Victor Jin is lying awake when he’s startled by a noise. He bolts up from his mattress on the floor. “The back door is made of glass; it would be easy to break,” he thinks, and rushes downstairs to check for an intruder. No burglar is smashing through the door. Victor, 30, is alone.
It’s July 5, 2021, the first night in his new house. He returns to his bedroom, locks the door and keeps the lights on. Boxed in by bare grey walls, he counts down the days until his family joins him in Halifax: 105 down, 91 to go.
The next day, a friend tells Victor the noise was the fridge’s ice maker, but these words offer little comfort to a man who’s by himself in a new house, in a new neighbourhood, in a new country. He keeps the lights on for the next few nights.
Victor moved to Halifax from Shanghai on March 22, 2021. After viewing more than 50 houses, he finally settled on a six bed, four bath in Bedford. It has a yard big enough for his two rescue dogs, Buddy and Yuanbao (named for a gold ingot that symbolizes wealth) to run around in, plus a large playroom for his two-year-old daughter, Mia. There are enough bedrooms for visiting family members and future children. The kitchen is bright and spacious, perfect for hosting dinner parties.
Perhaps the best thing about the house is the paperwork. When securing a loan from the bank, Victor and his husband, Mark Yi, had to prove they were married. It was the first time they got to use their marriage certificate as an official document.
In China, Victor and Mark’s marriage certificate was just a piece of paper. They wed on April 25, 2018, at the mayor’s office in Saipan, a United States commonwealth island near Guam. After legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015 Saipan became a popular destination for gay couples in Asia to get married. According to the Saipan Tribune, in 2018, the same year Victor and Mark tied the knot, gay weddings on the island outnumbered straight ones.
Victor and Mark’s wedding took place seven months after they met, but the two started planning it after knowing each other for only four days.
In September 2017, Victor received a message from a man on a dating app: “Should I call you Mr. Elephant or Mr. Whale?” Victor’s Chinese given name, Xiang, means elephant, and his surname Jin means whale.
“Call me Mr. Elephant,” he replied. Victor’s friends already called him that; while volunteering in Nepal he even got a tattoo of an elephant on his leg.
Mark sent Victor a photo. In it, he wears a blue polo shirt and looks directly at the camera with crossed arms. Victor thought he looked confident, responsible and handsome.
“You’re my type,” Victor wrote. It’s still his favourite picture of Mark.
The two exchanged messages for a couple of days. On Oct. 1, China’s National Day, Mark asked Victor to meet up at a gay bar. Victor didn’t want to go. He was tired and a little drunk after celebrating a friend’s engagement that evening. He’d also never been to a gay bar. Mark asked if Victor would come to his apartment instead.
The next day both left Shanghai for the rest of the week-long holiday known as Golden Week. Victor visited his hometown, and Mark vacationed in Korea.
They kept in touch on WeChat, texting day and night. Even though they had only met once, they started talking about moving in together, marriage and having kids.
On Oct. 5, Mark sat on a plane, about to fly back to Shanghai. He texted Victor: “Mr. Elephant, we will be a family soon. Do you understand what that means?”
Victor said yes. He wanted a family, and already knew the person to start one with was Mark.
“Whatever happens in the future, we must be responsible for each other, protect each other and love each other,” Mark wrote.
“After we get married our hearts will be tied together… Life is hard, but it won’t be just me against the world, it will be the two of us,” Victor said. “We are crazy, we are romantic, we are brave. I’m scared I might cry on our wedding day.”
Mark said he may cry too, but tears would be saved for only the most important moments.
Then the plane took off, and their life together began.
Victor and Mark didn’t cry at their wedding. They were too focused on getting the vows right in English. They brought two friends to Saipan as witnesses, two of the few who even today know the marriage happened at all. Out of everyone Victor and Mark know in China, fewer than 10 are aware of their relationship. They were both marketing managers for major companies, Mark for Pfizer and Victor for Emeritus, an online education start-up. As bosses with large teams working under them, coming out just wasn’t worth the risk.
