'I'm not a hero. I just want a quiet life'
Updated: 2012-01-20 08:02
By Cao Yin (China Daily)
Kim Lee talks to Cao Yin about domestic violence, going back to school and her plans for the future.
Kim Lee, who is going through a very public divorce from Li Yang, founder of the Crazy English language institute, says she has received great support and encouragement from most Chinese people for speaking out against domestic violence. In the foreground is the cover of a book she wrote with her husband. Feng Yongbin / China Daily
BEIJING - "I'm much stronger now, don't you think?" said Kim Lee, flexing her arm and smiling. We had bumped into each other in the elevator to her lawyer's office, where we had arranged to sit down for our interview.
I have met Lee twice before; the first time just a short while after she made headlines by posting on her micro blog pictures of bloody head injuries allegedly inflicted by her husband, Li Yang, a well-known entrepreneur.
She was right. She looked a lot better, more relaxed and confident, and far less tired.
The 40-year-old has had a turbulent six months and is going through a very public divorce from Li (the first hearing was on Dec 15). Yet, as she chatted about the Christmas she had just spent with her three children back in her native Florida, it seems she has had a chance to recharge her batteries and think about the future.
"I want to change my environment, maybe work in Guangzhou or Zhuhai (both in Guangdong province)," she said, as we walked into a small, sixth-floor office in a tall building next to the East Fourth Ring Road. "Some educational institutions have invited me already. Maybe I'll teach in a winter camp, too."
You could say education is Lee's family business. Her mother was a teacher and, before she met Li Yang, founder of the Crazy English language school, in 1999, she had spent almost a decade working at schools in the United States. She also home-schooled her three daughters, now aged 9, 5 and 3.
Getting back to work, she says, will help distract her from the pain of being separated from her children, who are staying with relatives in the US until the divorce is finalized.
"I really miss them, but they don't miss me," she said with mock anger. Then, with sudden excitement, ruffled through the glossy down jacket she had taken off moments earlier and produced a set of photographs.
In one of a young girl on stage at a spelling bee, she pointed out her second daughter, Lila. Then, almost in a whisper, she added: "Her personality is so much like her dad. She is the most like him (of the three). She loves attention, loves people looking at her. She likes the crowd."
It was the first mention of Li Yang during the interview, and the effect on the mood was as if he had just walked into the room.
The conversation soon turned to the topic of domestic violence and the media fallout over Lee's accusations against her soon-to-be ex-husband. She claims he regularly slapped her face and pulled her hair during arguments, and twice injured her so badly she needed hospital treatment.
In August, following what she called the second serious incident, Lee decided to upload pictures of her injuries on Sina weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
"(Before making the allegations online) I went to the police and told him (Li Yang) that I had gone, but he didn't care. He was still confident there would be no result," she said, adding that her decision to speak out was partially fueled by the fear of what her children may think. "If kids see you beaten by your husband several times and you say it's OK, they will think that it's OK. That's terrible. I don't want my kids to think it's OK for a woman to be abused by a man."
Although Lee says she uploaded the images to attract the attention of Li Yang, an avid Internet user, they were trended on Sina weibo and within hours had been shared by hundreds of thousands of bloggers.
"The first reason (I posted them) was because I wanted it to stop, I wanted to protect myself," she said, adding that she was not prepared for the media frenzy that ensued. It was not long before both husband and wife were being bombarded with reporters' requests for interviews.
Both have received their share of criticism in the last six months, including some people who accused Lee of simply seeking fame.
"I've received great support and encouragement from most Chinese people in the past five months," she said, recalling briefly with tears in her eyes how an elderly Chinese woman in Beijing's Tuanjiehu Park had recognized her one morning and given a thumbs-up.
Lee said she can accept "ugly" words from netizens but cannot help arguing with people who say domestic violence is acceptable. In interviews, Li Yang admitted hitting his wife but said it was a small mistake, and he claims Lee is using the case to become famous. (Li Yang declined to comment when contacted by China Daily.)
"That upsets me, the fact that he sees himself as a victim, that I did something to hurt him," Lee said, raising her voice, her first visible sign of anger that morning. "He still thinks the biggest problem is that I exposed the violence."
Since the media attention, Lee has spoken at a domestic violence conference in Beijing and, in some people's eyes, has become a hero for women caught in abusive relationships.
"I'm not a hero," she said when asked about how she is viewed. "That's not my job.
"The difference between a Chinese and US woman in such a relationship is that when an American woman finally gets the courage to speak out, she knows the support is there. The law (in the US) is very strong. But here, even if a woman speaks out, it's very difficult," said the mother of three, who plans to write a book about domestic violence for Chinese women.
"I don't think other women can follow my example, because I'm an American I can leave the country; I have lots of options. However, I hope I have made it clear to men who abuse women that it's not OK."
At the end of the interview, Lee finally sat back in her soft, brown armchair and took a sip of the coffee she was carrying when we arrived. It had gone cold long ago.
"I just want an ordinary, quiet life," she added. "But I still believe in love."