The modern concept of ending a marriage out of the mutual wishes of both husband and wife was unheard of in China until 1922, when the first Western-style divorce occurred between a woman named Chang Yu-i and the famous poet Hsu Chih-mo. Before that, when a marriage ended, the husband always left the wife for one or more reasons, called the Qi Chu (七出), the “Seven Outs”:

  1. She disobeyed his parents
  2. She could not bear him sons
  3. She committed adultery
  4. She acted jealous and was unwilling to take in a concubine
  5. She were repulsively sick
  6. She talked too much
  7. She committed theft

The wife became so disgraced afterwards that her only options were prostitution, nunnery, or suicide. The first Western divorce caused by lack of love was so scandalous that it remained a popular topic of gossip for years. Chang Yu-i never discussed the matter with her parents, and they never directly acknowledged it. Even to their deaths, they retained this shame-induced silence.

Until the past few years, failure of marriage was still regarded with shame in China; increasing Westernization of the country has alleviated traditional expectations for marriage, and the divorce rate now stands at about 21% (still less than half of what it is in the U.S.). Divorce and separation continue, however, to go unacknowledged by people with more traditional values – people such as my family.

My parents have been separated now for about eight years, but we have never discussed this with each other, much less our extended family. My grandparents don’t even know – they just assume my parents are still living under the same roof. I wrote the following piece in an effort to understand what my family refuses to discuss, and deal with the ever increasing disconnect from my father that resulted from the separation.

***

The Silent Goodbye

It didn’t occur to me until a few months too late that my father had left us. Little by little, he stopped spending time at home. I stopped seeing him at dinnertime, then in the evenings, and then at night. I could always depend on him being there in the morning though, until that too changed one day. It was fall, and the sun, having retired earlier this evening than the last, left our little suburban neighborhood nearly dark. In my house, the only light came from my brother’s bedroom where I was doing homework, having converted it into a study after he left for boarding school, and the kitchen where my mother was washing dishes and muttering angrily to herself.

My parents had just had an argument, which mostly consisted of my mother nagging my father loudly in Chinese while he sat in silence, reading the newspaper, sipping his coffee, and occasionally uttering transparent noises of agreement. This was not the first time they had fought. Sometimes she later complained to me about how he had forgotten to pay the bills or hadn’t turned in some official-sounding form on time. It would only be much later when I asked her why he had left that she refused to rant about the error of his ways, only saying that he had done something “very bad”.

Now, the carpeted hallway creaked slightly outside my bedroom door where my father, a tall, skinny, angular man stood. “Jennifer?” He said, in the strangely gentle and patronizing voice he reserved for me.

“Yes?” I replied, briefly turning from my desk where a mess of books, dirty cups, and scraps of paper lay.

“I’m going to spend the night at the office.”

If anything about this seemed odd to me, it was the fact that he was informing me instead of simply slipping out of the house silently as he usually had done. I assumed that staying at an office overnight was just something grownups did every once in a while. At twelve years old, I had never worked a day in my life, so how was I to know?

“Okay.” I said, eyeing the briefcase slung around his shoulder.

“Your mom will take you to school in the morning.”

“Okay.”

He left then, and I turned my attention back to the books and papers on my desk. I was so absorbed in learning the individual significance of the Founding Fathers that I didn’t hear the slow grinding whirr of the garage door as it opened and closed, and I didn’t see the flash of bright headlights as my father’s car circled around the cul de sac before disappearing down the road to who knows where.

Although what my father told me implied that he was only spending one night at his office, I wasn’t entirely surprised when I didn’t see him the next night, the night after that, or any night thereafter. He still picked me up from school occasionally, and sometimes even stayed for a few hours after bringing me home. When he left, though, it was always with an armful of his things and no explanation of why he was carrying them. I never asked for fear of an awkward moment and becoming an annoyance. It seems obvious now that he was leaving, but as a child, I couldn’t comprehend that there would be a day when there would be nothing left for him here, when he would no longer have a reason to come home.

After a year or so, so many of his things were left behind that it still looked like he lived at my house. His decision not to take most of his possessions made sense to me: I assumed he was living in his office. I had visited him at work a few times before and knew there couldn’t possibly be enough room for everything.

