Dragons on the Spectrum
Written by Hen Z.
I was exhausted from finals, and finals I had not completed yet. I was probably tired from running practice, like training my schoolmate Hyein a few days ago. However, for others’ sake, I needed to be there, at a virtual event at my school, for the community, wearing a Saiyan Armor rashguard. When it became my turn, they introduced me:
“Henry Zhang is a 3rd year doctoral student of School Psychology at Rutgers University and a freelance programmer for the tech startup Timehacks.”
Pretty sure that’s not why they brought me in…
“He has also spent the last decade training martial arts including Muay Thai, Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the uhh…Pekiti? uhh…Teresa? Kali”
Okay, this was definitely their first time reading it in their head, like, ever.
“and has competed in wrestling and submission grappling. During April 2020, he became sickened by the level of anti-Asian violence”
And also the imbeciles in the ivory towers who sold their own people out in the name of sounding woke, but I guess that wouldn’t be appropriate to include on the big stage.
“and covertly began his own initiative remotely training others in skills that were necessary for self-defense”
To be fair, some people considered our definition of necessary as rather extreme, for reasons including but not limited to the fact that many beginners would have trouble walking after their first day. What they saw as brutality, we saw as a necessity to Stop Asian Hate until others finally figured out how to actually end it.
“That is currently known as Dragon Combat Club (DCC).”
Named after my best friend Ray who i started with, after he passed away a month into us running it. We were originally unofficially named Darth Brazzers Death Squad, but that’s a long story.
“He had spent the last 10 years training at Evolution Muay Thai which he credits for saving his life for giving him a place to train at a difficult time and sees DCC as a way to pay it forward.”
Long story short, some people I was close to thought I had no future because I was autistic with severe ADHD. I took that shit personally.
“He was among the first people to inform the public about anti-Asian hate crimes with his speech at Rutgers University in October 2020”
I didn’t do it alone, this was something my friends such as Radwa, Lizzie, Emily, Tori, Sade, and Chad gave me the courage and urgency to do. I also promised my trainee Katrina the morning of the speech that I would do what it took for a brighter future. I taught her how to escape violent situations, I taught her how to fight, I taught her how to kill, just like I did with many others on my own time. That’s what it took for us to live until that brighter future. Katrina did many things during her time at DCC, including running a crucial last emergency favor for Lizzie’s mom the same week I told her this very story of where I come from. These were among the things that made me realize DCC meant more to us than what we could convey in words. That being said, Katrina definitely had a lot of comments and questions about this story.
“Haha, a random dude called Chad!”
“Katrina, Chad is my Jiu-Jitsu and MMA coach, the first one who gave me the blessing to teach basic fighting to you all.”
“Wait, so that’s his actual name?”
“You are not the first person to ask me that. No, it’s not an alias. He said he’s totally fine with me including his name in the story, well, as long as it said he had a huge…”
“and has become a coach under the uhh….Tiger? Tactics Combatives System.”
Ah crap, I should’ve probably given them some tips for pronouncing Tiga which means three in Indonesian. I’m sure Conrad will get a good laugh once he hears this.
“He has also conducted mass training events where his team helps train large groups of individuals to defend themselves.”
I lead the mass training events, but it was Antonieta’s idea. She figured out a system where we had a small team including people such as Joe and Jon to effectively train mini-groups which allowed us to collectively train up to 280 people at once.
I was exhausted, but the crowd seemed pretty amped up. One of them got the anime reference from my attire:
“This is awesome! I get to learn Self-Defense from Vegeta!”
I demonstrated our club’s situational awareness tactics. These were the same ones that actually kept many individuals, including myself, alive and out of the news. I did a quick demonstration of the movements we emphasized. This included using the long guard for de-escalation and other purposes. I demonstrated combat sports techniques that translated well to self-defense including the punches and palm strikes. It was the criteria that Brandon, the head striking coach from my home gym, expected: three strikes per second with full power, short and tight the way he explained to us, each delivered with horrific intentions. I also demonstrated the elbows and knees meant for close quarters situations. Much to Coach Gene’s disappointment when he reads this story, I did skip on the takedowns since I didn’t have a consenting human and no time to share a video in the short time frame I had since they only gave me a few minutes.
They also received this infographic that our team created that would be distributed in our mass training events and by other AAPI organizations that taught self defense to the community. A professor named Dr. Riley gave me this idea and my schoolmate, Shin, translated it to Chinese.
I demonstrated force multiplier tools including tactical flashlight, pens and knives which became a necessity to carry, train with and defend against in our current times. All DCC members were expected to carry a flashlight and pen at minimum upon leaving the house and be proficient at deploying them at will. I accidentally described our group as a modern day ninja-clan when my schoolmate Natalie interviewed me at the end of 2020 and that term stuck.
The audience saw our technique for drawing/deploying the weapon. It involved distracting the opponent with a strike to the eyes or throat while simultaneously using the other hand to draw a weapon from seemingly out of nowhere before carving what some describe as the infinity sign in the air with my blade: two strikes into the neck of an imaginary target. These were motions I did not learn, understand or practice until after I was separated from the place I also referred to as home.
I preached to Stay Alert, Stay Kind and Stay Humble, for even someone like myself would encounter someone even more trained, more armed or more athletic. While I accidentally blinded some people over the internet with my flashlight, this was their favorite part of the presentation, and they were more than happy to get their own flashlight afterwards.
The cheers and comments I received reminded me again that many saw what we did as a symbol of hope and inspiration during these horrific times. What they didn’t see was a time I fought another battle nobody knew about, a past where people believed I would never have a future because of who I was. This is the story (long and best read in parts) that Lizzie asked me to tell, a story about who and what shaped me.
CHAPTER I – DECODING HUMANITY
I took the subway to school, standing against a door. The ride was filled with intrusive thoughts. Part of being autistic, at least for me, was having eidetic memory for certain things. Eidetic memory was quite invaluable many times in my life and was invaluable for helping me plan multiple steps ahead or even envision things before they happened. But when it’s filled with all those times somebody told you “my family said you won’t have a future because of your condition” “You’ll never be a good role model because of it” “You picked your training over me!” “Those videos again?” “Is your schedule more important than me?!” “I’m the best you’ll ever have” “you better not tell anyone what I did, or what they said, or else” and you were stupid enough to agree to never name them, eidetic memory becomes a characteristic you wish you never had, especially after you heard that despite trying to do everything right.
I was kicked out of undergraduate studies in 2007 due to academic problems, fought hard to get my academic and social life together (with medication, learning about myself and martial arts training) only to still hear those things from someone who was a part of my life that I cared about. When it wouldn’t be until six years later that I finally developed some vocabulary to describe my feelings, there would only be rage, especially when faced with a rare problem that for once, I had no immediate solution to. Despite all that I did for a better life during those five years, the simple knowledge of my neurodivergence, something I had no control over, allowed someone to viciously rob that sense of humanity away from me. This wasn’t the first time a group of people had said this about me because of my neurodivergence, but it was the first time such sentiments contributed to a significant loss.
