Wang Jixian, a software engineer turned citizen journalist living in Odesa, Ukraine, was there when Russia invaded.
The Beijing native met the woman who would become his wife, Dasha Zakopaylo, a Ukrainian student majoring in Chinese at Odesa’s Southern Ukrainian National Pedagogical University K. D. Ushinsky, in May, three months after fighting began.
On November 11, with winter’s chill creeping in, they married just as Russia began targeting Ukraine’s power facilities.
Some couples have a special song, and just hearing a few bars can evoke a golden moment of their romance. For Wang and Zakopaylo, it’s been air raid sirens, as often as five times in 24 hours, even during the night.
They greet the noise, meant to send them to subway station bunkers about a mile from their home, in what is now, according to Wang, the traditional war-time way: cursing while sheltering in place.
"We feel that, first, we have enough confidence in the air defense system,” said Wang. “Second, after fighting for so long, we know exactly where the missiles are flying and where the anti-aircraft position is. Basically, the missiles fly from the Black Sea to the anti-aircraft position. … At the beginning, they aimed at the air defense position, but now it’s the power station. So, the missiles don’t pass through here.”
Wang continued, “Another thing is if they really miss the target, fly toward the residential area, and hit the common people, there is no need to run. When they hit you, you just die. How can you avoid that?"
The couple bought two small and noisy generators that provide the power they need for uninterrupted light, heat and water.
Wang, a vlogger who has been profiled in media outlets worldwide, said communication outages worry him more. He posts videos of well-stocked markets and smiling shoppers that counter Beijing’s narrative that war has upended his adopted home, a perspective that drew criticism from Chinese netizens until he was banned from Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, and WeChat. He now posts on Twitter and YouTube.
"When the power goes out, your first reaction is, you don't know what's going on. You don't know if the power only goes out in your place, in your city, or in the whole of Ukraine. You want to read the news, but [you] can’t,” he said.
Wang believes internet connectivity is worse now than it was just after Russia invaded.
“At the beginning of the war, the network in most areas was not cut off,” he said. “We could know that missiles were coming, Kiev was bombed. We could receive notifications from the municipal government. Once the network is cut off, there will be nothing, and we just have to wish ourselves good luck.”
Zakopaylo is from Luhansk, one of four Russian-occupied regions in eastern Ukraine. In November, around the time when the couple married, Zakopaylo's mother and 15-year-old brother bribed the occupiers so they could leave Luhansk.
Now Zakopaylo’s younger brother lives with the couple while her mother lives with her boyfriend in western Ukraine.
Zakopaylo said they want her younger brother to receive a Ukrainian education.
Zakopaylo has not seen her grandparents for more than a year because they chose to remain in Luhansk where their house was requisitioned by the Russian army before being bombed during the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Zakopaylo said, "I'm almost like a refugee now because I don't have a house and I can't go home."
Wang works remotely for an American-owned company in Ukraine, so his income is unaffected by the war. He helps support Zakopaylo's family.
Wang said prewar Odesa was a wonderful place to live. "The scenery was beautiful, the people are kind, and the culture is quite open. Today, Odesa can barely be regarded as a place suitable for living, let alone having a life."
Zakopaylo said that before the war there were many foreigners in Odesa in the summer, but that was not true last summer. The Ukrainian army mined Odesa’s beaches to keep Russian forces at bay.
"There used to be nightlife, watching ballet, drinking coffee in a cafe, watching cultural performances, and going to the beach,” said Wang. “Now it’s impossible, it's all landmines."
Yet Zakopaylo and Wang continue to support Ukraine. "Ukrainians all want Ukraine to win this war,” she said. “We work every day and hope to make money to support our country."
VOA Mandarin journalist Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.