How I Ended Up Learning Chinese
Divorce and Consequences.
There was no such period of time. I agreed to the divorce on January 10th, and my wife was on an airplane (with my daughter) on January 14th.
Still, at that point, it didn’t seem to me that it was inevitable that we’d live in separate cities, or that we’d be entirely separated for long. In accepting that we were getting divorced, I neither assumed that I had no responsibilities to my ex-wife anymore, nor did I assume that she had no responsibilities toward me. On the contrary, I thought there was a lifetime of carefully negotiated co-operation ahead of us --especially given the bizarre circumstances I was starting from in Taiwan.
In the few days between the decision to divorce and my wife’s departure (for France, with my daughter) a plan took shape. My wife made promises that she would break almost as soon as her flight departed.
The family fortune at that time was greater than 160,000 euros. Although I regarded this as my wife’s money, and not my own, the practical reality was that my own life had been destroyed by the marriage, and in the two years leading up to the divorce, especially, all of my personal and professional interests had been sacrificed to support my wife --and, later, my wife and daughter.
What, now, was supposed to happen to me? Apart from the direct damage done to me by my wife’s decisions, she had long since broken all of her promises to support my education, so I now had no way to re-enter classes, nor to re-enter the workforce directly. On a very practical level, without even thinking of compensation, there was the question of what would happen to me after my wife disappeared with my daughter.
The proposal that my wife made (and that she would, soon enough, break, without a word of apology or explanation) was this: she would transfer to me 50,000 euros (not a half, but “rounding down” of one third of the money then sitting in a bank-account) and this would allow me to at least take some courses in Chinese, or take some steps toward my own education, and to get back into the workforce somehow (in Taiwan, in Canada, or elsewhere) through a period of transition.
This wasn’t a negotiated settlement: that was my wife's first suggestion, and I simply nodded in agreement to it, and then discussed what types of outcomes we might expect in the next few years (how soon I might have a job, and, indeed, how soon I might be able to pay child-support, and so on, starting from this scenario).
My wife agreed to this with full knowledge of my circumstances in every way: she knew exactly how much rent I had to pay each month, she knew what my visa-status was, she understood all of the paperwork and procedures involved in all of the countries that might be concerned. She knew the costs, and she knew exactly how much (i.e., how little) money I had in this one bank account in Taiwan (that is, in fact, the only bank account I have anywhere in the world).
To be blunt, this agreement did not make me happy, but it did not yet (at this stage) close the door against the possibility that I might live in the same city as my wife and daughter in the future.
I do not mean that I was ever hoping to reconcile with my wife (i.e., I was not hoping to remarry, nor to avert the divorce), but that I was hoping I would live within a few miles of wherever they were living in the future, and that I would be a regular part of my daughter’s life. My own thoughts about education and employment (that we discussed at length during those few days before my wife’s departure) were very much linked to this possibility (and my wife mentioned various possibilities for herself, that, e.g., she might move to an American city like Seattle rather than staying for long in France, and so on).
This situation presented tremendous, terrible difficulties: I was starting off marooned in a country where I did not speak the language, and had no possibility of work or education, and where I did not have a single friend. Although 50,000 euros may seem like enough money to easily start a new life (or make some kind of investment), it is a frighteningly small budget if you are looking at getting another diploma (of some kind) and re-entering the workforce as soon as possible. My own situation was worse, as I had the long-term instability of not knowing where in the world I would want to earn a living, if I was ever going to see my daughter again, and I had the moral pressure to pay child support as soon as reasonably possible. My wife was clear that she did not expect me to pay anything while I was a student, nor if I were earning a very minimal income as a part-time English teacher; but, even if there was an unspecified timeline, I was facing a clear challenge on the horizon to “monetize” whatever abilities I already had --and to gain new ones.
However, what my wife did was to turn around and stab me in the back, removing the promised 50,000 euros from the equation. With this, my situation became absolutely impossible; and, immediately, I had a terrible crisis in figuring out how I was going to pay my rent, and how I was going to buy my next airplane ticket.
Apart from the money and my own educational options, what fell apart at this point was any possibility of long-term co-operation between us, and this was tremendously sad to me, because everything we had discussed and planned (up to this point) did indeed assume a lot of positive co-operation. Now, instead, I could expect to never see my daughter again, and to receive only silent hostility from my wife, who presented the vague (but probably hollow) threat of having lawyers on her side.
As a matter of honor, I would have never employed lawyers against my wife, and I did not think (at the time of our separation) that there would be any hostilities to be resolved. At the time that we separated, I saw myself as being in a tragic situation, but in a period of transition that could have some positive results at the end of it (perhaps I could pick up a diploma at a university in Taiwan, move on to some job, and earn enough money to see my daughter long-distance, or pursue work --eventually-- in Seattle or wherever they settled). Instead, now, the devastation of everything that mattered to me in my life (during the prior six years, and during the last two years most immediately) was made dramatically worse by my wife breaking her word, and leaving me in a situation where I could neither pay my rent, nor pursue any of those long-term possibilities.