As I waited for my stop, somebody tall approached me against the door as if he was almost going to whisper at me. He glared at me and looked me in the eye. I had memorized all the subway stations I’ve been to so I knew the subway doors would open behind him. I concluded he was not exiting the train and saw an easy target. Conveniently, I envisioned a corpse that would be a convenient outlet for my rage. That became the only moment in my life where I would rejoice at the possibility of knowing how it felt to crank somebody’s joints in full force or insert a key in their orifice. I noticed other witnesses and I still had enough sense to know that if I attacked him without others realizing I was in danger, my actions would negatively affect those beyond myself. Within a second, I quickly calculated different ways I could maim or kill him that would allow me to avoid legal repercussions. Unfortunately, all of them entailed him making the first move after my attempt to calm the situation down. That’s when I smiled at him and said “Hey.” In retrospect, he probably didn’t hear the words that came out of my mouth or look at the smile I tried to make and only saw my eyes. That would explain why his immediate reaction was to run the other way.
When I realized what I almost did and what had gone through my mind, I felt even more ashamed. This wasn’t the first time I made these “calculations” of getting rid of a problem that entailed removal of a human being or had a dream of carrying it out. I was quite disturbed, not because I felt bad about the people who needed to be hurt, but that had I acted impulsively, my actions would have negatively affected those who should not have been hurt, such as my mother and grandmother who worked so hard to get to where they were, or this Australian dude named Brandon who would have to find another YouTube guy. The loudest voice was “If you did it wrong, you would have proven them right.” My selective sense of remorse only disturbed me more. This forced me to stay active and busy.
Ironically, a lot of people were concerned I would take my rage the other way.
“Don’t kill yourself like he did”
My buddy Rob was referring to somebody I introduced Jiu-Jitsu to back in college when I was a white belt. That college friend killed himself when somebody he was planning to marry cheated on him. He had plans to move to Japan and start a new life there as an English teacher. At his wake, I looked at his open casket and reflected on the pain around the room. That was his life, but I was still enraged like many others, because he was just about to graduate and move on to a better life and was robbed of what he earned. In the last moment I ever looked at him, I promised him what would be done if I ever fell on similar times.
“Goddammit Rob, that’s messed up but that actually cheered me up…but shit”
“Haha, too soon?!”
“Always. Don’t worry, I won’t though.”
“You sure about that?”
“A man Logan once told me, a good general can wait up to ten years for revenge, or at least that’s what he wrote in his book. I have a promise to someone we used to know that I need to keep. I want to move on with the life I already worked so hard for and I’m going to make that happen, no matter how painful it is going to be.”
For better or worse, my mom knew where the people who sent me on the spiral had come from, because able-ism against neurodivergence and mental illness (most people don’t know the difference anyways) was so normalized within Asian Americans. She knew what happened but I’m not sure if she knew the degree it affected me. It’s not her fault since it would be about six years until I figured out how to convey my feelings. She reminded me of that time when I was five years old, how I cried about how people didn’t care about who you are, only what you could do for them. She told me how shocked she was not just because of how it was a departure of how oblivious I usually I was (and now), but also because she knew how accurate I was. For better or worse, my mother told me I needed to be able to live in that world, not because it was right, but because that was the world we lived in.
When staying busy didn’t involve schoolwork at home, or going on dates where I was quite blunt about what I wanted and didn’t want (a relationship, because I figured after what happened, it was safer that they never got to know me), it would be my second home, a place that gave me the means to avoid being institutionalized: Evolution Muay Thai.
Evolution was a “mom and pop shop”, except by shop, it was an MMA gym. “Pop” was Kru Brandon Levi, and “Mom” was his wife who called herself Mama Bear. It would be a year or so when I befriended a man named Mark who explained that Bear had a different meaning where he came from. Mama Bear tried to reach out to me a few times, but it would be awhile until I knew how to communicate what I was supposed to:
“Look Henry, I know that the situation you’re going through, losing someone you spent years with can be really diffi….”
“I have a place to train, all I can do is just keep training, I’ll be fine.”
It wouldn’t be years later until I figured out how to articulate how to thank them for saving my life. During early 2012, Brandon and Deirdre realized that I had really good video editing skills and let me train there for free in exchange for my help as I had no money at the time. I only took some media classes in high school but the thing about being autistic, or at least for me, is that it comes with certain splinter skills, and they allow me to pick up video editing really quickly. (Splinter skills are specific skills that are far better developed than any typical human being. Not all autistic people have them, or are able to display them. Some autistic individuals have splinter skills that are really only useful for certain contexts or not apparently useful when we live in a capitalist society, kind of like being Aquaman in the middle of the desert and having to fight Gaara. Sure, being a thirst trap and water powers is cool, but you’re also dead.) By the way, I also speak in movie and anime references which means if you’re not a nerd like me, you’re going to be looking up a lot of shit to figure out what I’m talking about. I’m also one of the luckier ones since my splinter skills included eidetic memory and pattern recognition which were both great for martial arts and living in the digital world. A nice consolation prize for someone whose social skills were and/or maybe is complete crap.
Aside from the aforementioned crap social skills, there’s also this adherence to certain things being the same which has worked for both better and worse. What is repetitive is different for each autistic individual. There’s a lot of things that work better if they remained the same, at least in my opinion, but combat sports taught me that you can’t solve problems the same way each time the hard way, like literally, and just to clarify if anyone’s mind is in the gutter…I mean by getting punched in the face or strangled.
These experiences taught me that I needed to factor in other individuals’ intentions and behaviors to remain at least one or two steps ahead in order to live.
Having what neurotypicals consider poor social skills isn’t always a problem either. For some individuals like me, it comes with this disregard for doing things because somebody said so (authority) since no matter what, you need something that actually makes sense for you. This means there are some martial art systems or types of instructors that I would not be able to learn from. Thankfully, like the gym’s name, Brandon was never interested in doing something due to tradition, only what made sense, and that was also the case for the grappling coaches he hired. I dived into training, anything I could to forget that no matter what I did, I was less than human in the eyes of those who found out what I truly was. I’m not the type of person to socialize for the sake of socializing, I just meet people with the same hobbies, so that’s where I made friends, particular ones whose struggles were different from my own. Admittedly, I was not consistent with going to training due to being tired from a job I later received at an Early Intervention agency. Okay, to be honest, my attendance would be shit for many years for different reasons.
During the years following 2012, I had better attendance in the Muay Thai classes. Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing involved striking with all eight limbs. Fists, elbows, knees and either shins or feet. It’s a style with a rather brutal reputation, not just what the practitioner could dish out, but what the level of violence you were required to be able to defend against. I picked up the punches rather quickly, followed by elbows and knees thanks to my pattern recognition. Unfortunately, when I was shooting a fight scene for an action comedy (more on that later), somebody on set that decided not to follow our safety protocol, I may have picked up the knee too well for someone who just started:
“Hen! What happened to him?”
“I uhhh…kneed him…lightly, I swear to god it was light Tanner!”
“Yeah, I think it was light. I guess he didn’t breathe out in time”
“Hen, he’s been rolling around the floor for like nine minutes now”
I know there are no crickets in rainy weather. But, we all heard them over the rain.
“Well, I did tell him to do that warmup where we get used to getting hit in the stomach but he refused.”
“I’ve…NEVER…been hit….this hard…in my…life before!”
The rest of Team PTX whispered to each other in confusion underneath his screams of pain:
“Shit, I did tell him to do it but he was like no, I have a Black Belt.”
“Wait, seriously Hen? What the hell did he get his Black Belt in?”
“Wait but I tra..”
“As a child…”
“O shit, why did I think that meant he would know what he was doing? We are so making these procedures mandatory from now on.”
