The last few weeks have seen Shanghai experience an unprecedented number of positive cases, leading to thousands of people in one of the biggest cities in the world being displaced and separated from their lives and family.
This has triggered a citywide lockdown, leading to amplified emotions and complicating further already complex situations. In this My Story interview series, we explore the first-hand and personal experiences of those among us that have been directly affected by the city’s current lockdown.
This is an interview with an Australian man who asked his wife for a divorce on March 20 and was subsequently locked down with her on March 21. The situation escalated quickly, becoming physically violent to the point of engaging the police and the interviewee’s consulate. However, he is still currently locked down, unable to remove himself from the abusive situation and return to his home country. Here is his story.
Give us some background on your current lockdown situation and how it has further complicated an already complex situation.
My marriage to my Chinese wife has been strained for a while; since COVID-19 came about in early 2020, we dealt with unanticipated separations, being stuck in separate cities for months.
The stress of the situation, amplified by not being able to return home and see family and the ever-changing job situation for foreigners in Shanghai (like the massive job cuts in the education sector that led to me losing my job), coupled with increasing nationalism and xenophobia – it has all taken its toll.
I’d been wanting to move home, but my wife was always reluctant, because – ironically – she’s afraid of being subjected to racism.
For the past year, we’ve been arguing about this, and – ultimately – I decided I needed to leave, alone.
The topic of divorce had come up frequently, and I concluded we no longer had trust, intimacy and a sense of shared direction – we couldn’t communicate without arguing.
Finally, on March 20, I drew a line in the sand and I told her I was leaving – both Shanghai and her – and returning home.
And at that time, did you know there was a chance of being locked down soon?
I was aware that there were COVID cases around. A couple of nearby complexes had been closed for testing, so I kind of knew things were a bit risky, but I was preoccupied with the vortex of an impending sh*t storm at home.
I didn't really appreciate that the situation was getting out of control when I dropped the bombshell of my request for divorce. Then, later that night I went for a walk and passed a complex being fenced off.
The inhabitants were yelling and arguing with the workers and the dabai in hazmat suits, and I witnessed an absolute flurry of panic buying at the shopping mall.
The next day, my neighborhood went into complete lockdown.
How did the lockdown foil your plans for departure?
I had hoped to leave the apartment within a few days and organize flying home within the month. I figured that was enough time to arrange packing and shipping all of my belongings back home.
Instead, I found myself locked inside with an increasingly angry wife.
Describe how the situation escalated.
Strained conversation led to petty insults; insults led to accusations; accusations led to louder and louder rebukes, crying, and – on a few occasions – outright physical assault.
For the first week of lockdown, it was like living in a cage with an unpredictable animal. But slowly, as the reality that we were going to be stuck together for an indefinite period sunk in, things got steadily calmer. The craziness dissipated.
Of course, we're all aware of the difficulties that people have faced getting medical care during lockdown, but I imagine most haven't thought about the fact that even the police cannot enter a compound in quarantine.
The implications of that are quite heavy for the many women – and men – who live with domestic violence, unpredictable partners or alcoholics.
Did you reach out for help?
At one point, trying to stop an assault; I feared that one of us would actually be seriously hurt, so I managed to call the police.
Their response was that they couldn't enter a compound under quarantine so they couldn't intervene.
Throughout these days I was also in contact with my consulate. Their response was sympathetic, but there was also little they could do.
I asked about emergency assistance and temporary accommodation; they suggested a counseling hotline, who suggested that I should urgently talk with my consulate.
During lockdown, you're basically on your own.
Have you filed for divorce yet? How will that work with leaving?
I've engaged a lawyer to represent me in absentia, but of course the business of filing for court dates is on hold at the moment because of the outbreak.
Divorce in China is relatively straightforward, thankfully, if both parties have already agreed on the terms and any property division. Then, divorce can be complete in as little as six weeks.
As for the leaving process, no, I haven't booked yet; I haven't gotten vaccinated yet, and the government has stopped vaccinations altogether as of now.
I've been contacting hospitals and clinics, and so far, no one is allowed to administer vaccines, which – given the rationale for this lockdown – is rather odd, don't you think?
If low rates of vaccination are the issue, you'd think that access to vaccination would be made easier; you'd think that the Big Whites who are in every single compound every single day doing tests would be given vaccines to provide to people who want them.
You'd definitely not expect for the government to halt vaccines across the city entirely as it goes through lockdown for the very thing I want to be vaccinated against.
How is your situation today? Has it improved?
For now, my ex and I have reached a sort of truce, which I'm sure will be over as soon as lockdown ends.
We are still living in the same apartment, which is tense but manageable.
If I've learned anything from this, it's that your consulate actually has very little capability to help their citizens.
Right now, I literally have a bag packed at all times, ready to run if and when this lockdown ends. I'm very aware that these windows of opportunity can slam shut again with little notice, so you have to be prepared.
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[Cover image by That's]