had just started allowing free passage.

When I returned to China in late 1994, a Russian friend sold me some precious items, which turned out to be specimens of animals on the top of the global endangered list. I had planned on reselling them in China, but I ended up getting arrested and convicted of smuggling.

I received a four-year sentence. When I was released on parole in 1998, I returned to Beijing to look for a job. I ended up in sales at a real-estate company. In 2000, after auditing a few classes at Peking University, I set up my own marketing and sales firm.

In 2007, the business collapsed, mainly because of me. I started looking for work again in the real-estate sector. I haven’t left since.

I started running around when I was a young man. Compared to contemporary parents, I have offered much less affection to family and children. My daughter was raised by my parents. I’m an irresponsible father.

I mainly visited my parents during the Chinese New Year holiday. Every time I would take my daughter to KFC, which brought a wide smile to her face.

In my recollection, my daughter has been a smart and obedient girl since she was a kid. When I took her shopping once—I think it was in first grade—she could quickly figure out how many cents we were short.

Once she kept badgering me before I left. I had forgotten it was her birthday soon. I left without remembering. I still feel guilty about that occasion. I have never celebrated her birthday with her once. I’ve let her down way too often.

It was also on that trip that I found out that she started earning her own pocket money. At some point, she lost a 50-yuan bill at home. She complained to her grandmother, who said so be it. She didn’t make a fuss. She was already very mature at that young age.

In 2005, my mother passed away. My daughter started her first year of senior high as a boarder the same year and began spending winter and summer breaks with me in Beijing. I cooked for her in my downtime and took her to the campuses of Tsinghua University and Peking University.

What I’ve cared about most throughout my daughter’s upbringing is her character and morals. But I’m ashamed to say that task ended up being left to her grandparents because I was always working out-of-town. I’ve never communicated or shared with her much.

To be perfectly honest, I may not know my daughter that well. She’s always been so obedient and a self-starter. I’ve never criticized her or set any expectations.

I was especially worried about her adolescence. I was very worried about her personal growth in senior high. It doesn’t seem as easy for a father to communicate with his daughter compared to a mother. I’m not entirely clear on how to handle the father-daughter relationship.

She’s also been separated from her mother for quite some time. She only reunited with her mother after she started university. I didn’t press her for details. I only asked her to call her mother once in a while to show her concern.

I’ve thought about finding a new partner after my daughter grew up, but it’s ultimately up to serendipity. My career has also been up and down all these years. I’m not a clear success story. It’s hard to meet the right person without solid finances.

As a single father, among all my daughter’s qualities, what I’m proudest of is her independence. She’s always been a keen student. I’ve never had to worry. She finished a master’s degree through her own hard work. As an undergraduate, she was guaranteed admission to her master’s program on account of her academic excellence. It was quite the accomplishment.

But her career hasn’t gone that smoothly, which has me quite worried. She’s worked for some decent companies though. I’ve always had faith in her ability.

Recently I learned she was diagnosed with clinical depression. I looked it up on the internet and was terrified. How did she end up with this condition? It’s a question I ponder constantly. Was it work, or romance, or her complicated family background?

I wrote her a message and visited her in her complex the next day. She was in a pretty bad state. She struggled to sleep and lumbered about. She looked like she had given up on life. It was painful to see.

If there’s something I want to say to her the most, it’s still that I let her down deeply by not providing her with both maternal and paternal love. I spent too little time with her when she grew up.

I still remember the day her university entrance exam results were announced in 2008. We were en route to Yantai in eastern Shandong province and didn’t have access to a computer. When we got home and looked up her scores, she hugged me tightly. I was in utter bliss. But I also felt guilty. She was a boarder throughout senior high. I barely spent any time with her when she prepared for her university entry exams.

Even though we both live in Beijing now, we’re not in close contact. We only touch base every few days. Our conversations mainly revolve around work. Sometimes I want to ask her how things are really going at work and how she’s doing relationship-wise, but I’m worried she’ll think I’m nagging.

My biggest hope these days is that she stays healthy and happy, that her career goes smoothly and that she finds a boyfriend. After all, which father doesn’t love their child? Even though I never say so, I still love her dearly.

To be continued…

Translator: Min Lee