The Sisterhood of the Travelling Jacket: Marlene

Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Marlene-kick3
Photography by: Lucian Paraian 


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 I became withdrawn and fearful.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.


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45 comments:

  1. Marlene I have goosebumps & tears rolling down my face! I think you are amazing for sharing this, for encouraging others to do the same & for taking this idea & turning it into the amazing project that you have! I can't begin to imagine what it must of been like for you but seeing how you have come out of the other side & empowering women to do the same is just epic! I'm so proud of you & so grateful to be incuded! Lots of love as always! Ax

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  2. Marlene...thank you for sharing this.. you are one amazing woman. M xx

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  3. I am totally in awe of you - I'm not even crying (which I thought I would), you've totally just epitomised by previous rant. Even if it nearly kills you to do it, with inner strength and in your case personal faith, you can turn what is the most awful experience into something positive. It's interesting that we discussed our little ones being so outgoing and sociable and different to how we were as kids. Your daughter has obviously picked up on your strength. I loved meeting you and I love you even more now I know you have SUPER POWERS - I can't tell you how much I love this film, I am always for the under dog done good - you are my personal Kick Ass Marlene Lee!! To end on a funny note I thought I had problems at school being 'ginger' :-) and I very well may be swapping yoga now for a martial art. I got stuck on your first picture it is amaze balls, before I even scrolled down to read your story xxx

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  4. Bravo! You are creating something wonderful in the world rooted in your powerful internal fire. Thank you!

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  5. Wow. The moving image of you kicking is so powerful. You demonstrated amazing strength of mind to fight back as a child and this quality has obviously stayed with you in adulthood. This did make me realise though that even In my 40's, I have felt uncomfortable with men who are too touchy feely and I have not spoken out. Not any more.

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    1. I'm so pleased to hear this, Jenny. Speaking out is the hardest bit. Massive hugs to you.

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  6. I have always admired you because of your grace and kindness. There are even words to say but your story has moved me to tears. I have been going through my own struggles, which pale in comparison to what you have been through. Thank you for sharing your story, it's so powerful. I'm in complete awe of you. You are simply amazing. Hugs!!

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  7. Wow .. I'm not sure I have the words to tell you how moved I am by this and by the courage and strength that is leaping from the screen as I read this.

    Marlene = inspirational

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  8. Marlene, I don't really know what to say. I wish that they weren't as many stories of sexual violence, harassment and misogyny around me and everywhere in the world. I don't know one woman that hasn't gone through abuse and this angers and saddens me. So I can only applaud all the women, like you who are able to shift the narrative of abuse and share their stories to educate and empower others. I wish everyone spoke up and blogged and shouted about it so that we can finally, see the culture and society change about this. And I feel like you're taking part in that change and that's amazing. You're an inspiration. Much love, Jesse.

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  9. Bless you for this xx

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  10. Wonderful that you have spoken out Marlene when so many suffer in silence. Women who lock away childhood sexual trauma in that little black box their brain provides for such a heinous thing. If this can help one person to rise above sexual abuse they have suffered this will be a marvellous thing and hopefully they can find the faith you had to get you through. I'm not religious but god bless you for baring your soul. A true survivor xxx

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  11. Such a powerful story, your courage & strength having faced such awful things really come through. Your kick ass high kick really says it all...thank you for sharing :) x

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  12. Powerful, inspirational, moving, hopeful...all the things your project is and more, thank you Marlene for telling your story and showing us the strength we can find within ourselves to face and conquer adversity xxxx

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  13. Oh Marlene. Lost for words, I'm just crying instead. What strength of character you have, what determination. I want to sit and read it again, to listen to your wise words and take away all that you have shared in a positive way. Inspirational.x

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  14. You are one kick ass lady. For coming through it all with such dignity and finding the courage to share and help others. I really don't know what to say but I am glad there are people like you prepared to stand up and speak up.

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  15. Like Sue, I don't know what really to say............. I read this earlier in the day, went to comment but didn't know what to write. I am sure having the courage to speak out will help other women who have suffered like you. I echo those words above...... you are one kick ass lady indeed.

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  16. First thought is wow Marlene, what and amazing and truly inspirational woman you are. I'm in awe of what you've come through but how you've turned it into something positive is simply amazing. You're tougher than you look anyway!!

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  17. oh my god. i have no words girl. I haven't been able to be online much these days and i know why i missed u now thanks for the reminder. u have such strength , integrity, and character, xo

    xO!
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  18. Marlene, thank you so much for sharing your story. It's so incredible touching. And this is such a beautiful sentiment to try and help others who have experienced similar situations in their life. I am so moved by absolutely everything that you said. Love that you created such a meaningful project and I can't wait to hear the rest of the stories. You're amazing and Lil L is so lucky to have such a strong mother.

    xxTheresa

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  19. Marlene, I firstly wanted to say how emotionally moving I found the trailer clip for this collection of stories to be, and secondly, thank you for sharing yours with us. In my youth, I had friends who had been sexually abused, and I think that it's all too easy to feel like you're alone, and feel unable to tell anyone. Your story is one of strength, and I admire your courage. Congratulations on putting together this incredible project xx

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  20. It took incredible courage for you to share your story. You are so strong. And an inspiration. Thank you Marlene.

