Queer Girl Gets DIVORCED!

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We are sitting in a small office in a nondescript socialist-style office building on the 10th floor. It’s the same office building in which we got our marriage license exactly 9.5 years ago. (That’s as long as I was with my ex-girlfriend, by the way, but that’s another story.) The leather couch, shiny red-wood coffee table and beige filing cabinets lining one wall are identical. It’s a slightly different layout to that 2009 office, but it feels the same—just as static, stale, sterile. It’s a workspace. Nothing here resembles love, romance or even human union. It’s business only. After all, that’s what marriage used to represent: a financial agreement for domestic security purposes only.

The coffee table is littered with newspapers, which I remember distinctly as a feature from before (the mess), and it is on the coffee table that we were instructed to sweep aside papers, make space and sign forms. I remember him leaning over to write down all the data back then, squinting at my long, full English name, me thinking that I was probably crazy to be marrying someone who had to look at my documents to remember how to spell it. I also remember the comfort of the couch. How strangely comfortable it was in light of the inherent discomfort in deciding to get married at all. I sat back on the couch back then. I wasn’t doing the form-filling and had been disengaged from the whole process, rather annoyingly. I’d been factored out for the sake of my foreignness. Was this what marriage was going to be like for me in this country—imbalanced, I thought? Comfortable superficially, but ultimately a resignation? Was I going to be an outsider in every context, even in a personal life-changing decision? Marriage felt destabilizing then, like stepping into a boat that will never sit evenly on the surface of one’s life. And there we were (and are), both in the rock music industry.

[So many puns possible here… so many bad “rocking the boat” jokes…]

The employee is directing all questions at Guo Jian because she (in this case a woman rather than a man) expects that I understand nothing. It’s the same treatment. After ten years in this county, I know now that this is typical form of Chinese courtesy not meant to be offensive. What’s more, I can now understand every word of what is going on, which allows me to see that it’s not that important. Being dealt out of some dynamics is to one’s advantage. Besides, the couch is comfortable.

The one difference in this experience is the lack of overflowing ashtray on the coffee table or the cloudy, smoke-filled interior of the 2009 office. It felt like a dark den back then. (I just chuckled to myself when I wrote that: now “Divorce Den”!) No one is smoking in here now, though. The fire is out. Just like in our marriage. Times have changed. We move on.

For three years, we’ve been separated. I’ve been quiet about it for a lot of reasons, mostly related to the kids and my status here, but also the extended Chinese family and prevailing attitudes re: marriage/partnership/divorce supported by this surrounding culture. I engaged a long-range plan to keep harmony and security in place and three years is exactly what it took. I’ve been a savvy strategist on the family front; the combo of tactics and time-investment has yielded a more natural folding over into this new future than even I imagined would have been possible. Pat my back: I’m a wizard.

(I know you’ll all want more information here, but that’s part of the memoir…)

So, we are finally doing this process. I’ve spent the last three months finalizing all the steps in the paperwork labyrinth that will allow me to remain in China for another (nearly) two years (if I choose) thanks to processing my own two-year residence permit visa early; it will still be valid until it runs out. Then, if I want to remain in China, I’ll have to figure out other means. Beyond my own visa, there was one of the kids’ travel documents to process, then his Canadian visa to be reissued in his passport, which also required a marriage license. [His Canadian visa (unfairly) lasts for ten years. Canada is kinder to foreigners than China! Go figure.] Then the divorce contract needed to be properly written. Each of us consulted lawyers and then had to negotiate several points and have it written in formal Chinese legalese. I’m proud to say that I didn’t even need an English version—I’ve studied the crap out of that thing…

Anyway, that all took time. Three months later, without his parents’ approval but with the prized assurance of their continued support in terms of childcare, we are here in his hometown again and he is bent over the coffee table while I’m once again sitting idle, back comfortably on the couch, as the foreign counterpart in this marital union that has run its course.

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It’s not a failed marriage. Just now, waiting outside in the autumn sunshine for the offices to re-open (post collective-canteen lunch break), we chatted openly and easily. He ranted about how marriage is just the government’s way to collect people into units and control the population, about how there is a time when we can travel in the same “vehicle” together but it shouldn’t force us to stay in the same vehicle forever, and how his parents’ have an old view on everything. We agreed that our marriage didn’t fail; it just came to an end. We see the existence of our children as a great success. We spoke of how their lives will be richer and more exciting than ours because they are bridges between two worlds, privy to two cultures, gifted with this layer of global understanding. I laughed and noted that they’d probably spend a decade complaining of belonging nowhere and being given this interracial identity as a burden rather than a blessing. He reminisced about his own period of disillusionment and anger towards his parents.

When we came upstairs early and waited in the hallway, he barked at a poster with head-shots of employees framed beside their statements about how work was important to them, their roles for the government gave their lives meaning, etc.

