For the Father’s Day issue, bejingkids wants to pay tribute to the Beijing men who love their spouses and kids but live apart from them. Whether for health, educational, or financial reasons, many families elect to stay, move, or return overseas to live. Because of ongoing global economic instability and the wealth of financial opportunities in China, more and more fathers find themselves living here on their own. These long-distance families face unique challenges and pressures.
We spoke to American Wesley Ingram, branch manager of Links Moving Beijing, about his experience of being separated from his wife and son, and his advice for other fathers in the same position.
Ingram and his Chongching-born wife Demi Yang became a couple in 2005. They married in 2008 and set up house in Chengdu. Over two years ago, the Ingram-Yang family made the difficult decision to live separately, with Yang and their son Ennis (now age 4) moving to Mesa, Arizona just outside of Phoenix, and Ingram relocating to Shanghai on his own, where he lived and worked for a year and half before moving to Beijing earlier this year.
The family spends all of their vacation time together. “This winter, I got lucky and I had a month vacation in Arizona as part of my start-up package with Links,” says Ingram. “As far as the coming years go, it’ll be back to two weeks.” Yang and Ennis will visit Beijing for two and half months this summer, arriving in early June. While they are here, the family will decide whether to live together in Beijing or continue with their current arrangement.
The decision to live apart was a multi-faceted one. Yang wanted Ennis to start pre-school at age 3, and convinced Ingram that getting an early start in the US would benefit their son’s learning and socialization abilities. Yang was adamant that Ennis needed to be around other kids in an environment where he would learn English, and understand how to play, share, and interact with people outside their immediate family.
“It’s been very healthy for my son to have gone to the US and to have spent some time there. Prior to living in the US, his English ability wasn’t up to par because we spoke mainly Chinese at home,” says Ingram. “It’s also been a big benefit to have him around other children in an environment where they’re asked to respect each other in a different way. In Arizona there’s a mix of interracial kids who look very different and come from different ethnic backgrounds. It’s been really good for him to be around diverse children. He’s improved really quickly on his social skills.”
In Arizona, Yang works as a special needs teaching assistant and rents a house a short drive away from Ingram’s parents. Ennis attends kindergarten at Yang’s workplace, which lowers the cost of education significantly.
“When we were looking at [the possibility of]them coming out to Shanghai, we visited some international schools. His school in Arizona is just as high quality as a lot of the international schools we checked out, but the cost is minimal in comparison to what it would be here. Although he attends a public school, they still pay because he’s less than 6 years old. It’s a paid program but because [Yang’s] an employee of the school district, they’re given a discounted rate.”
The couple also took into account the issue of pollution in China. While living in Chengdu, Ennis developed respiratory issues. “He had constant coughs; allergies were always an issue. The international doctor that we went to said that it was probably due to him playing outside all the time – not just because of [air pollution caused by cars and industry]but also due to construction putting a lot of dust in the air,” explains Ingram.
Yang knew that neither Chengdu, Shanghai, nor Beijing could match the air quality in Arizona. “My wife had spent enough time in the US near my parents’ place to be familiar with the living conditions there,” says Ingram.
Living so close to Ingram’s parents also means they can play an active role in Ennis’ upbringing; he spends two to three nights a week with his grandparents. They ferry him to and from swimming lessons and soccer practice, and on the nights that he sleeps over, Yang gets some time alone to decompress. “Being by herself, she’s like a single mom, so to have a day or two for herself is important,” says Ingram.
Keeping in Touch
The family uses a variety of methods to keep in touch. Ingram talks to his wife and son via Skype or WeChat Video Call at least twice a week, and exchanges emails and SMS with them daily or every other day. Email correspondence mostly addresses practical concerns: school issues, finances, banking, house maintenance, and other day-to-day chores, while video calls are the main conduit for family time.
“It is quite difficult to keep a 4-year-old’s attention for very long. Forced phone calls definitely are tough, so it’s really been a blessing to have
and just watch him. He doesn’t have to sit there and answer me; we interact while he plays with his toys. It’s a kind of interaction that wasn’t possible years ago. I see what he’s doing, and we can interact in a way that similar to how it would be if I was really sitting at the table watching him play,” says Ingram.
When it comes to parenting, Ingram’s responsibilities have had to change, with Yang playing a larger role. “She makes the final decisions on most things because she’s the mother and because she’s there. We talk everything through together and try to come up with solutions, but the implementation largely comes down to her,” he says.
Ingram recognizes that it can be difficult for his wife. “When Ennis and I are together, I want it to be fun and I want him to like me. She’s looked at as the bad guy because she’s the one that disciplines him; on that level, I’m not as involved. It’s quite tough on her. My wife has pointed that out and I’ve done my best to up my game to take the burden off her.”