However, since I was clumsy and at times, generously built around the waist, I struggled to get the hang of kicks, making my Muay Thai merely the art of six limbs. It required speed and explosiveness. While I had power, I’d keep hearing Brandon yell “Fahstah!” at me no matter how hard I tried. I wasn’t sure how it was possible, particularly landing three full powered strikes under a second on cue (e.g., blocking a punch). I figured it was not my place to ask, just my place to try, and that was the least I could do, even if I did not believe.
“Uhh…Brandon, is there like, some way, trick, or secret to…moving this fast?”
“Just moah prahctice mite.”
Mark was the first Brown dude to ever speak Mandarin to me.
Jiu-Jitsu involved using the opponent’s momentum against themselves to get them into pins that would set up the fun stuff: strangles and joint locks, where if fully applied, would tear somebody’s joints. While violent in its own way, it wasn’t as popular since to the untrained eye, it might look like two people having sex. It (uhh..I mean Jiu-Jitsu) was my forte as it required less explosiveness and athleticism, which took more advantage of my ability to detect patterns. While one still needed to practice, it was more common to discover little hidden details that made a huge difference. For some reason, I was even less consistent going to Jiu-Jitsu classes. Around 2012, there was something that discouraged me from attending Jiu-Jitsu practice but it was not until many years later that I was able to put my finger on why. I did take private lessons with the BJJ instructor using the money I got from working in Early Intervention, where I learned a lot. That being said, there was one person whose progress skyrocketed above the rest as he took the group classes, private classes and was on the BJJ competition team: Chad. He was a Blue Belt at the time like me. However, not only did he pick up patterns as fast as I did if not faster, he appeared untethered by the same physical limitations that I had. In fact, he moved at speeds that I could not detect, that seemed rather unfathomable. In my eyes, he had all my strengths and none of my weaknesses. In case you’re wondering, no, Chad’s not an alias I gave to describe him, that’s his actual name.
The other activities included Dragon Boat and shooting YouTube videos. I didn’t really connect with anyone on my Dragon Boat team except for one person I brought in. His name was Raymond Long. We met around March 2012 from a mutual friend named Laura (a walking tank of a martial artist disguised as a woman) while shooting YouTube videos together. Ray had been training in martial arts since childhood. He also introduced martial arts to other individuals including Laura and some other important people in my life I would not get to know until later. In the time I had known him, I never knew much about his past or how he felt, yet we connected through our love of martial arts and more importantly, food. He was known for many things including work ethic and always liked to wear a certain shirts and a cap with his last name.
Just in case your mind was in the gutter, I meant his last name in Chinese, which meant something more majestic. As all the other individuals on the Dragon Boat team were gasping for air after their training, we found time to practice our Thai Boxing and Wrestling clinch just to keep our skills sharp. While we both trained systems worked well enough for us to understand what the other person was practicing, there were parts of his system that seemed different from mine that I could never put a finger to. It was a healthy and friendly competition where we pushed each other. The only thing we wanted to prove to each other was who had the bigger…appetite.
One day, as we walked home from Dragon Boat practice again, I opened up about my past. I forgot the exact words but he sensed hesitance, particularly when I told him to keep it to himself. He immediately grabbed my shoulder, glared and me and yelled:
“Look at me! I want you to know that all that matters is what you do with what you have! That is ALL you can focus on! I need you to focus on just that! Do you understand?!”
I know the way I described it would not sound assuring to other people, but for some odd reason, it did to me. It somehow made me breathe easier. I still wonder to this day where that came from and what brought him to say that to me, the way that he did, when he did, but what mattered was that somebody accepted and understood me. This was somebody I looked up to. We shot action comedies together for both my YouTube channel and a Filipino guy named Girard Tecson where he had his crew including a guy named Noah that also served in the military. My team, called Team PTX, handled the martial arts and visual effects while Girard focused more on big production stuff.
During one of the videos I posted, somebody I met in class many years ago messaged me to catch up. Her name was Antonieta. It was a name many people misspelled, mispronounced and also asked me about. That included Laura who jogged with me and took a few times to get it right.
“Antoniette? That’s an interesting name.”
“Antonieta. Her family moved from China to Venezuela, and that’s where she was born”
Antonieta and I never really spoke or got to know one another. I did remember her for two reasons. The first was that I found her quite adorable. The second, well to be honest, she’ll probably jam a durian up my ass if I publish that in writing. I told her what I had been up to, finishing up my Master’s Degree in Psychology, training martial arts and shooting videos to keep myself busy. She was a fan of my videos and for some reason I felt safe geeking out about martial arts training and martial arts movies.
“I try not to talk about it all the time because, it kind of comes off…alienating others…”
“Actually I like hearing people talk about things they’re passionate about, I get to learn new things!”
We went out to eat at various places, she introduced me to various foods. Antonieta loved hearing me nerd about martial arts movies, different martial arts and even my own personal history of it. I admitted that at that stage in my life, I’d be a shitty romantic partner of any kind because I’d be too fixated on getting work done, studying for my GREs, training martial arts and shooting videos to pay attention to anyone. She told me she was studying Radiology and would meet with me so we could study side by side before and after martial arts practice where she would greet me with snacks. Just to be clear, that wasn’t a euphemism, we actually studied. She had a habit of giving me things when or before I was merely thinking of them.
This was a pleasant surprise from the life I lived, and the life I would live, where people misunderstood me no matter how hard I tried to explain things. I wondered if for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to choose between being myself and having someone there for me.
SUMMER 2012: I got a job working for the evaluation department for an Early Intervention agency called Happy Dragon. Early Intervention is a subdivision of New York City’s Department of Health that evaluated and provided services to children under three who had developmental delays or other conditions (usually Autism) that needed uh…intervention. I royally screwed up the interview for another position because I had zero interview skills at the time. However, another person managed to royally screw up even harder in a job that required basic tech skills, so out of desperation, they hired me. During my first week to work, I messaged Antonieta.
“Good morning beautiful”
“Good morning hun, make sure you get some donuts, it might be a good idea to let your coworkers to know you’re thinking of them”
I seriously never thought of that. With my new coworker’s reactions, I guess that explains why that would be the first time I gave off the impression I was considerate in my life. My handwriting is crap but luckily, almost everything started becoming digital in that office around the time I started working there. Being tech savvy in a job that needed it when nobody else was only made things better. Weird how only some things come naturally to me.
Girard later was nominated for an action movie that I helped with stunts and editing on in a local film festival. Girard couldn’t make it, so I asked Antonieta to be my date. I saw my bloody work on screen. Just to be clear, that wasn’t a mimicry or mockery of Brandon’s Australian (which I’ve done by accident when he was in one of our videos and was the only person whose line I gave subtitles to), I was in charge of action choreography and VFX which included a lot of blood. When our team won the award of best editing, I quickly yelled
Before I finished my sentence and stood up, Antonieta quickly jumped on me and told me to quiet down because she did not want me to embarrass myself or for me to bring too much attention to us. I used her momentum to my advantage as my Jiu-Jitsu kicked in, pulling her in even closer. Just to be clear, Jiu Jitsu wasn’t a euphemism either. I’m not saying my mind wasn’t in the gutter, but we were in public, so unfortunately, I had to keep it PG-13. While she got me to quiet down, everyone else who heard my initial yell saw us celebrate our achievement. Yes, our achievement, Antonieta actually looked over some of the editing I did for Girard before I sent it back to him.
