11 May The Full Story: 5 Toxic Messages I Was Told About Sexual Assault Growing Up
*Trigger warning: This article is based off a true story that was submitted to Unsaid.sg and deals with the topic of assault and contains mature content. We have included some useful resources at the bottom of the article, should the reader need any support.
Lesson #1: All Men Molested
When I was younger, I would head out to the market with my mum; because that was what daughters do, not sons. The market area was located amidst a claustrophobic cluster of HDB flats, and in the middle of it all was a Chinese pavilion. We would attempt to wade through the sea of people, especially on weekend mornings, just to get that packet of vegetables, or some flowers for the altar. My mum would hold on to me on my wrist (the way Asian parents do with their children) so tightly as if a kidnapper were at large. Occasionally, there would be an old Malay man trudging in his songkok. With a few red plastic bags hanging from his arm, he would give a toothless grin in our direction. My mum would then burn her fingers into my wrist and drag my tiny feet away at a speed that was confusing. I can’t remember if I ever smiled back.
“You know ah, these old men are always like that?” “Like what?” “If they smile to you and come close to you, don’t let them molest you ok?” “Huh? What is molest?” “You must scream and cry very loudly so mummy and other people around will know.” “Huh? But why must cry? What is molest?” “Aiya, don’t ask so many questions lah.” I was 6 and understood that all men molested.
Lesson #2: Stop Overreacting
There was a new ECA (then it was called) that was offered in my primary school – Chinese Orchestra. It was such a novel thing because I and the other 11 year olds around me had no idea that Chinese people played music. A couple of us joined the orchestra and we separated into different sections based on how well we could bow, blow, and beat. I was allotted to play the flute, dizi.
Our section was made of about 6 dizi players and 3 sheng players, and we all trained under the same instructor. A couple months in, our original instructor had to leave, and was replaced by a Chinese man with tuffs of hair that were not as thick as his Chinese accent. He wore polo t-shirts that were either white or black, but always paired them with khaki coloured cargo pants.
During one of our practices, he walked around us to correct our postures as we blew. He would straighten our chins, lower our elbows, and place his hands a little too long on our shoulders and backs. You could feel the tension in this room of pubescent girls; everyone looked at each other but no one said a thing.
The 10-minute break broke the silence.
“Did he do that to you just now?” “Yeah, he did it to you too?”
“It was so weird…”“But maybe he was trying to correct us.”
“But correct also no need to put there like that right?”
We were engaged in a discussion, though some part of us felt like it needed to be kept under the wraps of whispers and sideward glances.
The next day we were called to the Principal’s office. One by one first, and then all of us together. What did you feel? What did you do? Are you sure he did that? How long did he place his hand there? Are you sure it was that long? Are you sure you are recalling clearly? Are you sure you’re not overreacting?
Yeah, I was pretty sure I was not overreacting. I know what molest is. The substitute instructor was not seen since that day. A police car was not seen either. The child molester is still at large.
Lesson #3: It’s All My Fault
Ever since the Child Molester left, we had the main conductor of the orchestra training our section. We liked him and so were more at ease during practices. The concert date was closing in and section leaders were told to provide their mobile phone numbers to their instructors so that any information could be passed down with ease. I was section leader so I handed mine to my conductor.Messages started coming in. I was using a Nokia 3210 then, and bugged my Dad to have that red cover instead of the boring blue one. Text messages from my conductor would come during lesson time, after school, at night. During weekends, he would call me to tell me about the plans he had for the orchestra and how he could provide more for the school because he enjoys teaching me. The calls would last for an hour.
Then, at 12, I did not feel that anything was wrong with the texts and calls; my conductor was merely excited about teaching the orchestra and would like to bring it to greater heights.
One night, we were having our usual conversations over the phone, when he asked in Mandarin: “Can I ask you something?” “Yes?” “Can I call you, ‘honey’?”
I froze. My hands grew cold and I could feel a chill growing down my spine. “Hello?” “Huh? Er…why would you want to do that?” My voice was uncertain. I hope he did not hear my fear.
“I call all my girls in the team “honey” anyway, and they are ok with it. We just show a lot of love to each other like that.”
In that moment, my brother walked out of his room for a midnight bathroom break. I reached for a cushion while curling into a tighter crouch.
“Huh, but why do you need to do that? I don’t…” “Why won’t you let me call you that? There is nothing wrong. It’s just ‘honey’.” “No, I’m sorry. I don’t like that. I need to go now. Bye.”
I hugged the cushion tighter as I walked, dazed, to the kitchen for a glass of water. What just happened? Why was calling me ‘honey’ so important? Should I have allowed him to do that? What is this that I feel?
The next day was teachers’ meeting day so I had some time to head to the library. I logged in to book a PC terminal for an hour, making sure I picked one with the screen that was not facing the main seating area.
I logged in to my then Hotmail account and started typing an email to a trusted teacher. She was my form teacher in primary 4 and we often communicated via letters and emails.
“Dear Ms. Li…” I started to type, telling her what happened and the discomfort I felt. Is this right? Is what I am feeling right? Was I wrong to have said no? My 12 year old self doubted her own gut feeling.
Her reply came a day later, and there was a big scary term in there: “sexual harassment”. I opened the browser and yahoo-searched it. I still did not understand what it meant.
Very promptly, ECA teacher in-charge spoke to me. I remember sitting in a classroom and crying as I retold the situation to her. I was scared, but I could not understand why I was in tears. I can’t recall if I had to retell the situation to anyone else but it felt like I had to relive the fear again and again.
The very next ECA practice session, the teachers gathered the orchestra for a briefing. She explained that the instructors would be changing because we could not hire them anymore. My peers started to ask why, and little pockets of whispers started to build. I sat there, using all the acting skills I have learnt to remain calm and mirror the confused looks of others.
But deep down, I was shaking and guilty. They lost all their instructors because of me.
That guilt built. I was troubled and afraid but no one cared to manage that. Maybe no one knew how to do so then. No one asked if I was ok.
I remember sending apology messages to him after knowing the news. None were replied. A week later, I dialled his number and waited with bated breath.
All I said was “hello”, and all I remember him saying was:
“Why did you tell? Now because of you, your orchestra won’t be able to get those shelves and special cabinets I was planning to bring in. You have caused them to lose everything.”
“Sorry.” I was sexually harassed by you, Mr. Steven Goh. But it was my fault, Mr. Goh. It was all my fault.
This true account and several other crowdsourced stories are the inspiration for UNSAID’s first original theatre production “Every Singaporean Daughter”. More details will be coming to you soon. So stay tuned to our Facebook page for some very exciting news coming to you very soon!
If you or anyone else you know needs professional help here are some useful resources and support hotlines:
- Aware’s Sexual Assault Care Centre(SACC) Helpline: 6779 0282
- http://www.pave.org.sg/ (Centre for Promoting Alternative to Violence)