The Sisterhood of the Travelling Jacket: Marlene

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I remember the assault vividly, as if it was just yesterday. It was dusk, a time of the day that never failed to send a frisson of unease within me until I left Borneo at 17. I woke up disorientated from a nap to find out that I was left at home with a relative to babysit me. My mother had left with my younger siblings to visit a relative. He was an older cousin in his late teens whom my parents have kindly allowed to stay with us in order to set him on the right path. He would take this opportunity to rape me. Bewildered, fearful and guileless, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening but I knew whatever he was doing was wrong. So I struggled and pushed and resisted. I managed to save myself by the skin of my teeth. Regardless of my “lucky" escape, I’d never felt so dirty in my life and the shame, that perhaps I’d done something to bring this upon myself. Why me? What have I ever done to deserve this? My troubles were far from over as he continued to live with us.

My happy childhood ended at age 7 and would continue to spiral downward for the next decade. I was only a year younger than my own daughter whose carefree existence fills me with gratitude. At 7 years of age, I lost my innocence and learned to fear all boys and men for the very first time in my life including my own brothers and father. Unable to tell anyone for fear of being killed and family members attacked, I kept quiet and had never felt more alone and helpless in my life. I became withdrawn and fearful. My academic results plummeted. I became the target of many bullies in my school throughout primary and secondary school. 

The physical scars healed but the verbal and public humiliation pierced through my heart. I could still recall the day when a classmate asked our teacher if she’d like to hear a story. She went on to mimic my little foibles to the class of 50. As they laughed at me, I laughed along because the alternative, which was to burst into tears was worse. It was easier to show how unaffected I was despite feeling a sense of utter betrayal. Bullies were cruel but people who pretended to be your friend with the purpose of making you an object of ridicule were worse.

There was no respite at home either. In a family of high achievers, the label “stupid” was tacked on my forehead and was spoken enough times for me to internalize it as a fact. In my darkest hours, I contemplated suicide many times but stopped short of carrying out the act. My cousin would return to my home 5 years later to stay for a stint. I lived a life full of fear with a secret that I could share with no one. Gathering whatever courage that was left in me, I made his life a misery by stalking his every move to ensure that he did not enter into my sister’s bedroom nor mine. I huddled on my bed and slept with my fists clenched and lights on. I would lay awake all night worrying if he would attack again. Thankfully, he left soon after. I considered this a minor victory, however small it was. 

Two things happened in my teens that gave me a glimmer of hope. I heard God’s voice for the very first time at 13. It was, and still is, an extraordinary and utterly unbelievable experience despite having read in the bible about how God used to speak to His people. It transformed the way I viewed my relationship with Him and Christianity. I didn't come from a strong Christian background and knew little about the bible. Over the years, His voice and infinite wisdom would teach me to avoid pitfalls, guide me through life and rebuke me like a father to his child when I disobeyed.

I was at a church nursery helping out with the younger kids. An exhausted looking mother came by to drop off her 3 month old baby boy. While gently rocking the screaming baby, the Sunday school teachers gently shooed his mother away, insisting that she took a break and attended the service downstairs. Despite all desperate attempts to calm him, the baby proceeded to howl for the next 20 minutes, causing much distress amongst the rest of the children. All of a sudden, I heard a deep, commanding and deafeningly loud voice that reverberated through every corner of the room. “TOUCH THE BABY.” I grabbed the arm of my friend who was standing next to me. 
“Did you hear that?,” I implored.
“You mean the baby?,” she replied.
“No, I mean a man’s voice?”  
“No. Just the baby and kids. Are you alright? You’re looking very pale.”

It seemed completely absurd now but I was petrified of holding babies for fear of dropping them. The authoritative voice continued to repeat the same command, one oddly enough that ONLY I could hear despite being in a room full of people. I was at my wit’s end, battling crippling fear yet knowing I had to obey in order to get rid of the voice. I ran over to the teacher who was holding the baby and asked for permission to hold him. As I reached out and touched his leg, he stopped abruptly in mid cry, causing everyone in the room to turn to look at me in surprise.

At 14, I was dragged to my very first Taekwondo class by a good friend of mine whose only motivation for going was to check out a guy she had a crush on. She left months later when the object of her affection was found to be in a different martial arts discipline. Meanwhile, my mother wasn’t as understanding when I tried to quit. She’d forked out a heck of a lot of money for my gear and as far as she was concerned, I had to continue until I outgrew my uniform (which could’ve been the next decade). I limped on for the next year, dreading each training session. At my first grading, the instructor buried his head in his hands in despair. I was pretty darn horrific, to say the least. I wasn’t a natural athlete and had no sense of coordination. An orangutan could’ve performed better.