“You’re holding me really tight”
“O sorry, I uhh…sometimes forget my own strength”
“It’s okay! I like these hugs!”
The thing about being autistic, at least for people including myself, is that we have nicknames for things or objects that only make sense to us unless we really explain it to others. Antonieta was my angel that watched over my shoulder, so in my mind, I referred to her as my guardian angel. I figured it was finally time to ask her to be my girlfriend. I was typically blunt about these matters but this was the first time I actually had a friendship with someone before asking them out. In the past, I was told that they “only liked me as a friend,” so I assumed the solution was to follow them around until they liked me enough. Given my propensity for memorizing details most people do not remember ever exposing themselves, this would create disasters that may be black comedy from one person’s perspective, but definitely a horror story from the women’s perspective. Therefore, my “solution” afterwards was to simply be direct and immediate, which was statistically more effective in getting a “yes” but created its own share of problems. I feared losing somebody that I had grown to care about as a friend. It took me three attempts across three different days until I finally asked her, and got the honor of being her boyfriend.
We watched our first Muay Thai fight together with the team fighting. No, I didn’t ask her. Antonieta asked me, just like how she would for other martial arts movies in the future such as Raid and Ip Man series. She met the team including my coaches and all the training partners.
“Remember I said there was a big Black dude named Rick Bellot who I held pads for flying knees for, that hit so hard I had to shit myself for the rest of class? Yeah, that’s him.”
No Katrina. That’s not Rick, that’s Ash.
When she saw the schedule, she was shocked that not only were there women who were fighting, but one from our gym, as she pointed to her picture in excitement.
“Yeah, that’s Angela Hill, she uses me for target practice.”
Before the fights, Brandon would make sure to remind the gym of proper etiquette, which was even more important when we were hoping the fighters on our team were beating the crap out of the fighters on the other team.
“When one of ahh guys lands a hit, yah yell oh-way! It’s good faw their enuhgy! Buh’, naevah boo the other team! Because remembah, they love the sporht just as much as we do, and they are daedicating thaeh toime to gehttin bettah at the arht of Muay Thai just loike we do!”
After a long and fun night of fights, I walked her home in her neighborhood in the Lower East Side, I explained my first “exposure” to MMA:
“I first started getting interested in grappling and MMA before it was popular and people only heard of Karate. Never got to really train it until much later. At the end of my sophomore year, one of my friends got jumped by three Asian dudes while I had to stay after school. There was this Black guy named Shafaun that practiced this stuff who slammed the shit out of one of them, shoved another guy down a flight of stairs into the subway station”
“What happened to the third guy?”
“Well, the cops came…and guess who they arrested.”
“The Black guy”
“Yeah, we had to explain he was the one that was defending and saving my friend and they believed us, that’s how I got interested in grappling”
As I continued to nerd out about grappling, Antonieta interrupted the “conversation” as five police officers crossed by
“They’re looking for a Black guy.”
“Wait, how do you know he’s Black?”
“If it’s three or more cops, it’s usually a Black guy or maybe Brown guy, if it’s one cop, it’s a white guy, if it’s two cops….it depends… You live here long enough and you’ll notice.”
I came to realize that I was not the only one in the relationship with an affinity for patterns. She happened to pick up certain things I did not and vice versa. I had no idea how handy this would become later on, not just for us, but for an entire community.
Ray and I competed in Dragon Boat that August for the first and last time. We decided to move on to different things such as shooting more videos for Girard and also preparing for the Spartan Race. Antonieta would join our video shoots where she would bring the crew water after we shot our fight scenes. She also helped Ray out with Cantonese with Girard needing a Cantonese speaker in his movies.
“Alright Ray! Let’s try this”
“打佢到佢老媽都唔認得 (daa2 keoi5 dou3 keoi5 lou5 mou dou1 m4 jing6 dak1)”
“Daa Koy Doh…uhhh…”
“Hen, which part of the script is Antonieta trying to get him to say. I don’t recall him having a line which is this long…”
“Girard, it’s not part of the script verbatim, but it’s a very common phrase in Cantonese movies, it literally means beat him until his mother no longer recognizes him.”
Antonieta and I also went out once a week as a way to end my busy work week. This schedule was interrupted with Hurricane Sandy in October, which knocked out a Power Plant near Antonieta’s house. She was running low on electricity, water and other supplies. I realized I had a training partner in that area who was willing to help, a Black dude who trained martial arts his entire life named Garnett Strother. Without hesitation, he was willing to bring battery and water up to the 10th floor of Antonieta’s house. I figured that would be fine until Antonieta messaged me
“If I was pregnant and I needed cake, would you give it to me?”
I had historically failed to pick up cues in my previous attempts at having a romantic relationship. Not this time. I got the hint. That’s when I realized “Uh oh, she needed cake too.” There was no Venmo back then so I wasn’t going to be like “uhh hey Garnett, I’m going to pay you back, like one day…can you get her cake too?” I also anticipated the possibility that Garnett, who didn’t know me beyond holding pads (the Thai Pads you hit, not those pads) for me and vice versa, asking me this question:
“Uhh…bro, we’re in the middle of an apocalypse. Why do you want me to bring her cake?”
To avoid that super awkward moment that I would never figure out how to answer or get out of, I told Garnett not to worry about it and that I would take care of it myself. I left my job in Corona, Queens, early that day to grab my own flashlight, a canister of water, charged batteries and some cake. I hopped on the bus. However, after 30 minutes of realizing it only traveled 3 blocks, I decided to travel to the Lower East Side on foot. Sure it was nine miles with a fuck ton of gear, but Ray and I were training for Spartan Race so why the fuck not. After playing Frogger with bicycles and cars (without dying), I finally reached my destination. At least that’s what a GPS would say because it didn’t give a shit that you need to climb up ten floors of stairs in the dark. I knocked Antonieta’s door and upon realizing it was me, she responded the way I’ve come to realize how most people in her situation would respond:
“WHAT THE FUCK?!”
So yeah, I never told her I was coming. Also, that’s how I met her parents. I was so happy to see Antonieta again. She thanked me as I unpacked the water and batteries but then became confused upon seeing what else I brought:
“Umm….Why did you bring me cake?”
That’s when I heard crickets, even though I’m pretty damn sure summer ended a few months ago. At least her dad approved of me that day, which is a miracle because I’m pretty sure in the invisible rulebook of meeting the parents, I managed to commit sodomy on almost every social norm in that book that night without realizing it.
Ray and I competed in the Spartan Race where we both got injured in different ways. Ray sprained his ankle, and I cramped my calf. We missed our bus and had to return via the Chinatown Death Bus. Antonieta would get us food and fixed me back up the best way she could. This would not be the last time she did that.
“Why is your back so tight?
“From choking people.”
“A lot of people think that it’s with the arms, but it’s more so the back muscles. By the way, I bumped into Woodchipper on the way to work.”
“Remember who first told her I had no future because of my condition, so I ended up having…”
“O right, you dreamed of putting her in a woodchipper. O my god, you call her Woodchipper?! I can’t with you”
I’m still grossed out that I had such dreams, despite knowing why I was angry.
“Uhh…yes you can, that’s why you’re my girlfriend.”
“So, what happened?”
“Nothing obviously. I don’t want anything to happen! You know if I actually put her in a woodchipper, I prove them right…and I lose.”