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  21. Thank you for sharing, Kuo Li. I wish I had gotten to know you better in high school, we have so much in common xo Sheela xo

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    1. So do I, Sheel. To think we've been in mostly the same class from 7 to 17. It's not too late. I hope we can catch up again someday.

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  22. Marlene, I read this earlier today, but was actually lost for words and didn't want to write something banal and meaningless so I sat on it the whole day, reread it and am writing a little response now.
    I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for both this blog post (and the other ones in the series that are yet to come). It just shows that even when you think someone's life is perfect, you don't really know what has gone on in that person's life. My struggles are different to yours and I'm not quite sure if I'm ready to share, but thank you for your courage and your strength.

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  23. Thank you for sharing this story! You are an inspiration for women of all ages. We are multilayered people and all have our stories, big and small. You give women the courage to share their own stories, gather strength, and empower others. I can only say thanks and hugs!

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  24. I love the internet - that you can use it to reach people from diverse cultures, religions, ages and backgrounds. People can read your story and take what they need from it. Words are powerful and I've read strength, courage and wisdom. You have my respect. Ake Ake Kia Kaha Marlene.

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  25. Thank you. Thank you for your courage, determination and faith. Thank you for being you and giving others HOPE. With lots of respect, admiration and love, Irina

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  26. Incredible....you are absolutely amazing Marlene! It takes courage to share your story like this but I know it will help many other women which what makes it such a fantastic thing to do. I take my hat off to you xx

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  27. I would have never imagined your past. You are an amazing winner of life! Congratulations and continue to inspire.

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  28. Powerful stuff. Coming to terms with what happened you, dealing with it, moving on from it - that all already takes a lot of strength. Going one step further to reach out to other people by putting together a project like this - that's whole different level. Hats off to you!

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  29. Tears - gorgeous, horrific and moving testament of courage, strength and faith and the all-encompassing healing of God. So proud of you!

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  30. Tears. I salute you!

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  31. Marlene, I feel sorrow for the loss of your childhood security and innocence but proud for the courage and resilience of your spirit. What a testimony! Susan, London

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  32. I'm absolutely lost for words but you, and the many other women who have suffered at the hands of abusers, are amazing. So much respect. Lynne x

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  33. My heart aches for that 7 year old. I think you are incredibly courageous for sharing your story. The fact that you want to go a step beyond and help others is evidence of your inner strength. Thank you!

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  34. Wow. Marlene. You are a really amazing lady, you know that?! I am heartbroken to hear what you suffered...what women around the world are faced with on a daily basis...
    Sending you hugs, respect, and thanks for doing something so difficult, yet so so needed.

    And that photo of you?! Bad ass. That's all I have to say :)

    Alissa

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  35. Truly very special. The story is sadly all too common but the forgiveness and the insight are less common, but that is what is remarkable and what makes you a winner. Speaking out will hopefully reach people but what I really hope people will do is find a way to move on in peace as you have. Hx

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  36. Thanks for sharing Marlene! Hating a person is like drinking acid and hoping the the person dies. You chose the highway in forgiving and using that to reach out to people in similar situations. Well done and may you be strengthened as you strengthen others.

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  37. Once again, I am so glad I got to"know" you. I have always known how much strength you had as a woman, now my admiration is even greater than ever. Thank you for your generosity.and simplicity in this "monde de brutes". This will make a difference.
    Hugs
    Freida

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  38. What a fabulous project Marlene! Thank you for opening up and sharing your story with us - this is how real change is made possible in the world : )

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  39. thank you for sharing. Your story demonstrates your strength, resilience, love, and mercy which the world continues to need to see...


    "No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible."
    George Chakiris

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  40. Thank you for sharing your story Marlene. I am so sorry for what you went through at 7 and then beyond as a direct result of that. I loved your line 'Above all, gratitude, compassion & resilience can only be learned in difficult times'. I believe God's Father heart breaks for us when we go through real difficult times but He can use those times to teach us to have real empathy and compassion for others who go through similar circumstances. God bless you Marlene J x

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  41. Wow, this is incredible Marlene, the power of your words and the strong, beautiful photo and video are just incredible. This is so much to carry around inside of you, I just cannot imagine. I am so sad for that little child that was you.And then the suffering and bullying at school that followed. Resilience and fortitude and courage, you're all of those.

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