“There’s Nazi-ism for ya,” he said, and it took me a moment to remember the word Nazi in Mandarin.

“Yeah, communism in poster form,” I said, standing up and looking closer at it. One of the pictures was different from the others and I pointed the woman out, noting she was wearing a colourful floral shirt while the others all wore white shirts and black jackets. Then I read her profile in which she spoke of being a soldier’s wife as the best way to understand a soldier’s world—service and devotion and national pride. I sighed. She didn’t speak of her job at all. Women are meant to hold up half the world here, as Mao said, but their backs are burdened by having to hold up their husband’s world too, not to mention the domestic sphere—and often before her world is even considered. Aside: then why are our backs physiologically smaller?

He has just moved to an empty desk in the corner. There are three people who work in this office. Two have arrived back from lunch now and the stack of paperwork that he must fill in is going to take him over an hour. They permit him to stop straining his back to write over the coffee table and so he sat at the unoccupied desk. At least my back is quite comfortable settled into the couch. I relax even more.

He is first filling in two forms: one to explain why he never replaced his marriage license (we each got one) when it was lost on an international tour with his band when his luggage got stolen; another form to explain why he never changed his household registration booklet’s status to “married,” which Chinese people are supposed to do after getting married.

Let me pause for a moment to express that some of these snippets explain why I fell in love with this guy. He hates the way this government works. He’s thrilled our children are Canadian citizens. He resents required actions of any kind, especially bureaucratic ones. He purposely didn’t do those above actions because he couldn’t be bothered. I appreciate the rebel in him and his anti-establishment, anarchistic indignation. He’s a free spirit.

But, these traits also killed our marriage. He couldn’t fall into a consistent role as a partner or a parent. He rejected the notion that he should take on any specific fatherly or domestic task. Yet, he simultaneously (and opportunistically) adhered to the traditional absenteeism granted to Chinese fathers thanks to his enabling mother, who slotted in as his replacement in the domestic equation. I slowly lost respect for him. He refused any compromise and then I felt betrayed and abandoned. We could never come back from that abyss. Our love died.

(That may be a short summary but, as I mentioned, I wrote a whole memoir about it. Maybe one day the thing will actually get published…)

So, because he didn’t do either of these bureaucratic things—the adding of marital status to the household registration booklet and then the replacing of his lost marriage license needed to precede the processing of a divorce—our time in his hometown could have lasted ten days. But, he’s the charming sort, as I know first hand. The woman in this office took pity on him and loudly proclaimed the snaking procedural rigmarole to be “crazy.” She agreed to allow us to directly book a time with her in this little office that rarely sees such cases in this municipality (a separate office for marriages or divorces between Chinese nationals and foreigners—that now sees a total of about 50 combined cases per year in a city of five million people). So, we came directly to her. She is allowing us to process this all in one day. Train tickets here in the morning. Train tickets back home in the evening. Rockstars get their privileges.

We wrote a long divorce agreement. It’s two pages typed. One of the forms she handed us forces us to copy it out by hand. Once I recovered from the shock of such a time-wasting regulation (why am I shocked? It’s China!), I offered to do the copying while he filled in the other forms. Apparently, this process can only feature one person’s handwriting. (Insert another shocked face here.) Can we staple it in, I asked? No, it can only be hand-written, she explained. If we need to add pages, we can do that. Extra pages can be added if they’re handwritten, but not if they’re typed. Oh, that’s logical. (Sarcasm).

Luckily, he doesn’t have to write it out three times. It must be copied exactly just once and they’ll photocopy the other two versions, she said. He sighed with relief when she said that. Me, I am still balking at the initial request to copy it by hand at all. Cultural paradigms exposed at every turn, just like in our marriage. He said, “No problem, you read your book,” and he’s now sitting obediently at the empty desk copying the contract just like a good Chinese student, versed in rote-learning and never questioning any ridiculous rule that ropes one into mundane tasks like copying out a legal contract word-for-word when lunch hasn’t yet been consumed. I think I just heard his stomach rumble. Mine is on fire.

We were laughing in the hallway just now as we waited for them to return. Not about the Nazi poster—that moment had ended—but about how we will revel in a lunch of Boshan 博山 food (yummy dishes like 风味茄子 [special stir-fried eggplant] and 炸蘑菇 [deep-fried mushrooms]) and then toast to this process being finally done. And we also laughed about how the employees here would shake their heads at our crazy laughter and peaceful energy, but three years have been the key to all that. We were not always peaceful, but we are getting along well today, light and clear like the sky, both obviously relieved to be putting this behind us. In fact, this is the most time we’ve spent together just one-on-one in more than two years.

“I guess divorce is generally fuelled by anger,” he said. “They’re going to think we’re a crazy couple out here.”

“We are crazy,” I said. “That’s why we can’t be married.”

He laughed.