Case in point, some motherfucker shot up Sandy Hook at the end of 2012. What did they blame other than guns? The fact that he was autistic. I had no interest in disclosing that I was on the spectrum after what happened to me and the way people responded to Adam Lanza’s neurodivergence pretty much confirmed that shutting the fuck up was a good idea. In my mind, anything bad I did, or really anyone on the spectrum for that matter, would prove Woodchipper’s point.
2013: By then the former BJJ instructor left and brought his team which included Chad with him to his new gym. I stayed at Evolution where for some reason that I could never put a finger on until much later, I wanted to actually train Jiu-Jitsu again. I still couldn’t put my finger on why. That being said, I was pretty happy and proud to see Chad, my former training partner, fight in Madison Square Garden in the first legalized MMA match in New York City history. Obviously, I brought Antonieta too.
“That’s Chad, he used to train with us!”
“Is that like, his name? Or some term you use for him? Like Woodchipper?”
“No honey, that’s like…his actual name”
“O my god, he’s fast.”
“Yeah, there’s no way in hell I’ll ever be half as quick.”
During my time in Early Intervention, I became rather adept at case management using technology and understanding evaluation reports despite not being officially trained in them due to my ability to read patterns. My boss believed that I never made the same mistake twice. The special education teachers, speech language pathologists and psychologists were surprised at how much I knew. I would also explain evaluation results at regional offices. The meetings that required the most explanation were the Asian American families who were told to either consider a psychological evaluation for an Autism diagnosis or families who were coming to terms that their child was diagnosed with Autism. This was challenging for any professional. This was trickier for me since I figured I needed to mask as a neurotypical. I was able to draw on the perspective of my own mother when she had trouble accepting my own diagnosis as well as the people who thought I had no future to give off the impression I understood where the family was coming from and that we shared the same goals. Being the Cantonese interpreter for our psychologist, Dr. Ma, only helped. People were impressed at the job I did. How I did it was my own personal secret. My experiences interacting with the families also taught me that the same able-ism that led to the dark spiral that Kru Brandon saved me from was quite prevalent in the Asian American community. My past had taught me that masking as a neurotypical was the only way that those that I needed to help would still see me as a complete human being, let alone a professional.
I also picked up some Spanish the hard way, sometimes from the many times parents called my extension by accident:
“Hola? Me llamo…”
“Uhhh…no hablo Espanol”
Technically, that was a lie, I technically do know Spanish, like any three year old would, plus some extra professional jargon, so obviously saying that I know Spanish in a professional setting would also be wrong. That being said, the parent didn’t give a shit and kept going on and on. I knew enough Spanish to figure out whose parent it was, that she was scheduled for a psychological evaluation at our site and remembered who their service coordinator was. Okay to be honest, what also helped was that I previously glanced at what I probably wasn’t supposed to see which got glued into my memory, which I tried to pretend I didn’t know because that historically had creeped people the fuck out. I wanted to transfer the parent to that person ASAP, but the parent didn’t give a shit and kept asking. Sure, I could have hung up, but I did not want to not help the parent if it was technically possible, even if the possible ability to do so was based on information and language that I allegedly did not know. I quickly went on Google Translate and did my best to explain that the child needed a psychological evaluation at a certain date and time.
“Su hija XXXXX tiene una evaluación psicológica en oficina de uhh…Happy Dragon. Cinco de abril a las three thirty?…ahh fuck! Google gave me a number instead. Now I need to type that shit in words.”
Two of my coworkers behind me listened and watched in excitement and amusement.
“uhh…tres y media de la tarde. Mucho gracias!”
I hung up the phone and breathed a sigh of relief. My two coworkers behind me immediately cheered. A few minutes later, that colleague the parent tried to reach came upstairs to the office.
“Henry, I don’t know how you did it, but good news: the parent understood what you said.”
I heard more cheers again from the same two coworkers in my room until the same colleague completed her next sentence.
“Bad news, you forgot to give them our address.”
The same cheers turned into laughter again as I realized I assumed the parent already knew.
Dr. Ma suggested that I pursue a career in school psychology. For better or worse, School Psychologists are the people in schools that almost nobody knew about. They got mistaken for school counselors even though some of them did therapy. However, in New York City, most of them generally conducted psychological or psychoeducational assessments that determined children’s strengths and needs to determine what special education supports that they would need. I applied to multiple programs. There was one program named Brooklyn College that wanted a handwritten statement on site. I almost declined since my handwriting was shit, but I bit the bullet and went anyways.
As I waited for my interview to begin, somebody named Lizzie tried to talk to me. She was an Argentinian American who also lived in Queens but I didn’t care to know that until later. In my eyes, I wasn’t here to make friends, even though she seemed nice and sweet (if we met early 2012 outside of a professional context, I may have been the one to approach her). In her eyes, I was the fucking asshole who ignored her. Lizzie and I went to separate interview groups. Group interviews worked for me because I didn’t have to talk about my personal life or my own feelings, just my skills. Furthermore, I did not have to do well, because other people did the job of eliminating themselves for me. One person cried for reasons one should not bring into a professional interview, another said “I would tell the child that it’s okay to pursue that gay lifestyle!” At that point, I calculated that as long as I kept a straight face and shut the fuck up for the rest of the session, that I would be accepted into the program. That was an accurate calculation.
FALL 2013: During our first day of class, Lizzie tried to befriend me again upon realizing we both had to travel from Brooklyn back home to Queens. Her dad would drive me home to Queens on days that he could and I walked her home on days that she couldn’t. Lizzie and I became really close. Antonieta and Lizzie also got along quite well. Antonieta always made sure that I actually walked Lizzie to her door. This became even more necessary as my presence was needed to protect Lizzie from a handful of physical threats over the years. Of course, I was ready to use more than my presence if needed. Antonieta and Lizzie would bring me to try different foods from Latin America while Antonieta and I would have Lizzie try actual Chinese food.
“I want coffee, yes, at night, I know, how do you say coffee in Cantonese?”
“Gah Feh? Wow, almost sounds the same in English, so much easier than the other words you taught me that I can’t remember! The only other word I remember is Hut Yee”
“Wait, what else did you try to teach Lizzie?”
“You know honey, the usual: Diew Lei Lo Mo (Fuck Your Mother), Ham Ga Chan (Bastard), Sei Pok Gai (Not sure what literal translation is but it’s bad), Mo Gwai Yong (Useless)…o and Hut Yee (Bum)”
“Why would you teach her that?!”
“She asked for things I teach first! And that’s the first thing someone asked me to teach them in 7th grade. Except for Hut Yee, that was her idea.”
“I can’t with you…”
“Uhh…yes you can, that’s why you’re my girlfriend. Hey Lizzie, you want to learn what Da Fei Gey means?”
During graduate school, learning the content, particularly for assessment, was second nature to me, even though I hated reading. I paired up with Lizzie who was able to work at a similar pace for me. We had to find people who were willing to “donate” their children to science, I mean, our practice assessments. We couldn’t use kids too close to us so different classmates would try to borrow each others’ relatives’ kids. I had built relationships with various evaluators and providers from Early Intervention who knew me as the person they needed to get shit done, so many were more than happy to help. Lizzie was not as lucky and asked me for help.
“Henry, do you have any kids for me, or other classmates, to evaluate?”
“Ahhh…I would have….”
“Unfortunately, for all of you, I used protection.”
