Content warning: sexual assault
I have a comically quiet voice. The tone of my voice seems to hover right underneath the frequency that most humans have the ability to pick up. Even when I shout, people often don’t register what I’m saying. I’ve heard iterations of, “Huh? What did you just say?” or, “Oh, you know who you remind me of? That Asian girl from Pitch Perfect!” countless times, each time acting as another stitch to sew my mouth closed.
I don’t think this would bother me the way it does if I were not an Asian woman, but every time someone exclaims how quiet I am — as if they were the first to notify me — it makes me cringe. It makes me ask: Am I just reinforcing stereotypes of how Asian women are demure and passive? Would I be this quiet if I didn’t receive these subliminal messages all my life?
My quietness infected me at a very young age. Growing up, my father was the authoritarian figure in our household. Gregarious and as well liked as he was outside the home, to his family he was a source of fear. I remember slinking silently around the house, hoping he wouldn’t call me in to berate me on something else I had fallen short in.
I made myself pliable, knowing that it would be pointless to voice any opinion that went against my father’s. Where his voice boomed and shook tears from our eyes, mine softly murmured words of comfort to my mother after he was done. When he chose to go after my older brother, I would make myself small, unnoticeable, just thankful that he was distracted from me.
Looking back now, I realize that he was just another tiger-parent, and that our relationship was very similar to a lot of other second-generation folks with their immigrant parents. But at the time, I felt lonely, insufficient, and silenced. I was an unfailingly considerate and accommodating doll, made for display, hiding cracks in the facade.
My learned quietness at home inevitably affected my relationships with my peers.
We were friends first. He was outgoing, funny, and seemed totally at ease no matter what social situation he was in — essentially the opposite of me. He was one of the few people I felt immediately comfortable; where words flowed easily from my mouth when we joked with each other. He was also Christian and would often proselytize to me how, as the man, he should be the spiritual leader in the relationship.
My parents’ ultra-protectiveness of me made me terrified to introduce anyone to them as my partner, so him and I carried on in secret. He made the first move, and at first I wasn’t sure if this is what I really wanted. But, as they so often do, my words failed me, and we tumbled into a relationship in which we were isolated from our communities. Our guides were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and whatever else we found on our parents bookshelves.
Physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries were crossed. Things happened without my consent, but at the time, I didn’t even have a concept of consent. He was the man, therefore he was the leader, and thus he had control over where the relationship went and how it was conducted.
All the while, I knew something was intrinsically wrong with our relationship. Not only was it built on lies and secrecy, but shame was also building to unbearable levels. I felt just like all of those women puritanical sex educators described: a piece of candy that was sucked on and put back in its wrapper, never to be the same again. And yet, each time I had no words to stop what was happening.
I never verbally said no. I made my will pliable, because that was what I had done my whole life. I remained silent and accepted everything that was happening, to then be wracked by a sense of regret and loss afterwards. My voice failed me, over and over again.
Eventually, we broke up. I finally snapped after he tried to manipulate and control my behavior and personal choices. It was only when I went to my campus’ Take Back the Night event — a march and vigil to stand against rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence — a year after we had broken up that I began to understand what had happened to me. As I was listening to other survivors share their experiences with sexual assault at the open mic after the march, I started to draw connections to their stories and mine. My memories of him and me always left a sickening aftertaste and I never knew before that moment what it stemmed from exactly, but their bravery in sharing their stories helped me see my situation clearly.
The realization brought me to a new low; my friends found me crouched in a dorm stairwell at 2 a.m., and let me cry for the next 3 hours while they silently comforted me, knowing that nothing they could say would make anything hurt less. It’s been several years since that night, and my hands still sometimes shake if I think of him and what happened between us. Sometimes, I’m plunged into a memory that feels like it’s happening in the present; my heart starts to race until I take deep breaths and remind myself of my surroundings. Feel the wood counter under your hands. Hear the sounds of milk being steamed and the clink of mugs. Breathe in, breathe out. You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.
When I fell in love with my English classes at college, it was as if I had found a new way to speak. While my corporeal voice was quiet as ever, my writing could articulate my thoughts to others in a way that wasn’t physically draining. As I started to write articles that were published online, I felt heard, for one of the first times in my life. People were reading and commenting on my pieces, and even if they didn’t agree with what I was saying, they were still engaging with it and thinking about the topics I brought up.
I also found that writing letters to my father was one of the most effective ways of communicating with him. Before, when we would argue, I would get too upset to speak while he raised his voice and ended up feeling completely run over by him. But, after I removed myself from the situation I would write him letters laying out my point of view, which he would eventually cave in and read. While we still wouldn’t necessarily agree with each other after this, he would come to respect the time and thought I had put into my decisions and actions, bringing us to a point of peace.
After the world subjugated me to its preconceived notions of what I was allowed to say and when I was allowed to speak, it felt like God was empowering me and affirming me that my voice was worthy to be listened to.
After years of prayer, therapy, and sharing my story with trusted friends, I’m healing. My spiritual and emotional progress has been all but linear; I’d go through healing prayer, dust my hands off and say to myself, “Glad that’s over with!” only to be wracked by overwhelming levels of shame and anxiety a few weeks after. But, while my experience with sexual assault has become an inextricable part of my life story, it will never define who I am. Instead, my voice will continue to do that for me.
Created by: Naomi Lee
About the Author: Naomi is a writer who is passionate about social justice, storytelling, and personality tests. She likes to spend her free time hiking and watching kids cartoons.