My wife never offered any explanation for her sudden and devastating reversal-of-policy; she refused to discuss (or negotiate) how we could now proceed to co-operate in the future. For about two and a half months, I was expecting exactly this: even if she was going to betray me (and directly put me in peril, as she knew my rent, my bank balance, my visa situation, etc.) I expected that she had some new plan that she would propose to replace the plan that she had discarded. This never came; instead, she was unwilling to say anything to me at all (I had only a few e-mails of just two sentences long from her, etc.).
It’s dangerous to offer rational explanations for what may be irrational decisions, but it is possible that my wife convinced herself that (contrary to everything I had promised her) some legal battle was about to ensue. If she believed this, then her main reason for refusing to send the money she had promised might have been the fear that I would use the funds to employ lawyers against her. For me, that would be unthinkable, just because it would be dishonest and dishonorable; and, of course, what my wife did to me was --likewise-- unthinkable to me until she announced to me that this was what she would be doing.
I am aware that if I had been hostile toward my wife, I could have used several lines of legal reasoning against her (employing lawyers in at least two countries and three languages, I suppose?). I am aware that I have theoretical rights that I could plead, and I am aware that the two university programs that I was (formally) enrolled in (but dropped out of, to support my wife and daughter) provide some legal evidence of the extent of the sacrifices I made --and that my wife might indeed be expected (by a court) to compensate me for the misery I had been through (from Canada to France, and then from France to Taiwan) just to be an unwaged, supportive part of this family.
However, I would never argue that, and I would never plead that. I would never use the law to hurt my wife, nor to hurt my daughter, nor to impair my wife’s ability to raise my daughter, even though the damage done to me has been so terrible. I cannot imagine anything more wasteful and destructive than creating a legal battle for someone who has chosen (in difficult circumstances of her own) to suddenly become a single mother. And, as I’ve already said at least twice, I also saw the future as a challenge of positive co-operation (possibly involving “co-parenting”) between two people who would remain divorced, but who would, also, be united by duties toward their child (and so on).
Now, suddenly, in contrast to all that, my wife revealed that her new perspective on the situation was one of total legal hostility toward me.
For me, this was at the end of two truly-exhausting years, in which I had relocated again and again, first with a pregnant wife, and then with an infant, devoting all of my time and energy to this family (both in changing diapers, cooking, cleaning, etc., and in assembling furniture, etc. --“home-making” in a very literal sense). My reward for this was being separated from my daughter, never seeing her again, and being intentionally left in absolutely terrible circumstances (where I could neither earn a living, nor otherwise pay my rent, etc.). And I was never given an explanation, I was never given a reason, and I was never offered any kind of plan or strategy of what the future was supposed to entail, given this betrayal of what all our former plans had been.
When I was in Canada, I was actively researching a long list of PhD programs. I was expecting to re-enter the workforce via a graduate degree (earned in Canada) --and, of course, several years of hard work along the way. Instead, I was reduced to a situation of absolute dependency, and absolute servility, sacrificing everything just to support my wife and daughter. In return, I was neither treated with respect, nor love, nor dignity; I was deceived and discarded, with my wife knowing very precisely how terrible the circumstances were that she was marooning me in.
I’ll say again: she wasn’t nice about it, you know. Even in such bleak and extreme circumstances as this, it is possible for human beings to extend some courtesy to one-another, some “niceness” for lack of a better word. When my wife told me that she was not going to send the money (in the one-and-only telephone call we had since separating) just days after e-mailing me details of the bank transfer that was supposedly about to transpire, my immediate (earnest) reaction, was to ask in amazement, “Do you expect me to commit suicide?” Genuinely, having lost everything (including my daughter), and now being betrayed (in this way that made it impossible to stay in the home I just-barely-had, and likewise making it impossible for me relocate elsewhere, if I had anywhere to go), I could not imagine what she thought would happen to me next, if not suicide.
Her response, during the only phone-call we had, was simply to scream at me for daring to mention suicide in front of her. She said something angry and incoherent, also, suggesting that if she sent me the money (50,000 euros) I could have another child with some other woman “tomorrow”. My reply to this was, very calmly, logically and firmly, to tell her that while I didn’t have any plans to find another wife (neither tomorrow nor ever), she needed to accept that one fundamental aspect of divorce is that either one of us could remarry in future: she, also, could find a new boyfriend tomorrow, and, if so, my position would be to say to her, “congratulations”, and my responsibility would be to tell her that I was happy for her if she married another man, or had another child with another man as its father. I said to her, very sincerely, that I would congratulate her and try to be supportive and friendly toward the other man (whoever he might be) if she did remarry, and that I thought this was part of the responsibility of being divorced. That was not what she was expecting to hear, apparently.