Not only did Lizzie have to work two jobs, she had to monitor a classmate to make sure his mouth didn’t get him in trouble. That classmate was me. I would tell people over years that I protected her from physical threats while she protected me from myself. I didn’t see anything wrong with answering all questions immediately and correctly. I wasn’t there to make friends. However, Lizzie was concerned.
“Henry, when you answer immediately all the time, that can rub people the wrong way!”
“Is there a right way to rub them? Wait..phrasing…”
“Like, the thing is, it can make them feel really…dumb, or that you’re a know it all!”
“Lizzie, it’s hard to wait when they take forever! You want me to WAIT?!”
“Okay, here’s what you do! Next time you’re in class, answer the first question quickly, and then for the second question, don’t wait, just count to eight, and if nobody gets it, then you answer!”
This strategy worked wonders for the rest of my professional career. However, Lizzie still had to figure out when I was being intentionally mischievous, and when I was being oblivious.
“So to assess spatial working memory, you’re going to take the blocks and see if they can tap them in the same order that you did.”
“Professor, can you show me how to tap that”
I learned how to administer the subtest. I also frightened the crap out of Lizzie who immediately dragged me to a corner after class.
“Henry! You have a girlfriend!”
“Yeah I know, even though I’m sure half the class thinks that’s you. Me saying that I’d let you borrow my Woodcock Johnson doesn’t exactly help either.”
“You just low key hit on the professor in front of the whole class!”
“Show me how to tap that? Really?”
This was not the first time it happened as the previous week, when the same professor provided a string of digits for memory as an example, and I asked if it was their number. But hopefully, that would be the last time I ever made an unintentional innuendo to a professor, I mean, any innuendo. That did not put an end to my antics. The next semester, another assessment professor who worked in a school for students with severe therapeutic needs described the environmental setting of one of the schools she worked at. I was able to deduce where she worked from the details she provided during that lesson, some other things she mentioned before as well as things I had glanced at that I was not expected to remember. Before she finished talking, I loaded up images of the environment she described, turned my laptop around and asked if this was what she was talking about. I couldn’t tell if she was amazed, or amazed and horrified, but she was definitely amazed.
I did everything in my power to make sure nobody in school other than Lizzie knew I was autistic. Even when I had to write a paper that analyzed my privilege and oppression, where I readily explored topics such as how the model minority myth applied to my life, able-ism was the one area that I was not open about. However, that was partially because I had not figured whether being neurodivergent was a privilege or an oppression because of these abilities that I was still figuring out how to understand and control. Lizzie wanted me to be open about my condition but after what I had been through, I had every reason to be afraid. Nevertheless, my professors knew what to expect from me.
“Okay, I need someone other than Henry to answer the question, because either he knows it or he’s looking it up online”
“Ah shit, I just looked it up a second ago.”
FALL 2014: I went to Dr. Ma’s school for my externship. He was shocked at my speed. That being said, it came with difficulties. I was positioned next to a classroom with a loud teacher and a student who misbehaved named Henry. It didn’t help that I have sensitive hearing to the point that it meant I could hear through walls. So every time that teacher yelled “Henry! Sit down!” I had to remind myself she was not talking to me to focus on writing my report. Since I was so used to typing and wanted handwriting, I was notorious for never bringing pens and asking people to borrow their pens when I needed it. I would joke about how I’m from the future and that people don’t use pens where I came from. Of course, that statement aged about as well as someone whose parents believed that vaccines caused autism.
During the years, I had brainstormed a system that allowed clinicians to finish their reports efficiently without sacrificing quality. I had brought up this idea to multiple professors who either did not understand me or made assumptions that reflected their limited understanding of technology that I could not rectify with words. Certain individuals simply thought it was too much work to learn these tech based skills even though based on my calculations, it was more time efficient and would allow clinicians to effectively serve their clients long without depending on the system that was meant to oppress marginalized individuals to fix itself. I later realized that it was not just my familiarity with technology, but also my experience with combat sports where we had to be particular about every reflex that I could never convey in words. Other people saw my views as a different opinion, but to me it was a calculation. Given the level of constant work and introspection required just to win in sport or to entertain others, it felt unethical to have a more lax approach when childrens’ future was at stake.
Near the end of our graduate program in Spring 2015, we needed an internship. Individuals with bilingual extension had the opportunity to actually get a paid internship under the NYC Department of Education that was competitive, rigorous and prestigious called Psychologists in Training (P.I.T.). Lizzie and I had studied the material we thought we needed to know, but knowledge wasn’t going to be enough for any interview, let alone the type that was coming the next day. If anyone was going to tell me that, it was going to be Antonieta:
“You’re not wearing that to the interview!”
“No but! You’re going to wear this suit and tie, or this one! Now try it on and let me see, I need you to actually look professional!”
Antonieta helped me with my wardrobe and explained all the little nuances about it that I never realized. In addition, she mellowed me out quite well for that high stakes interview the next morning. While everyone else was telling me how frightened they felt or would feel, I felt pretty calm during my interview and was able to focus on simply responding to the questions with pinpoint precision, except for the one that I never studied that I flat out admitted I did not know.
Lizzie picked me up from my interview and we had Shake Shack for good luck. We then had to return to school for our night classes. I was so exhausted from the interview, that this time, Lizzie saved me from waking up in Coney Island. The hard work paid off, both of us were accepted to this competitive internship, a group that represented some of the best in our profession. We also completed our Masters’ degree together. This was celebrated by my family who finally treated me as an adult (kind of), and those that were like family.
“Come heah ya big fella, I see yah gawt your mahstas degree! Congratulations mite. Oy’m proud of yah! ”
“Yaw gettin’ your dawktuhrate later, amirite?”
“Yeah, one day…”
“O my god Henry! That Shake Shack thing worked for good luck! We’re P.I.T.s now!”
“I’m quite grateful. For that, for you Lizzie”
“and the fact that we’re Psychologists In Training, rather than teachers…”
I gave Lizzie the smirk that let her know that I was being mischievous rather than oblivious.
“I have a feeling you’ll be saying that a lot tonight Katrina”
“By the way, this story is long! I’m only one third done!”
“Like Ray Long Long?”
“Goddammit Hen! You made me say it again!”
Hey there, I’m breaking the fourth wall! I’m going to do my Bane impression and say you have my permission to pee.
CHAPTER II – BRAINY BULL IN THE CHINA SHOP
During 2014, Evolution brought in a new coach named Gene Kobilansky. He was NYU’s wrestling coach and he was creating a new prototype program which taught wrestling skills for submission grappling, MMA and self-defense. We were his guinea pigs. It was not just takedowns from Jiu-Jitsu with more details, it was a new system of training. He had us practice low stances that tortured our legs and isolation drills with these low stances that looked familiar (that I could not put a finger on at the time). More importantly, there was a new philosophy which included the idea of embracing the grind and one quote that Gene passed down from his coach:
“Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”
Gene was surprised at how quickly I picked up the basics and used it in my first live training session. However, that did not stop me from getting tossed into the air. We did not have actual mats at the time, so I woke up a few seconds later, after getting knocked the fuck out. I would later shoot instructionals for Gene and he would give me private training. This was what led me to briefly compete in wrestling. I was not as successful as I’d like to be, but these experiences combined with my neurological condition would etch those details permanently into my brain. Evolution would have many Jiu-Jitsu coaches over the next few years. Even when I competed Jiu-Jitsu or submission grappling (its No-Gi variation), people would attribute my success to Gene. Gene was shocked how I could apply certain wrestling techniques I only saw once without repeated practice in live training sessions. Nevertheless, he described me as a bull in a China shop with brains. I knew how to attack with power and plan attacks multiple steps in advance, but was clumsy and uncoordinated outside my comfort zone. Much like Brandon, Gene broke down things very well and had some creative analogies to describe details of the wrestling techniques. I do have a history of taking things rather literally at times. Thankfully, there was no time ever in practice that anybody needed to remind me that being told to put our “dick in the dirt” was just a metaphor.
