I remember being avidly curious about human behaviour, and as a child pondering on what adults were saying and doing and how the two were sometimes at odds. Adults can be quite mean and gossipy, and to a child’s ears, the effect is dramatic. I remember faithfully translating adult conversations to the subject of said conversations, leaving the house in an uproar, with everyone denying what they’d said. I was outspoken and descriptive, and I remember my mother constantly telling me to watch my tongue and that it would get me into trouble. Well!! so much for that. It was good advice, I now am much more judicious about what I translate and how I translate it, but I’m still fairly outspoken! Unfortunately, what I leave unsaid, you can read in my face! My favourite aunt told me last year “Debbie, you were such an honest child”… haha at least someone appreciated my honesty back then.
When I was fourteen, my neighbour (who subsequently became my beloved mother-in-law) found a baby in her backyard. She had been taking her morning walk and came across a bloody sari tied around what looked like a rice sieve. When she turned it over, she saw it was a newborn. A dead newborn baby girl. I recall being in my school uniform when my neighbour came running over to our house to drag us across the road to see. I recall the police showing up and being entirely disinterested. Taking notes. Leaving. The case never made headlines, the perpertrators somehow silenced any investigation. Stuff plays out like that in deeply corrupt countries, where the cops can be bribed to look away.
It occurred to me then how little life, particularly the life of a girl child was valued in India. How the people who were there to protect us didn’t care. That life was not fair or kind and that sometimes help needed to come from other, unexpected sources. That crystallising moment allowed me to put together my accumulated observations and become a social crusader, and, in hindsight, quite a pest in class, speaking out against arranged marriages, dowry, the caste system, and other social injustices when all my poor teachers were trying to do was get through boring civics classes! It took me a many lessons over many years to channel that energy more meaningfully.
When you grow up in a corrupt country, where money raised to build wells and homes and educate the poor is siphoned off to the police, government bureaucrats and contractors; where dear friends are burnt to death by their own families for loving the wrong person; where men can grope you in public, harass you at work.. - all with impunity - it affects you. Either you do something about it, or it desensitizes you, just so you can sleep better knowing you did nothing. All of us are one or the other at different points in our lives. But I guess I lean towards the former, mostly.
I came to Hong Kong at a time where there were no anti-discrimination or sexual harassment laws. My first employer, a surgeon from Uttar Pradesh in India, who’d got his degree from the UK, hired me as his medical assistant. He probably thought he was getting the powerless and fearful village idiot, because on the very first day, he tried to make me his “friend” where between friends “there were no boundaries”. It’s a long story of sexual harassment taking the form of alternating between attempted bribing (offers to be my “mentor” while putting me through an engineering diploma at HK Poly), begging, flattery and threats (revoking my visa and having the police break my door down in the middle of the night!), all the while following me around the room, groping and breathing over me (and I have a poem about it) for months, but he hadn’t bargained on the fact that I was not going to take it lying down, no pun intended. Worse, he tried to make be believe that what he was demanding was not what he was in fact demanding. He even wrote in front of me on a piece of paper that I was a dangerous and narrow minded person from India!! All classic bullying and manipulation tactics (it’s called gaslighting, I later learned) to make the victim question their own sanity.
I’m so glad I studied psychology and had observed human behaviours from a toddler, so this man’s gaslighting and disingenuity had no impact. I told everyone who would listen, I complained in writing and in person to the President of the hospital, who encouraged me to sue the man (whom he loathed for allowing his Indian society friends to jump the public hospital queues), but refused to pay for my legal fees or investigate or offer me another position in the hospital!! Imagine if that happened today? My colleagues supported me and ostracised the surgeon; his own research sponsor (God Bless You BH!) gave me a tip on a role that had become recently vacant in another company, and where I thrived for the next nine years. My harasser’s English wife was pregnant with their first child at the time. I learned that they returned to England, the baby was overdue, swallowed meconium and was still born. While my heart broke for his poor wife and child, it taught me that Karma can happen in this life.
So. my first year in Hong Kong with a sexual predator gave me both, severe IBS, and reserves of strength I never knew I had. It gave me back my faith in prayer. It taught me that there are more good people than corrupt ones in this world who will champion you and support you. I used that experience to good effect as an HR practitioner to champion fair and inclusive HR practices, and to recognise how bullies and sexual predators operate, and advise on courses of action.
I have zero tolerance for people who abuse their power instead of protecting and serving. I don’t care if you were my former benefactor, or a friend or a relative or an upstanding member of my church. I’ve seen discrimination in action and felt the affects of misguided loyalties that stop even “good” people acting.