Currently, Ingram’s life in Beijing revolves around work, although he recognizes that’s something that he will need to adjust. “I’m in the first couple of months here, so I’m focused on my job. I don’t have to worry about late nights or working on weekends because I have nothing else to do. That’s a major bonus at the moment; whereas I think when they get here I’ll save some blocks of time during the week when I can be there for dinner. But I also have an obligation to my office; I can’t all of a sudden just cut back my hours and start leaving every day at 6pm.”
The fact that he has just moved here and must shoulder an intense workload means Ingram hasn’t invested much time in his social life so far. “During the week it’s work and a little bit of television. To be honest, I don’t have much of a support network. I eat out almost every night. I guess that’s my way to relax. I usually have a drink and a nice meal somewhere, and then go home,” he says. “I have a couple of friends here whom I’ve known for a while, and I’ll meet up with them at the weekend and have a drink. The activity I do is walking. I take a half hour or hour at night and walk around and check out the neighborhood.”
The hardest part of being apart from his family is missing out on the minutiae of Ennis’ day-to-day life. “He changes what he likes before we’ve had another phone call. That’s quite difficult. I feel like I’m always talking about something that he liked last week. That can happen in person too, but the distance and the fact that we don’t speak as often amplifies it,” says Ingram.
He also worries about Ennis’ state of mind. “I didn’t see my father a lot when I was young. The hardest thing for me is imagining what Ennis’ probably feeling about that,” he says. “We try our best to explain to him that I have to work. He’s asked, ‘Does Daddy not like living with us?’ So we’ve made sure he knows I love him, but that my job is here and that a job is an important thing. That’s been a test, though. He’s 4, so his level of understanding is pretty basic: I’m not there.”
Ingram is not just a long-distance dad; he’s a long-distance husband. “Maintaining our relationship has been tougher,” he says. “There’s no intimacy; not just no sex, but you’re not touching or hugging. The only way you can express yourself is through words and I’m not naturally a very open person. I’ve had to work on being more sensitive and expressive – just having conversations where I tell her how I feel about her. It’s too easy to get into the habit of relating to each other as parents rather than as a couple. So we’ve been working at having conversations after Ennis has gone to sleep, where we don’t discuss parenting or finances or family. We just talk about things that are fun, or what she’s up to, or how she’s feeling.”
Living apart is still heart-wrenching for Ingram. “It’s much easier than it was in the first couple of months of the first year, that’s for sure. But it’s still very difficult not being able to see each other. It’s been a constant consideration. Is the priority work or family? And is it really worth it if they’re not going to be here?” he asks. He would love to reunite the family in Beijing.
So, Ingram and Yang will use this summer holiday to assess the feasibility of family life here by visiting schools, finding a good ayi, and exploring all the arrangements they would need to make for Ennis. Even if Yang feels comfortable making the move, she and their son will return to Arizona for at least one more semester.
“If it was up to me, of course I would want them here. I’m trying to talk them into coming here to stay full-time. But I understand where my wife is coming from. I agree with her on a lot of levels, especially about the livability factors for our son. It’s really going to have to be a joint decision. My wife is open to the idea at this point of coming to live in Beijing. She’s not very happy about it, but she’s open to it whereas she wasn’t before,” he says. “I need Beijing to seed the clouds for the entire summer so my wife decides to stay.”
Stories like the Ingram-Yang family’s are becoming increasingly common among expat families. The good news is that, contrary to received wisdom and popular opinion, a 2004 study of 200 long-distance couples led by Purdue University found that separation does not make couples more likely to divorce or engage in extramarital affairs. Similarly, a 2013 study by researchers at Queens University, Ontario found that individual and relationship characteristics rather than geographical proximity were the predictors of a happy partnership. Nevertheless, we wish all our readers – and most especially the Ingram-Yang family – clear blue skies and sunshine all summer long.
Ingram’s Advice for Long-Distance Dads
Be prepared: “You have to have a solid foundation in your relationship. It helps if you’ve been together for a longer period of time. We have trust and that’s why we’re still married. We’re partners; we’re equals. There’s got to be trust on both sides: in the relationship and in each other. It’s a relationship that had a lot of time behind it; we approach separation differently because we’ve known each other a long time.”
Prioritize communication: “As the expat in the relationship, you bear a little more responsibility: a wife and child overseas are the ones busy running around living family life. Set times and make sure you keep your word. Commit to communicating at least every other day. You have to push yourself to put the time in”
Have alone time with your partner: “[Yang] calls me at times when [Ennis is] not around, and we just chat.”
Find healthy ways to socialize: “Join a gym or a team, play sports – it gives you a reason to get healthy, feel good, and release stress. Plus you can go and have a drink after. You get it all.”
Photos by Sui