When love turns to fear

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2011, 12:00am


The 10 minutes that Kim Lee spent clutching her three-year-old daughter while standing outside a Beijing police station on August 30 were the longest 10 minutes of her life. She felt torn about going in, but she knew it was necessary to stop living in fear.

'I knew the minute I set foot in there I'd change the course of my life, but I wanted to end the violence,' said Lee, an American language teacher better known on the mainland as the battered wife of Li Yang, founder of Crazy English, a hugely popular brand for learning English.

A day later, the 40-year-old Lee, who has three daughters - aged three, five and nine - with Li, went public about the domestic violence she said she had endured for years. She posted a picture on her microblog account showing a bump on her head that she said Li had caused. More pictures of her injuries appeared over the following days.

Lee's openness, and because her husband is so well-known, offered a rare glimpse into the largely taboo topic of domestic violence on the mainland.

'My first response to [the abuse] was fear, because my husband is famous and adored like a hero in China, and I didn't want my children to get hurt,' she told the South China Morning Post. 'So for many years, I just pretended that we didn't have a problem.'

Lee, a tall and generally rather cheerful woman, came to China nearly 13 years ago as a language teacher. She said domestic violence became an issue in her relationship with Li well before she moved in with him in 2000.

She said he beat her up when she was seven months pregnant with their second child in 2006, and the most recent bout, in August, occurred after the couple argued fiercely for hours over issues such as family insurance, visa renewals and schooling for their daughters, which she said her husband believed were too trivial for him to be bothered with.

Violence ensued, and Lee said her husband choked her with his hands, pulled her hair from behind and knocked her to the floor in front of their three-year-old.

After she reported the incident, police summoned Li for a mediation session. Afterwards, Li made a public apology and agreed to see a marriage counsellor.

Lee filed for divorce in September and awaits a court hearing tomorrow. However, she said she has been frustrated by the protracted court procedure for divorce, which entitles victims of domestic violence to an uncontested divorce dependent upon the approval of their spouses. If Li were to contend the divorce, the court would order the couple undertake more mediation.

Her plight drew national attention after she posted the pictures of her injuries on her Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Many internet users decried the use of violence against a woman, particularly by someone as famous as Li.

Within days, Lee said, she had received more than 200 e-mails from her former students saying that they also had similar problems with their spouses, or that they had witnessed violence between their parents when they were children.

Feng Yuan , head of the China Anti-Domestic Violence Network, said what Lee went through was particularly shocking, given that Li is both highly educated and a famous teacher. 'But this has once again demonstrated that any family, rich or poor, famous or not, can be susceptible to domestic violence,' Feng said.

She noted that Chinese women often suffered more from domestic violence than other people because the nation lacks a strong support network for victims, and because there is such a deep-rooted stigma associated with spousal abuse.

'They are reluctant to speak up because their suffering does not cast them as a victim, but as someone bad or not good enough,' Feng said, adding that Lee, by making her case public, could help to remove some of that stigma.

However, Lee cautioned Chinese women thinking of following her lead in dealing with domestic violence. She said they should speak up only when they have a plan, a safe place to go and some money in hand, or they could be setting themselves up for further violence.

Underscoring the vulnerability of Chinese women who fall victim to domestic violence, Lee said that going to the police didn't do her any good. 'They wanted to help, but didn't know how,' she said.

She added that, without other options, some Chinese women living in poor rural areas have been known to simply snap and kill their abusive husbands 'because they could not take it any more'.

Lee has spent all her time in China working with Crazy English, often accompanying her husband on teaching tours across the country. She would also spend hours combing college entrance exams every year searching for training materials.

She said one of the reasons she kept the abuse to herself was that she didn't want to hurt the Crazy English brand, something she still doesn't want to do. She also still cares for her husband. But her priority now is protecting her three daughters, and she said she doesn't want them thinking it's OK for men to beat women.

'It's not OK in any country; it's not an issue between China and the US or any other country, but an issue between a husband and a wife,' Lee said. 'That's why I didn't go to the US embassy for help as many thought I should have.'

Though Li has acknowledged in TV interviews that what he did was terribly wrong, he has continued to defend himself, saying that his actions were similar to those of many Chinese men.

In an interview with China Central Television in September, he even likened his marriage to a sort of experiment to see how children could be taught in a mixed family, and he said their daughters were 'mere products' of that experiment.

Lee said she doesn't believe the problems with her husband are because of cultural differences, but because of differences in philosophy, character and personality.

She even takes some responsibility for their failed marriage, but not the abuse. She also regrets not coming forward sooner, especially because of the emotional impact the violence has had on her eldest daughter, who used to be a cheerful, independent girl, but began wetting the bed after the 2006 incident and was afraid to leave her mother's side.

As a former teacher in the US, she sais she should have been more informed about domestic violence and taken steps to deal with it earlier. 'But we all want to have the perfect family,' she said, 'and we wanted to get along, no matter what.'