Antonieta would take me out to watch martial arts movies. During our dates, she would tell me about her nephews and the family wanting to sign them up for martial arts:
“My sister wants to sign them them up for Kung Fu”
I quickly scanned my memory archives of all the times practitioners of various traditional martial arts styles attempted to strike from low stances using circular and seemingly less efficient arm movements against combat sports practitioners that I saw on video and cross referenced it with claims that people made about their effectiveness as well as experiences that my friends told me about. I calculated the odds and presented my conclusion:
“O FUCK NO. Honey, just sign them up for wrestling. Listen, I’m sure Coach Gene will have some good recommendations. Plus, you know you’re supposed to strike if somebody really wants to hurt you”
“I know, hands up, chin down, but someone else in the family really insists on taking the kids to Kung Fu”
“You mean the same person who didn’t trust the professional opinion of a neurologist, because his urologist friend said otherwise? How the fuck does someone confuse a neurologist for a urologist when they’re in the opposite ends of the human body?! Listen, I know I failed biology because I couldn’t read back in the day, but he’s got the potential to give the term “wrong hole” a brand new meaning!”
I was happy Antonieta was working in mammography and encouraged it. I was okay with her being my sugar mama since this was the 21st century. My mom actually approved of Antonieta, which was a miracle given what she said about previous people that I have dated. Our family was atheist or at least agnostic, yet my mom would tell me about how I would marry somebody born in the Year of the Dragon, which Antonieta was born in. That being said, I was still uncomfortable that I was not making money even though I was going to school. That’s when I worked in Community Habilitation where I provided home support services. I had two clients. One of them was autistic and another allegedly had intellectual disability. I say allegedly because I suspected something off about that when I worked with her based on what little I knew and my interaction with her. During one of the days I shot instructional videos for Brandon and Gene, I talked about my job.
“Ah the ones with Autism, that’s tough”
“I would know…what if I told you I had Autism too?”
“What, no way, get out! Nah, just kiddin, that’s cool mite!”
Much to my shock, after I explained my past, they accepted me. Brandon later chased me out of the gym as I left to tell me this:
“Thanks faw opening up to us mite, Oy just wahnt to laet yah knaow thaht Oy love yah”
I kicked myself for the next few years for not responding properly. I didn’t have the vocabulary or capacity to express my own feelings at the time. It would be years until I finally told him how I really felt. My coaches were exceptional so I figured their acceptance was the exception.
Some of my training partners also noticed things that were different about me and it was a bit weird for me to explain even as I opened up.
“So does that mean, with your condition, you basically have the Sharingan…”
“Yes…and no, well kind of”
The Sharingan was a specialized eye from the anime Naruto where its users could copy techniques based on advanced pattern recognition at will. The more powerful form, Magenkyo, was usually awakened after the user had experienced some form of psychological trauma. However, users could only effectively copy and perform techniques that they were actually physically capable of.
“What do you mean kind of?”
“You know how they can only copy techniques easily, but it’s only ones they’re physically capable of? I’m clumsy with my legs and out of shape…so even if I kind of have it, I can’t use it to its full advantage. I just end up being another person who actually trains. I’m fine with that though since most people…don’t, and it’s not like my life or career depends on it.“
Speaking of most people not training, I tried to bring people I knew from my other life over to Evolution. Many of them already trained at another gym, such as Ray who trained at Five Points NYC (even though he did tell me Evolution was awesome when he visited it, without me). The ones who did come ended up with similar results.
“Hey Gene, I brought my buddy ….wait where the fuck did he go?”
I then heard Mama Bear call my name from the Men’s Bathroom
“Uhhh…Henry, your friend puked all over the place again”
“Ah fuck, again?”
“Yeah…uh, Henry, the people you bring seem to never make it past Brandon’s class..”
I really loved training so at the time, I was really confused and surprised when they never came back. To be honest, I never really thought about why that was the case until 2021.
SEPTEMBER 2015: Somehow, I opened up to people in my professional life other than Lizzie during my internship year. I was the only Asian American amongst a group that was predominantly Black and Latinx Americans (particularly Dominican Americans). I learned about their struggles. I learned how others would continue to see them as less than human no matter how hard they tried, or engendered a system that made them less than human despite pretending to fight for them. My colleagues were the ones who were going to make it (if not already) despite the world they lived in, not because of it. They were placed in neighborhoods that were forced to choose between sanity, quality of work and completing their work on time. Our group was led by Dr. Rhone, a seasoned psychologist whose family immigrated from Jamaica who became a legend in the profession. We learned various nuggets of wisdom from Dr. Rhone, many that will stay with me:
The PITs would meet once every Friday. I was the only East Asian there, I was the only autistic individual there. I was one of the few people who didn’t drink and one of the two non-Spanish speakers (I know I said I kind of know Spanish, but it doesn’t count) who had to learn what words like “wepa” and “coño” meant (still doesn’t count). Yet, for the first time in my professional life, there was an entire group that not only tolerated me for my differences, but actually embraced them, not just for my tech savviness, but bits of my humor that gradually leaked out. They learned who I was but I figured their acceptance would be the exception. I would introduce various foods from my repertoire to their palate, and the concept of food porn to Dr. Rhone. We shared lunches and sat through professional developments together which varied in quality. Anything told by Dr. Rhone fascinated us. She told us stories. She taught us values such as always staying professional, respectful and honest, even when it seemed impossible. There were also others who caught my interest, including one individual whose unofficial behavior plan included reinforcing an autistic kid for cursing somebody else out. Why would he do that? Because that was the preferred alternative behavior to beating the shit out of someone. This was quite effective at significantly reducing the child’s violent behavior when angry but he could never officially put that plan on record.
I had my own struggles. During my first day of my placement, I was previously told to meet my new supervisor in her office. The door was locked, but the thing is, I needed to meet her in her office. I got this damn far in life even though people kept saying I had no future. I made it through nineteen years of my life without actually reading a single book (okay I tried, but I had no idea what the fuck the passages meant). Obviously, I wasn’t going to let some locked door stop me. After I took care of that problem, I made myself comfortable. When my supervisor came in, I greeted her, eager to learn how to be a school psychologist.
“Hello, good morning!”
“HENRY, HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?!”
“I walked in here.”
“The door was locked!”