One day, I overheard myself being dissed by a couple of guys. They mocked my feeble attempts and wagered how long I’d last before quitting Taekwondo altogether. For the first time in my life, more than ever, I was determined to grit my teeth and get that darn black belt even if it killed and maimed me. Just to peeve them off. And……there was that intense satisfaction of doing the exact opposite of what they expected me to. 

Three years later, with the unwavering support from my mom (thanks mom for being a chauffeur/physical therapist) and instructor plus countless of injuries, bruises and tears - training 6 days a week, 2 to 5 hours a day on most days, I finally received my 1st dan black belt. The day I got up on the podium to receive a smattering of trophies and medals in front of the entire school was the day all bullying blissfully ceased. I’d dreamt of this day for so long when I could silence the bullies. Most importantly, I’ve learned to protect myself and never needed to fear men ever again.

I left for New Zealand to further my studies soon after. It was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and leave the old me behind. I was hell-bent on changing myself, that each year from then on had to be better than the one before. I made myself go out each day to talk to a stranger so that I could improve my English. I learned to speak up and not whisper. To pause in between words when I spoke so I wouldn’t stutter. 

I opened up to two new friends about my past for the first time and found out that they too were molested in their childhood. More confided in me about their own traumatic experiences. A relative of mine was gang raped by her own boyfriend who’d orchestrated the crime. As she laid on the floor in agony, the perpetrators discussed how to kill and discard her body. It was sheer determination that she managed to convince them to spare her life. It was then I knew how prevalent sexual violence was. And how many of us kept silent. Like me. 

I went back to Borneo for a summer vacation when I was 19 and enlisted a group of friends to help me. I called up as many secondary schools and colleges in Kuching (a city in Borneo) as possible and spoke to their principals about allowing me to speak to their students. I contacted the women’s refuge, hospitals and those in law enforcement to try to understand exactly more about sexual violence in Sarawak. We did the rounds, speaking about sexual harassment and violence, the avenues where they could go for help (there weren’t many) and ways they could defend themselves. Many male students jeered, shouted obscenities and stomped out during my speech. When I felt that all my efforts were for naught, a group of women came forward to thank me because sexual harassment was rife in the college but they were made to feel that they'd brought it on themselves.

Sadly, rape or any sexual assaults is still a taboo even in the 21st century. The victims suffer in silence while the perpetrators go on with their lives and continue to commit similar crimes. I’m forever grateful for my faith because without God’s grace and wisdom, I wouldn’t have healed and become more resilient. He has taught me compassion and given me inner strength when I had none. His voice continues to guide me to this day.

Here’s what I’ve learned about bullying in hindsight, more than 20 years on. What was once considered a liability may one day be your greatest asset.
1. I'm infinitely grateful for the earlier harsh life lessons because they’d equipped me to deal with bullies at work and racial discrimination in my early days in New Zealand. I was also able to coach my daughter to overcome bullying in her school.
2. The bastardization of my Chinese name which sounded like (the Chinese cooking) wok (guali in Hokkien) used to invoke peals of laughter for years…… Well, I wish my old friends would continue using my Chinese name because I’m rather fond of it now. By the way, being the foodie that I am, I'm attached to my wok these days.
3. The word pipsqueak pretty much defined me throughout school and the cause of my woes because I was teeny tiny, socially awkward and looked younger than my years. By genetic default, I’ve ended up with more fat on my face than my backside which helps plump up any fine lines. I’ve saved a bundle in anti-ageing potions though if I’m not careful, I may end up looking like a chubby cheeked squirrel which had one nut too many. 
4. A few kids in school made up a song called  “broken English” and used to sing it whenever I walked past. Years later, I would teach English in a high school (briefly) and I now make a living from it. Life’s funny that way…….

I’ve learned to forgive my cousin. Not for him but for myself so I could move on and not become like him. So that I wouldn’t have this bitterness festering in me and pass it on to my child. I’d rather be a survivor and overcome the challenges than stay a victim forever because there are so many more things in my life that I’m grateful for. This project has been 34 years in the making. The best revenge is not to avenge the crime myself but to rise above. Above all, gratitude, compassion and resilience can only be learned during difficult times.

I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered" Proverbs 4:11 verse 11-12.

If you like our video and stories or believe they may help a loved one, please sharing them using the various social media buttons below. Thank you for your support.