While being gay is legal in China and was declassified as a mental disorder in 2001, the country’s 2SLGBTQ+ community still largely lives in secret. Same-sex couples can’t get married or adopt children, no laws are in place to protect queer people from discrimination and 2SLGBTQ+ content in the media is censored. According to a 2016 United Nations Development Programme survey, only five percent of the 18,088 LGBTI individuals surveyed across China were open about their sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, and less than 15 percent were open with their families. The importance of maintaining “face,” or reputation, in Chinese society puts pressure on queer people to conform—and stay in the closet. An openly gay person could cause their family to “lose face,” dishonouring the family name.
Before moving to Canada, Victor, Mark and Mia lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Shanghai with Mark’s mother, Chun Hui Fan. The couple slept in the same bed and had a large rainbow flag hanging on the living room wall. Yet Fan has no idea her son is gay, let alone married to the man they were living with.
They concocted a “white lie:” Victor is Mark’s best friend, and he’s helping to raise Mark’s daughter after her mother abandoned them. Mark is Mia’s biological father, that part is true, but she was born to a surrogate mother in Bangkok. They lie because they don’t know how Fan would take the news.
In the apartment, Victor and Mark also kept a blackboard where they mapped out their future, step by step. They charted exactly what documents they needed and how much everything would cost. Marriage: 2018. A baby: Aug. 1, 2019. They cried when she was born, having saved their tears for the most important moment. The final step was to give up their careers and immigrate to Halifax.
Victor and Mark want to raise Mia in a place where they wouldn’t have to hide. They dreamed of a big house and neighbours to whom they could say “this is my husband, and this is my daughter.”
In China, Canada has a reputation of being welcoming to immigrants and having quality education. Above all, the couple chose Canada for being 2SLGBTQ+-friendly.
Victor and Mark decided on Halifax because they don’t want to live in a big city, even if it means a smaller community of people from their country. According to the latest census data, of the 129,015 people who immigrated to Canada from China between 2011 and 2016, only 855—less than one percent—chose Halifax as their new home.
This makes Victor and Mark somewhat of an anomaly. How many gay couples in China have gotten married, had a kid and moved to Halifax? They take pride in the possibility their journey is unprecedented.
Victor came to Canada first so he and Mark wouldn’t have to house-hunt while taking care of a toddler.
After purchasing the house, all that was left to do was wait. And in the empty house there was plenty of space for loneliness to seep in. It remained unfurnished; interior design decisions are ones a couple must make together. Victor had a mattress, cooking supplies and a second-hand TV. There were no chairs; he sat on the floor. He kept busy by learning to cook, which Mark always did back in China. Victor didn’t microwave frozen meals; he grilled steak, boiled octopus and pickled the cucumbers he grew in the backyard.
In Shanghai, Victor never spoke to his neighbours. Here, his next-door neighbour taught him how to use a lawnmower and said if he ever needs anything to just call. Another neighbour left homemade cookies on Victor’s doorstep, along with a note welcoming him to the neighbourhood.
The first time he took a walk in Halifax, Victor felt like a celebrity. Strangers on the street said hello, greeting him like an old friend. That doesn’t happen in Shanghai. He told Mark over the phone, “this is a warm city.”
Victor’s love for Halifax grew when he saw its rainbow crosswalks and downtown shops adorned with Pride flags. He had never seen such a public display of acceptance.
Victor also found a new community online. He started making videos on TikTok, giving updates every couple of weeks about his experiences in Nova Scotia: bouncing between rental apartments, trying poutine, visiting Peggy's Cove, picking cherries in Wolfville, his first Pride Festival. The comment sections flooded with messages welcoming Victor to Nova Scotia and sharing his excitement for the family’s reunion.
After seven months of separation, Victor immortalizes the moment his husband and daughter arrive in Canada with a Tiktok. “Hello, I’m Victor!” he greets his followers. “Today is Oct. 4, the time is 10:30pm. I’m going to the airport to pick up Mark, Mia and my two dogs.” Victor pans his living room, still devoid of furniture, to show the supplies he picked up for the family’s quarantine: diapers, toilet paper and tissue boxes embellished with the Canadian flag. In the corner sits a box of toys for Mia, including an inflatable flamingo.
