How I Ended Up Learning Chinese
Divorce and Consequences.
So we arrived in Canada with a plan. Soon enough, we’d leave without one.
In writing this, I’m aware that I’m writing a story that isn’t interesting, but I don’t dare make it more interesting. As I warned in the first chapter, all of the parts are extraneous, and (unlike fiction) they don’t add up to any kind of greater whole.
What I thought of as my long-term future in Canada disappeared as soon as my wife decided to quit her job there. I’ve already discussed this in my Youtube video, “Why I Stopped Learning Cree”. My wife made the decision that she would quit her job and try to get pregnant more-or-less simultaneously.
In many ways, that was a smart idea: if you’re stuck in a job that you want to quit, then the period of unemployment between the job you’ve got and the next one you’ll get provides a long pause to devote yourself to taking care of a baby. In terms of the timing of maternity leave, the process of relocation, and many other boring details, the plan was smarter than it seems, especially for two parents who don’t have an extended family to help them with the baby (and who both need to be unemployed, at least for the first year, due to the lack of any other hands to help take care of the infant).
What wasn’t smart about the plan was the position that it left me in: having sacrificed everything in my life to move from Cambodia to Canada, I was now being asked to sacrifice everything --again-- with no possible path for my own education and career following thereafter. Apart from the pressure of parenthood, I was also expected to start earning a living sooner rather than later, making quite a number of the educational options that had been on the top of my own list impossible. I now had the immediate duty of packing, moving, assembling new furniture, supporting my wife through pregnancy, childbirth, and then taking care of the baby (in some then-unknown location in the world), but I was being asked to do all this in a long-term context that had fundamentally changed through the loss of the education I had been planning on.
After my wife had made this decision (entailing that we would pack up and move before the baby was born, etc.) there was a significant pause of a few months’ time, during which I didn’t know where we’d be moving to.
We researched and discussed a strange diversity of possible places where my wife could give birth to our daughter. We reconsidered all the countries that either one of us had lived in before, and a list of other possibilities, extending to even some of the remote islands under French dominion; and in each case there were many technical considerations such as health-insurance, the quality of medical care if there should be complications, and how the location of the birth might change the baby’s passport status, and so on.
Nowhere on that list of considerations was my own long-term future; or, if it was anywhere, it was very low on the list of priorities, at a juncture when it needed to be nearer to the top. Parenthood would only increase the expectations put upon me, while the window of opportunity for me to get any education before the looming necessity of earning a living was rapidly closing before my eyes. My own aspirations (that were, as always, more ethical, political and intellectual than they ever were financial) were now, simply, put into the garbage.
In the short term, I could pack, clean, do all the heavy lifting and so on, and I could be caring and supportive during all the strange trials that both birth and bureaucracy were going to entail for my wife. However, my wife was now creating a long-term problem that could only be ignored for so long; and she was increasingly unwilling to even discuss it with me, let alone work to improve the situation, or avoid disaster.
While I’ve said, above, that she had a smart plan in some ways (to take advantage of the timing of when she wanted to quit her job, maternity leave, etc.) it also has to be said that this was only a matter of convenience for her. There never was any fundamental reason to have the baby at that moment rather than (say) three years later, when I might have been in much better circumstances (and I might have at least completed an M.A., or be enrolled in some other diploma, with some stable home somewhere, etc.). The promises she had made to me (to support me in my own education, etc.) had been broken and discarded. I was expected, again, to sacrifice everything that was meaningful to me (with very long-term implications) to suit her convenience
It was easier for her to lie to herself than it was for her to face, frankly, what her decisions then were, and what the consequences would be for me (even in the next ten months, let alone the next ten years). Was I supposed to be motivated to learn French, just for the possibility of working at a gas-station in France? My qualifications were worthless in France, and, worse, I’d be expected to raise and support a child there only until the moment my wife found her next job --and then it would be incumbent upon me (just as suddenly) to relocate (all over again) in order to live wherever her next employer was. So, apart from the difficulty of building up any kind of a life in France, there was the impossibility of holding onto whatever life I might build.
She knew the devastating effect that her prior decisions already had for me, and she was aware that she was about to make things dramatically worse (not better) with decisions that benefitted herself only. However, it was easier for her to pretend that she didn’t know, and she did, sometimes, pretend. In trying to discuss what we could do and would do, she would retreat into one kind of evasion or another. It hurt me a great deal to witness this process, for example, to hear her dismiss the significance of her own broken promises to me, to see her dismiss what really were (in clichéd language) all my hopes and dreams.
She wasn’t capable of really facing up to the sacrifice that she was asking me to make, and, meanwhile, I was proving that I was capable of making that sacrifice, just so that she could quit a job she wanted to quit, and just so that she could have a baby immediately, on the schedule of her own choosing. And I did.
