Updated: Mar 8
A long time ago, before children, expatriation, and an affair, my soon-to-be husband and I knelt before my parents and served them tea in a wedding ritual far older than any American custom I had known growing up in New York. I was to marry a Chinese man and have a Chinese wedding from start to finish with my friends and family cheering me on, an idea I adored. It made me feel like part of something bigger, my culture. And David was just the type of guy I needed, someone safe and reliable.
Soon after, I gave birth to my precious Chinese baby girl. Round cheeks white like porcelain with a hint of pink, she resembled David’s less “Americanized” side of the family. I vowed, as so many mothers do, that I would do everything in my power to give her the best life. I would face challenges head-on and accept offers that would make us better and stronger, for her. I was 27 years old when we conceived my daughter. It would be the last time I would have sex with my husband.
I was too busy with my tumbling toddler to think about it. It wasn’t such a big deal, was it? I mean, I didn’t marry this man based on the fact that we had mind-blowing sex or made love like soulmates, I married him for stability, for a better future; the cornerstones of life and love for generations of Chinese before me. Who wasn’t going through similar circumstances? Sex wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I had more important things going on. Or so I told myself.
When David was asked to relocate to China to manage a division of his fast-growing company we jumped at the opportunity. A physical distance was already beginning to make itself known but we were headed for bigger, better things, I was sure of it.
Chinese people believe in the concept of yin-yang, the power behind a proper balance between two opposing forces. David was strong and stoic, the yang. He neither forced nor challenged my role in his life. He accepted things as they were and was a believer in the adage, ignorance is bliss. And though I was not a typical yin, soft and submissive, I was quick to play my part so that things could move along smoothly. Emotionally, I was breaking up inside and I didn’t even know it.
Within a few months of moving to China, David began struggling at work. I had known for a long time that management wasn’t his forte but somehow, I found it hard to advise him to seek other career options. This was a sure sign of what had become of our ability to communicate, and yet, I created stories in my head that told me everything was just fine. I know this man so well, he knows what he is doing… he doesn’t need to say it to me or hear it from me, he knows. I was lying to myself. And slowly but surely, I was becoming sheltered, secretive, and reclusive about my life and our marriage. It was only recently that I realized how much I had kept hidden inside.
David never hit me or our daughter. But that’s not to say he never thought about it. Because I never talked to my friends about my relationship, I lived far away, they were busy, they wouldn’t understand, I didn’t want them to dislike him and tell me to move home, I didn’t see how toxic his temper had become. In the back of my mind, I stored the memory of the time he threatened someone with a baseball bat for trying to take his parking spot at the mall. I suppressed the vision of my daughter at three years old having night terrors on a visit to his ancestral home, and how his entire family held him back as he attacked her for crying too loudly. I cringed at the thought of the fifteen-hundred-piece LEGO castle she and I completed that he destroyed in one swift kick because he was angry at her whining. He was like a panda bear, placid and unassuming, most of the time, but a bear nonetheless. When he was triggered, he would become enraged. I couldn’t see the effect it had on my ability to confide in him, make requests of him, or even encourage him. His unpredictable outbursts told me to keep a distance but somehow, it never told me to leave. Play your part, keep quiet and everything will be just fine.
And so, it began for me, crippling fear that played out in the form of silence. A slow and subtle deterioration of self, seeping through the cracks like carbon monoxide in a house with a broken alarm.
After losing his job with the company, David attempted to start a small business and did things with borrowed money without consulting me. I felt scared and ashamed that he would risk the financial security of our young family, but I kept it to myself. He eventually took jobs that were outside of the big city where we lived, having to drive two, sometimes three hours to get there. Rather than drive back and forth each day, he ended up boarding at the factories where he worked and only came home on the weekends. Sometimes he would even stay there for weeks at a time, not bothering to video call his daughter. And somehow, I let that slide too. Keep the peace, became my motto.
David and I ended our physical relationship after our daughter was conceived. We stopped sharing a bed shortly after that and for 11 years, I slept either alone (when he was away) or with my daughter. Every so often I built up the courage to test some form of intimacy but time after time he would reject me. And soon I stopped trying altogether. All the while, I continued to make those damn excuses for him. He grew up in China with his grandparents, he wasn’t a sexual being, he lacked confidence because work wasn’t going well, etc., etc. I was embarrassed about our relationship and hating myself for not being able to ask for help.But I stayed, for duty and a false sense of pride.
It is important to note that at a certain point, my career took off and he began to get progressively worse. During this time, not only did conversation became scarce, David rarely even made eye contact with me. He made little effort to support me or change the situation. I refused to insert “deadbeat” into my vocabulary but his lack of effort and impaired self-awareness told me he didn’t care to create a better life for our daughter and this truly broke my heart.
My breaking point came when I began seeing my future play out before my eyes. I could see us, just as we were, me staring out of a window and him lazing around playing the video games a senior citizen would play circa 2045. I felt utterly alone, detesting everything about my life. It repeated over and over in my head day after day, and I knew I needed to change this narrative.
Having money, motivation and an affair that would throw my life into disarray finally pushed me to move on from David and the belief system I had created about what marriage was supposed to be. I began opening up to my friends about my life which I could never express enough gratitude for because, without them, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do what I did.
Asians strongly believe in doing whatever it takes to bring about success for the next generation, even when that means staying married for the sake of staying married. But when we don’t learn to respect ourselves, that sacrifice is given in vain. It causes a chain reaction that simply perpetuates self-hate and the inability to grow as an individual. Silence can bring about just as much pain as standing up to fear. And believing that suffering through an unhappy marriage would bring me closer to something bigger than myself was an absolute farce.
It can be said a million times and still ring true, only when you learn to love yourself, is when you can truly give back to others. I still don’t fully comprehend the depth of my culture and how it shaped me. I am still discovering how deep the scars caused by years of silent suffering run. But I am aware of them now and working on healing every day, for my daughter’s sake, and for everything I will be able to achieve because of it.