“Here we go!” he tells the camera before driving to the airport.
He films the moment Mark walks into arrivals, holding Mia in his arms. Mark has curled his hair and is wearing new clothes: he wanted to look handsome for the reunion. “Mark!” Victor calls, and giggles with excitement. “Hello Mia, hello!”
Victor asks the airport staff if he can pass the gate to help Mark, explaining that he has a baby, two dogs and 13 suitcases. The dogs’ crates push through the flap and into sight on the luggage carousel. Victor is relieved that they survived the 20-hour flight.
They drive back to Bedford in separate cars. When they get to the house, Victor and Mark share a long hug, holding each other for the first time in 196 days.
Nov. 9 is a shopping day. The first step is to drop Mia off at daycare. She’s dressed head to toe in pink, save for a pair of yellow duck rainboots. Victor tries to introduce the other children in the playground to his daughter, who clings to him shyly. “This is Mia,” he tells a group of toddlers. “Do you want to be her friend?” There’s a daycare teacher who speaks Mandarin, and Mia, as a two-year-old in a strange country, is comforted by her familiarity. When the teacher arrives, she distracts Mia long enough for Victor and Mark to slip out of the playground unnoticed.
Victor, getting into the passenger seat of the car, says how hard it is to be a parent. Next stop: Home Depot. As the SUV pulls into the parking lot, Victor turns and asks, “Do you take drugs?” A journalist expects to be the one asking questions, but he is eager to give me a taste of my own medicine.
You’ve never seen people so cheerful in a Home Depot. When Victor finds the adhesive tiles they’re looking for, he sings “this is what we want!” and practically dances down the aisle. They’re in the honeymoon phase of living in a new country; every new experience making them as giddy as kids on Christmas morning. And it is the Christmas decorations that catch Victor’s attention. He particularly likes a family of light-up deer: a buck, doe and baby. “We should rip the antlers off one and paint them rainbow,” Victor says. A lesbian deer family.
After shopping: more questions. Victor asks if I want kids, where I’ve travelled, if I have siblings. I tell him I have a sister who studies biochemistry in Victoria. “You’re cooler than her,” he says. She’s probably in a lab right now, while I just ate hotdogs with these two guys in a Costco parking lot, so I have to agree.
Victor picks up a condiment packet and asks what it is. It’s mustard. He didn’t know what maple syrup was until I pressed him to buy some, but mustard?
I don’t catch the moment Victor tastes mustard for the first time, because he launches into a new conversation. He says that Nicki Minaj’s Chinese name translates to Spicy Chicken, and that he cried when watching a video of Lady Gaga strutting across a Moscow stage with her arms in the air, challenging the city to arrest her for publicly supporting gay rights.
Victor and Mark are simultaneously exceptional and utterly ordinary. They’re unlike anyone you have met, and at the same time just like everyone else out shopping. They’re people who buy adhesive tiles and Costco hotdogs. The banality of suburbia is the prize Victor and Mark fought so hard to win.
On a rainy day later in November, three delivery workers carried a huge grey sectional into the living room. It arrived just in time, because this evening I’m the first dinner guest at the Jin and Yi house.
Mia jumps up and down on the new couch. “Uh, oh,” she squeals, imitating Peppa Pig on the TV. Buddy and Yuanbao bark and chase each other around the kitchen. The scent of Mark’s cooking wafts into the living room. The house that was once barren and scary is filled with warmth, laughter and love. It’s home.
A framed family photo sits on the mantlepiece: Victor, Mark, Mia and her grandmother, Fan. Victor and Mark think they’ll finally come out to her when she visits Halifax. They might even take her to the Pride parade.
I ask Victor and Mark if there are any times they’ve cried here. They burst out laughing. “There’s a Chinese song called ‘There Are No Tears in Moscow,’” Victor says, “I think there are no tears in Canada.”
This story was written in December 2021 during the Creative Nonfiction Workshop at the University of King's College. The text messages between Victor Jin and Mark Yi were translated into English by Yutong Wang.