In the 21st century, in western cultures, all powers of parental “possession” revert to the mother (and I think possession is a more accurate word than custody). Fathers are given rights to visit, and in extraordinary circumstances (such as the mother being a criminal, and so on) the order of these things is reversed, but the roles are neither equal nor even reciprocal. As surreal as this may be, I accept the fact that while nations like France and Canada have vague principles of equality, this is one aspect of western culture that is entirely asymmetrical. There is no point in complaining about this asymmetry, whereas we have a real (and important) question in asking how we can reduce the harm, and help one-another, in this asymmetrical situation. The whole farce of what people call “a custody battle” is a destructive distraction from this challenge: if both parties are really asking themselves how they can do the most to help the other, and how they can do the most to help the child, then the issues being negotiated are neither ones of “custody” nor of “possession”.
I genuinely don’t know how I can provide a home for myself in the next 5 years, let alone a home for a growing child. I know my ex-wife has a small fortune of more than 150,000 euros to help her cope with her circumstances, and I don’t want either one of us to waste a single dollar on lawyers, nor would I want to do anything that is going to impair her ability to be a supportive parent. I say this despite my very real ruination as a result of my wife’s intentionally malicious actions against me. There’s nothing to be gained from my acting maliciously in return, and I neither want to harm my ex-wife nor my daughter. It is a lost opportunity that my wife does not share my constructive attitude: she could be helping me, now, to become a supportive parent again in the future (as I was in the recent past). Instead, my wife has totally closed the door on any possibility of our co-operating as parents (long-distance, or in the same city), and she has sealed my fate as an abandoned man who will never see his own daughter again.
Although 100% of my own time and energy had been devoted to supporting my wife and raising my daughter from the period that started before the pregnancy and ended a little less than a year after the birth, I have the detachment to recognize that I was never the one doing the breast-feeding, and that there is an ineluctable asymmetry between the genders in these most private and personal realities. Although I sacrificed everything to be a father, and I was totally devoted to this task for as long as my marriage lasted, I can recognize, with detachment, that if my wife wanted to live in separate cities, she has the biological imperative to be the one carrying the baby in that separation, and we are talking about a baby that was still breast-feeding at the time we separated.
I didn’t want to get divorced: I relocated to France assuming I was with a woman who would be married to me until I was very elderly, or dead. However, at length, I was convinced that I should accept my wife’s offer to divorce, and I did so. At that stage, I didn’t want to live in a separate city from my wife and daughter, but I do understand that my wife can decide to move anywhere without my consent (indeed, she can do this whether we are married or divorced), and I understand that this is an absurdity that everyone in modern, western culture must accept, and that it is part of the breakdown of the more feudal assumptions of family structure that nobody (or almost nobody?) wants to return to. That is part of the mode of marriage in the 21st century, western world; and while it has flaws, it’s better than earlier centuries, and I can’t offer an alternative to it. I do not want to be in the position of dictating my ex-wife’s future, nor my daughter’s future; and modern marriage customs entail that we all need to appreciate this type of liberty, even when it involves our own personal tragedy.
I would not want to be part of a legal system that created the opposite situation, of a father having the power to force his wife to relocate (from one country to another) to suit his interests, because I can easily imagine what harm would arise from it. Although a terrible evil has been done to me, I can cope with this evil more easily than an infant; and while my wife has deprived me of absolutely everything, I will not let her deprive me of my dignity, and I will not enter into any kind of hostile legal action (that would be, from my perspective, an immoral act, only causing more harm, and not creating any conditions for cooperation).
So, that’s what I’m left with: nothing, and six years of broken promises that destroyed all of my intellectual potential (in Pali, in Cree, and even in Chinese) from a woman who demanded that I sacrifice everything meaningful in my own life, first to support her career, and then to support her decision to have a child at the moment of quitting her job. She rewarded my sacrifice (and the real support I gave her) with betrayal. I will not repay betrayal with betrayal; I will not respond to hostility with hostility, nor will I become despicable in my own eyes just to make a demonstration of how despicable my wife has become to me. My ex-wife has destroyed any possibility of positive cooperation between us, and she has very directly destroyed my own life; and that is why my daughter will never know me, and will never have a father, despite the fact that I am sitting here, unemployed, and not enrolled in any education, just as devoted to being her father now as I was two years ago (before she was born), and just as willing to sacrifice whatever I have to be with her, now, just as I did before (in relocating from Cambodia to Canada to France to Taiwan).