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Jacket

Monday, 15 September 2014

A year ago, I promised myself I would produce a project, one I hope would make a difference. An idea, over time metamorphosed into a more defined concept which eventually became a reality today, thanks to the many individuals who wholeheartedly embraced this project. I want to thank all the participants from the bottom of my heart for their courage to bare their souls on my blog because they believe that their stories may help another in a similar situation.

I'm indebted to my friends, Lucian and Adriana Paraian of Adrienne Photography who'd spent countless of hours filming, photographing and editing as well as Dilip Shukla for putting my vision into a more tangible action plan.

Our first story will be featured here on Wednesday and the remaining will be published on Mondays and Thursdays in the following weeks. If you like our video and stories or believe they may help a loved one, then please support us by sharing them using the various social media buttons below. Thank you for your support.

Winner of Philips Compact Juicer Giveaway

Friday, 12 September 2014

The winner is kj19 (@Parsnip_Pete. Please contact me via Twitter or email to claim your prize. Congratulations!!

Old Sir Walter Tyrrell House, New Forest

Thursday, 11 September 2014
bathroom copy
bathroom-detail copy
bathroom-tap copy
lounge-details-2 copy
masterbedroom-detail1 copy
masterbedroom-details4 copy
guestroom-3 copy

Recently, I had a chance to explore the Old Sir Walter Tyrrell House in New Forest only because a friend of mine was the interior decorator. It's nestled within the New Forest grounds, a stone's throw away from the spot where King William the Second aka Rufus was killed. He was later brought back to Winchester and buried in the Cathedral.

Remember I'm a Kiwi....and anything that's more than 200 years old is like, UNBELIEVABLY ancient. By the way, that abbreviated regurgitation of history refers to the year 1100 A.D (I touched the soil where he died. Like, seriously Sorry, a teenager has taken possession of my body).

I come from a land of sheeeeeeeep. There are more sheep than humans in New Zealand but ponies? Just in case anyone asks (and I've been asked many times before), no, I never saw sheep or a kiwi bird sauntering past my house. There was the jaw dropping moment when the ponies trotted and pranced about just meters away from the front door. It's oddly comforting to have an afternoon tea outside while gazing at the ponies and squirrels dashing about.

Sneak preview of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Jacket

Wednesday, 10 September 2014
1st photo by Josephine, edited by Marlene. All remaining photos by Marlene

The launch date may be 5 days away but here's a sneak preview of the line up of the 7 women participating in the project. It has been a long and arduous journey up to this point but we hope that our stories may strike a chord with those who are going through similar challenges so that they know they're not alone. There IS light at the end of the tunnel.

I've chosen to have the stories published online on a relatively safe platform (my blog) because our tech savvy generation are reliant and tend to seek for help online more than ever. The media like to portray perfection which in reality, is unachievable. The pressure to be thin, youthful and have the perfect life is immense and more so for our children. I've decided to feature real women with real issues. My motto for this blog is and has always been "Keeping It Real". Photoshopping is kept to the minimum (exposure, saturation and contrast).

This has been a team project with just as many working behind the scenes because they believe in the message that I'm trying to convey. Our video will be released on Monday, September 15th. Thereafter, two stories will be shared each week.

I would like to thank all the courageous women who've participated as well as dozens of others who've supported us by spreading the word of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Jacket project. I'm beyond grateful to Lucian & Adriana Paraian, the husband and wife team behind Adrienne Photography who'd helped me scout location, photographed and filmed, Dilip Shukla and Mia Preston who'd pitched in with the filming, Heather Sario and Josephine Chen for their help with the editing and social media.

We're excited but equally nervous about our launch but we hope you'll like what we've created for you. Thank you!

Giveaway: Philips Compact Juicer

Monday, 8 September 2014


I've talked about juicing previously. It's something I aim to do at least once a week though ideally, it should be more often than that if I'm not getting enough vegetables. Beetroot has been known to lower blood pressure quickly but it gives me a headache. I've resorted to using celery but combining it with the more palatable and subtle flavors of cucumber, green apple and carrot.

Curry's has kindly sponsored a giveaway here by donating a Philips Viva Collection juicer worth £69.99. More details about the juicer can be found here. Pop your name or an alias in a comment box below. A winner will be picked this Friday, September 12th. Please note that this giveaway is only open to UK residents.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Jacket

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Jacket. 1 jacket. 7 women spanning 3 countries. 1 year of planning, traveling and orchestration. This is the story of HOPE and COURAGE. Their inspiring stories will be launching on September 15th until October 9th here on Chocolate Cookies & Candies.

"Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim" - Nora Ephron.


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