Bullies are mean.
Bullies think they have the natural right to make others feel bad about themselves.
Bullies are cowards.
Yes, so we’ve heard.
As a child, I don’t remember being bullied much. Perhaps it was because I was bigger than most other children but mostly, I think it was because I never allow myself to be bullied.
When I was six, I got into a bloody fight with a boy who teased me in kindergarten. He ended up having a black eye while I lost my front tooth. This explains why I grew up with a set of crooked teeth.
I don’t remember crying. Instead, I spent my teenage years begging my parents to let me wear braces.
When I was thirteen, one of our teachers tried to humiliate us by defacing our faces with a piece of white chalk whenever we made a mistake in class. I would sit at the back of the class, fuming and just when I managed to sum up enough courage, I stood up and blurted out, “You shouldn’t be doing this. What you’re doing is wrong!”
“Oooohhh, you think you’re so smart? Step out now!” The teacher yelled at me and threatened me with his long metal ruler from the table.
Oblivious to the threat, I walked right to the front of the class and extended my hand voluntarily. Smack! I received a hard blow to my outstretched palm.
I don’t remember crying but the teacher probably did after he was fired from the school once a report was lodged by my friend’s parents. According to my friend, her Mom said that she didn’t spend all those money on teenage-acne-skin treatment cream just for the teacher to draw on with a dirty chalk.
So now you think that being an adult, I probably don’t get bullied around. Bullying only happens when you’re a child. Adults are too dignified to subscribe to such method of intimidation and abuse.
On the contrary, I get bullied more as an adult than when I was a child.
As a child, we often get bullied by other children or adults because we’re either smaller in size, weaker in strength, ugly, fat, effeminate, eccentric or if we possess any other undesirable human traits.
As an adult, I’ve learned that societies are taught to believe that one’s worth is measured by gender, age, social status and income. If you don’t measure up, you’re more likely to be subjected to bullying by those who think that they are above everyone.
At the age of 25, I left Malaysia to serve as the youngest female UN volunteer in Timor Leste. I was young, idealistic and needless to say proud.
Working together with a mixture of people from various countries and diverse culture really opened up my eyes to the universality of human behavior. I left feeling proud but this was soon replaced by insecurity. Being the lowest paid UN staff, it was easy for others to make me feel small and insignificant.
Soon enough though, my job taught me to understand the importance and significance of my role in the greater scheme of things.
There was one particular senior staff who tried to make me feel that being a woman, young and a volunteer, I was not worthy of his respect. Being in charge of administrative, procurement and logistics coordination, he felt that he had great power and influence over anyone. Simply put, any staff who needed something as trivial as a chair, had to seek his authorisation.
Upon realising such power, many staff tried to gain his favour by giving him favours. He, of course, thrived on all the special treatment.
Being young and naïve, I did not quite understand the need for anyone to kowtow to him. I thought that it was simply his job to attend to the administrative and logistic needs of his fellow colleagues. Hence, I never bothered paying him more attention than needed and maintained our relationship strictly professional. I could not bear to be in his company since I questioned his intention and integrity.
Needless to say, my indifference towards his power and position eventually hurt his ego. I began to notice that it took me more effort than anyone else to request anything from him. He would snub me in public and found ways to make my work difficult.
The extent of his dislike for me reached a climax when he denied me access to a driver, truck, chairs, equipment and additional staff I needed in order to organise an important event.
His excuse was, I did not provide him with sufficient notice and it was a weekend where the word “work” meant nothing to him. It was of course an excuse used to make sure that I would be held responsible for a failed event since the word “weekend” did not exist in such a humanitarian work context.
I was given an ultimatum, to submit to defeat or to rise up to the occasion.
I chose the latter.
Instead of breaking down and pleading to him, I gathered all the strength and courage I had to put together all the resources I needed on my own.
That weekend, I spoke with some locals who agreed to lend me all the furniture and equipment I needed from the local community hall, drove my own assigned vehicle to painstakingly transport all the materials and hired additional workers from my own pocket. It was a lot of hard work. I could have made my own life easier but I chose not to compromise my dignity and pride.
The event was a huge success and the biggest battle won, was one of personal triumph. The senior staff soon learned that I would not be broken down and what I lacked in age and position, I made up in strength and determination.
There are many forms of bullying and for adults, they are politics in disguise. They may not always appear in the form of someone who is bigger, prettier or simply mightier, but often in the form of a senior person in a position of power. We are taught or made to feel that we are not good enough due to the fact that we are younger, uneducated, poor or simply being a woman.
However, if we learn to have respect and belief in ourselves, nobody can take that away from us no matter how hard they try. Bullies may break our physical being but hopefully they will never break our spirit. We can either submit to their prejudices or we can always prove them wrong.
Perhaps what we should think about is why there will be some people who love to put us down? I personally think that it is often the only way they know how to deal with their own insecurities.
The good thing is, there will always be a few people who will recognise and acknowledge our hard work and potential and those are the people who really matter.
My experience as a UN volunteer has taught me that every person, no matter how low they are in the scale of things, they each have an important role to play and they should never let other people try to convince them otherwise.
Always serve with pride and dignity because that’s the best weapon you can ever use to throw bullies off balance.
Bullies have no respect for themselves.
This article was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 18 December 2009 under the same title.