After a few minutes, I asked him if he’d been eating Chinese chives yesterday. His breath was attacking my nostrils. Several times since we’d met in the morning I’d had to step back from his halitosis, breathing the air of distance, relieved to soon be no longer married to someone whose breath I can’t stand to be near to.

“Raw garlic,” he said proudly. “It’s good for the body.”

“It inspires divorce,” I said.

He laughed loudly. His breath attacked me again. I moved over one chair. He laughed louder yet again.

“It keeps people far from you!” he said, using the same Chinese word that’s in divorce “li 离” as it denotes distance. “Get away from me!” he added in English—a phrase that I sputtered at him regularly in the second half of our relationship. (Oops).

He was playing with language. I’d forgotten he sometimes did that. I like it. It was one of the things I enjoyed about him. Yet another reason I married this smelly goofball. He purposely blew air at me then. I covered my face with my hands and yelped. He smirked.

He’s been copying out the contract for an hour now. He just stretched and declared himself hungry. He’s only halfway done. I remembered I’d put some rice cakes in my bag and I shared one with him and ate the rest of the bag myself. I don’t feel bad about that. So many years of marital imbalance between us makes me completely at peace with not sharing my rice cakes with him half-and-half. These little justifications may seem petty, but I don’t care; they’re the only way I feel a quiet victory emerge from a situation in which I was, retrospectively and objectively, the true loser for so long. It was a status I accepted as a feature of cultural difference, but it conflicted with my core values around feminism, equality and self-respect. For a time, that is. I’m so glad that I have now wholly rejected the imbalance. Today formalizes this fact.

Divorce.

He’s finished the contract replication on the form. He asks me to check it over and I do so and it’s been copied clearly and precisely in his angular, box-like, lop-sided handwriting–his penmanship is such a slap to the lovely Chinese script.

I am also made to write one single sentence in Chinese that says that I am willingly getting a divorce, am of “sound mind,” and do not contest any content of the contract stated in the form. I do so in my best Chinese writing, but I’m an adult foreigner who learned to write Chinese long after it could possibly look natural coming out of her pen. I sigh. I shouldn’t have been critical about his penmanship just now. Mine looks like a preschooler’s writing.

The woman in the office provides a few more short declaration forms and shows us where to sign. We affix photos to another form and then have to stick our thumbs in red ink and put our fingerprints on several pages over our signatures including two additional copies of what he had already written out.

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Then there are booklets. We affix more photos. The red booklets of our marriage (of which there is currently only one) have now been replaced with two red divorce booklets. Unlike the marriage booklets, the divorce booklets just feature our individual photos. I’m happy—the booklet is fresh and new just like our freedom and I insist we take pictures of them. We do a selfie. We high-five. We laugh.

“You two get along great, it’s a wonder you’re getting divorced,” the woman says.

“I guess a lot of people come in here fighting,” Guo Jian says, and she confirms that people in such high spirits as ours are quite rare.

“We’re good friends,” I say, which isn’t exactly true but is a convenient way to explain why we’re getting along so well today.

We ask the lady to take a better picture of us outside in the hallway and she agrees but she’s not a photographer, so we eventually resort to more selfies.

And then there it is. It’s done. Divorced. Free. I feel light with the reality of this but unsure if I can absorb it. We descend to the outdoors and hail a taxi to a restaurant at which he orders my two favourite dishes, gets himself some meat-filled monstrosities and shrimp dumplings, starts drinking rice wine, and we fall into an easy conversation. We talk about the kids and what they’ll become and how their personalities differ. His sauce for the dumplings arrives; it’s garlic-infused vinegar.

“I guess you don’t have a girlfriend now if you’re eating more garlic,” I say with a wink. He laughs but doesn’t confirm or deny anything. I don’t require either but then add, “Or else you have a girlfriend and she likes eating garlic too!” He laughs harder then and tells me I’m funny. The conversation moves on.

Later, at the train station as we wait to board, I express out loud that we haven’t spent this much time alone together in more than two years and he says, “It’s comfortable and familiar. We’re family.”

“We always will be family,” I say.

“Because of the kids,” he adds.

“Yeah.”

We get in separate cars of the same train, just like we did coming to this city. We will sit separately for three hours and reconnect after the train arrives to take the subway back home. There, in the same apartment compound, we occupy two different apartments in two different buildings. It’s the way it will stay for now. Family, but no longer spouses.

I sit on the train staring out, now a free woman—no longer married. I smile. My reflection smiles back at me in the black-night mirror of the train window. I’m older now. A swath of white hair frames my face that stretches out from my left temple. Older is fine with me, I think. I’m so much happier no longer in this marriage and today we’ve made that happiness official. I look into my own eyes.

“Nice work,” I tell myself silently. “You’ve played your cards well. Everything’s going to be fine. How shall you celebrate?”

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Here is a link to the blog I wrote about getting the marriage license in 2009.

Below is an image of our (sleepy) marriage photo from 2009. I think the divorce picture looks happier!

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