However, the last time, in moving from Cambodia to Canada, the sacrifice was made in exchange for a promise, and that promise was now (already) broken and discarded. What was the sacrifice being made in exchange for this time? Nothing.
I was being promised nothing in return: just a mattress on the floor, and a future of cooking, cleaning, taking care of the baby, doing the food-shopping, and so on --with absolutely no way to pursue my own education, interests or career after that.
I had traded in two very different futures that I cared passionately about to be rewarded with the vague promise that some kind of minimum wage job might be found for me (after I spent years as a house-husband). That wasn’t a deal that anyone would accept (neither considering what I had sacrificed in Cambodia before, nor what I was sacrificing in Canada, now). It wasn’t just a bad deal for myself, but had terrible implications for my family’s future as a whole: for my daughter, my wife, our future together (in France or elsewhere) and so on.
My wife did feel guilty about it, but her feeling of guilt didn’t motivate her to improve the situation, she instead tended toward escapism. She turned her face away from the whole matter, in a context that was rapidly changing around us. We were then planning a new life, and a relocation to the other side of the globe, starting with only the vaguest outlines of what was necessary and where we might go. Both time and money were finite; the possibilities for employment for either one of us, after the planned period of unemployment spent raising an infant, were finite, also. Even at that early stage, when we were both still in Canada, she could not stand to hear the issues discussed calmly and openly (and this became worse and worse, with time).
When it was most crucial for both of us to planning for the future, my wife was sinking deeper and deeper into self-deception and escapist behavior. She was, like most university professors, busy with teaching courses (and grading exams) with the one exception of the summer break between terms. This period (of about three months?) she did not spend with me, planning these transitions, but she instead went to Taiwan (alone, pregnant and with a research grant). I pleaded with her not to go, pointing to the real urgency of what had yet to be decided in our own lives (not least of all the question of my education, etc.).
The asymmetry of the situation was obvious. My books went into the garbage; not hers. My plans, my dreams, and my PhD, were abandoned; not hers. I had to give up everything I cared about and move to a country I did not want to live in (where I would study a language that I did not want to learn) in order to suit her schedule. There was nothing reciprocal about the situation, and she wasn’t nice about it, either.
Although there are few circumstances when “niceness” makes much of a difference, this might have been one of them: she was working on a book and a number of other projects, in addition to her teaching schedule and her elected trip to Taiwan, at the one juncture when planning my future needed to be a top priority if we were going to have a future together at all. And, again, she wasn’t nice about it. Instead, my wife was increasingly hostile and incoherent toward me, because it was easier (for her) than dealing with the facts of the situation, or dealing with her own sense of guilt attached to them.
Her own explanation for why she made that trip to Taiwan was, simply, escapist: she wanted to get away from her problems, and she did.
That summer holiday was both the first and the last opportunity we could have had to visit other cities, to have a look at some of the hospitals, to find an apartment, but also to look at university programs for myself, if her original promise (that brought me to Canada) had meant anything to her at all. I said that to her both before and after she made the trip; and I received cold, blank hostile stares in reply, and, sometimes, she screamed at me about spurious things. I would remember those events quite clearly, every time; she never would. It is a terrible thing to be forced to reason with someone who is incapable of reasoning with you; and that was my situation throughout the last chapter of my marriage.
The direct result of all this was that we ended up moving to a new city (in France) without having visited it once, relying on reviews of hospitals that were written on the internet, and other such secondary sources. The indirect result was that my wife went into a downward spiral, or, perhaps more accurately, I might say she was simply spiraling away from me: it was more and more convenient for her to dehumanize me, as she would rather see me as anything other than the victim of circumstances that she was actively creating, and she would rather feel nothing at all than feel responsible for exactly what she was (now) responsible for.
I was sacrificing everything to support my wife and (future) daughter, but in return I was not even being recognized as making those same sacrifices. At a time when my wife utterly relied on me for everything (during pregnancy, childbirth, and early infancy) we weren’t growing closer; instead, she was distancing herself from me, just to be able to deny the feeling of guilt. It was a sense of guilt that would consume her, more and more, as the next year unfolded.
I imagine there are couples who fight over things like cars and cellular phones. I’ve never owned a car, and I’ve never owned a cellphone. I made those types of sacrifices (giving up much of what “a normal life” in Canada would provide) because I care about things that are intellectual, ethical and political. My wife knew this about me, and this was part of why she loved me. By the same token, she knew just how much it meant for me to sacrifice those things (intellectual, ethical and political) that motivated me in life. She knew it; I knew it; neither side had to explain it to the other. I could live with it; she couldn’t.