A few years later when I was starting high school, my father took me to a small house about half an hour away from home. He didn’t mention where we were going, just that he needed to stop by somewhere, so I assumed he was running an errand before taking me home from school: he ran a hobby-business on the side of his main job as a math professor of buying and fixing up small houses and then renting them. Often, he would stop at one of these houses to collect rent or deal with some other issue on the way home after picking me up at school. The idea was that the rent would help my family’s income, but more often than not, he ended up keeping the checks for himself. Although I had this knowledge, thanks to my mother, I dared not to say anything to my father about it. I didn’t want to further damage our fragile relationship.

We pulled into the driveway of a small one-story house in a neighborhood about fifteen minutes from downtown – somewhere between the city and suburbia. Strangely, my father asked if I wanted to go inside; he often ran errands at houses like this but usually had me stay in the car. I was hungry for any scrap of his life he threw my way, but was also at an age when I felt obligated to feign indifference to everything. I shrugged my shoulders and said okay.

He led me up the sidewalk to the front door, which he unlocked with a set of keys that was on his main key ring. We walked through the door and I took in the first room we passed through. There were books and papers scattered everywhere, a Chinese calendar on the wall, and in the midst of the room, I saw a dark, ornately carved wooden bench that matched some other furniture we had at home. My eyes narrowed and I looked closer at everything else. Some of the books I recognized, and there was a silver spoon lying on a table that was identical to one that had inexplicably disappeared from home a few months ago. As I looked at the familiar floral pattern on its handle, I knew the house was his. This is where he had been living.

I was too confused and shocked to be angry, and even without those emotions, I don’t think I would have been angry otherwise. It was a relief to know that he wasn’t squatting in his office downtown, and I was just grateful to be let into his home, to glimpse this part of his life.

I followed my father to the kitchen, where he sat me down at a small table and laid a glass of milk and a box of Sandie’s pecan cookies before me. He showed me his dogs – two golden retrievers – and then took them outside to the backyard to play. I took a bite of a cookie and a few sips of milk and listened to the refrigerator hum. My father came back inside and led me to another room, where we sat down on a couch to watch a sci-fi movie on his plasma TV. I hoped it would be a long movie.

By the time the movie ended, it was dark outside and my father decided it was time for me to go home. As we drove through the quiet night, I realized my father hadn’t abandoned his possessions because he didn’t have the room for all of them. He had taken only what he had needed and wanted, never to return what he had chosen. Until now. Now, even though he had let me into his house, he was taking me back home.

I saw my father’s house once more after that day, and never again afterwards. My father himself I saw a few times a week whenever he picked me up from school, but when I got my driver’s license, we no longer had a practical reason to see each other. Oddly, he was the one who took me to complete my driver’s test – the one I returned to, smiling and triumphant, after passing it and getting my license. He was proud and happy for me, but we drove back home in relative silence as the implications of that new little piece of plastic in my wallet began to settle in.

Sometimes I wonder if those two little visits were a way to see if I fit into his life, like a swatch of curtain fabric brought home and pressed against the wall to weigh its compatibility. It is easy to explain why there was no third, fourth, or fifth visit by concluding that he simply didn’t care enough about me, or found me incompatible with his lifestyle. Perhaps he also realized during my visits how awkward it might be for me to live with him. For although he was a kind enough father, feeding me cookies and letting me watch a movie, not much was actually said, much less communicated, between us. But another explanation is that he realized it would be far too selfish to keep me. Even if he had wanted me in his life and was willing to bridge the awkwardness between us, he knew I would have a better, more stable life staying at home than I would having to shuttle between two different houses.

This is the explanation I would like to believe. Most likely, I will never find out which is true. Since that one fall evening, nothing he has said has even indicated that we no longer live in the same house. My parents rarely acknowledge it themselves or to me, much less the extended family: all of our relatives continue to assume my parents are happily married and living together. My mother refuses to tell them because she doesn’t want to cause them shame and unnecessary worry.

It’s therefore unlikely they will discuss it anytime soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they took the issue to their graves. It’s been almost eight years now since my parents separated, but the only acknowledgement of that is on the financial aid form that I send in for college. Whenever I see my father these days, which ranges anywhere from a few months to a year, his hair is a little greyer and his face a little more lined. I may never learn why he chose to show me his home, much less why he left in the first place, for by the time I work up the courage to ask, it will be far in the future and far too late.

by Jennifer Tam

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