“Right, you told me to meet you in your office, but the door was locked, so I figured there would be a place somewhere in the building that had the keys, so I went there, got the key, unlocked it, returned the key and…that’s how I got in your office”
In my eyes, I was following orders. In her eyes, I was breaking and entering. That’s when I realized that I didn’t just start off on the wrong foot, I pretty much jammed it so far deep into someone’s rect…so yeah I heard crickets loud and clear for the rest of the seven hour work day would be the least of my problems. To further complicate matters, I was placed somewhere two hours from my house with a supervisor with high standards. Sleep deprivation and neurodivergence was a pretty terrible cocktail. This forced me to use various tricks that allowed me to edit, score and create my assessment report quickly. I figured out a way to automate names and gender pronouns in my reports by hitting a complex series of keystrokes that I memorized like ninjas did with their hand seals in Naruto. Sure it was complex, but it beat reading the same thing over and over again, especially when these ninja seals meant doing things in minutes that would take seconds. While I had some difficulties figuring out what people wanted, my supervisors were impressed with my professionalism, willingness to learn and “positive attitude.” They were also surprised how I was able to communicate with some parents in basic Spanish (with help of tech) when there was no Spanish speaking staff around, such as telling them to come to an IEP meeting.
I found the energy to compete a few times in submission grappling which was basically Jiu-Jitsu without clothes, uhh..I mean uniform. I preferred submission grappling because my fine motor skills sucked and this meant I did not need to grip any jackets. The weight cut drove me insane, even more so when it was a small tournament and the organizers bumped me up the weight bracket anyways. Antonieta would bring me snacks after practice and call me out whenever I missed practice. She also fed me during tournaments and made sure I was okay. During those weight cuts, it was harder to maintain my professionalism, particularly during professional developments that were merely pedantic in nature. I had to be more creative in maintaining a mask, such as Cantonese sub-vocalizations that only Lizzie picked up on.
During competitions, my cardio was shit but I had a guillotine choke which I was quite obsessed and fixated at perfecting, a move that didn’t care how heavy my opponent was and could happen at any time I was not fully pinned. It was also one thing that giving tight hugs was useful for, in this case: around their neck. I could not figure out chokes that involved encircling both the opponent’s neck and arm for the life of me, but for those that just involved the neck such as the rear naked choke or the guillotine choke, I had to hold back during drilling to practice the full technique.
“Carlos, you okay? I didn’t even get the 2nd arm locked in…”
“Yo…that grip is gnarly…”
Obviously, I always let go when they tapped out to my submission holds during rolling. After all, they were my friends! I figured respecting the tap was more than enough to make sure I did not hurt people by accident.
“Uhh…I waited for him to tap to my guillotine…and he didn’t…and I’m like, why is he not defending? Then after a few seconds, I’m like o fuck…he’s limp”
It was that awkward moment that I had to explain to my coach why I left my training partner unconscious on the mat with saliva foaming at his mouth, that I realized I was wrong.
“Wait, what do you mean again?”
“Uhh…it was with a different person, if that makes it any better….”
There were no crickets at Evolution, but I sure as hell heard them over the screams of “FAHSTAH!” and “HAHRDA!” from the Muay Thai class across the room. I’m still kicking myself in 2021 that it took me two times to figure it out.
Even though I was looking forward to getting more experience and I was only a Blue Belt, I figured that since I was becoming a school psychologist,that it was time to call it quits. Nevertheless, at least I would have fun stories to share such as that time I choked out somebody two divisions above me in a Korean church that looked like an airport. Putting those competitive days behind me was pretty much set when I almost had an arm almost torn off in the next tournament. I still showed up to grappling practice (obviously not Thai Boxing) with one arm until the cast got removed. However, my competitive days were over.
The last day of internship, I landed a job offer at the district office in Flushing. I realized afterwards that I landed a position that no sane school psychologist wanted. Compared to community schools, school psychologists had more autonomy but also dealt with an excessive caseload. Basically, it was not a job meant for a human being alone. That meant it was the perfect place to prove my ideas, or according to my old supervisor, the place for someone with my “personality.” It was the same routine every day, walk into the office and hear my coworker update us on whatever fucked up shit this orange pok gai in the oval office managed to do, either hold and finalize three IEP meetings on the same day, or test and finish report on the same day, with lunch at exactly 11PM, and leave right at 3:20PM, well at least I did. My brain shut off at 3:20PM, which got me in trouble once when I passed out during a presentation where somebody important went a few minutes over.
Antonieta would begin to change her career from radiology to speech language pathology. She would work in another Early Intervention agency as she attended graduate school where she was respected by coworkers for her efficiency. For our four year anniversary, Antonieta gave me a new gift: a smart watch. I combined it with my splinter skills to maximum effect. The amount of information I would be bombarded with would drive anybody else insane, but being able to almost see possible futures to better serve families who were struggling and still be able to leave the job in time brought me peace in chaos.
“How do you know this Henry? Didn’t you just go to the bathroom?”
“Remember? (points to watch) Anyways, this meeting will be quick, so it’s green. This one will take some time, we will need to be familiar with this more so beforehand than usual. The one tomorrow is red”
“What does red mean?”
I hummed the theme in my mind that I associated with red meetings
“Okay…I get the idea…”
“Perfect Cell Theme from Dragon Ball Z”
I finally was able to get my senses to work in my favor.
“Henry, this parent just wrote a letter requesting for reevaluation.”
“Yeah, about time. I assume she is concerned about XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX”
“Wait, did the school or parent reach out to you?”
“No, but I can hear through walls”
“I’m on the other side of the building!”
“Not your conversation, I mean her son’s conversation with the school nurse and a teacher three weeks ago when I was evaluating another kid. Given what I know about the school, I figured that was going to happen.”
I got along with the parents of children I was evaluating despite their grievances with the system. Ironically, I had zero interest in whether they liked me. All that mattered to me was that I did what I could to help and that I remained respectful. I did what I could to not take things personally. That became a bit difficult with parents who claimed their child would be useless or have no future because of their neurodevelopmental for me but this was professional, and that’s what I needed to maintain during those times no matter what. Some of them were confused how I understood certain aspects of their child so well, but that wasn’t for them to know. I worked with families whose children attended Catholic Schools, Yeshivas and Non-Public Schools with severe needs. There were certain groups of individuals who I couldn’t shake hands with, so instead of allowing for the awkward pause (which felt like eons for someone like me) of figuring out which one of them wanted a handshake, I would immediately greet them with the Thai version of the handshake (bowing Wai) that I learned from Thai Boxing, putting my hands together and bowing. I figured this would be way better than asking, “O hey, are you the type of Jewish person who shakes hands or not?” Luckily, I was right. In addition to families learning what their childrens’ needs were and how to help, they also learned how to bow Wai.
I also got other coworkers to order out for lunch every week. I would introduce them to foods such as Mala Xiang Guo, Pho and Poke, which most of my colleagues loved. Unfortunately, one of our social workers, who refuses to be named in the story, never got the stomach for Poke. It wasn’t because she was allergic to some ingredient, but rather because she spoke Patois, a language where the word Poke meant vagina. This would be the only time I did not have lunch exactly at 12 and actually used my full lunch break. It would also be the only time I could let out my evil smirk at work and still get away with it. My coworkers knew me as the guy who was super efficient with tech and the food guy (except for that one social worker who probably remembers me for my Poke puns). Hell, one of them even nicknamed me “The Cleaner” because I was able to take care of problems quickly and kept my composure during difficult situations. That nickname stuck. Sure there was more to me, but I didn’t want them to know that. Anything it took for them not to realize I was autistic. It got weird when a bunch of coworkers kept asking me if I saw “Good Doctor” though.
Lizzie and I went separate ways professionally. She did only counseling and social skills training for individuals classified with Autism (surprise!) and Emotional Disturbance while I only did assessments (which I loved) and IEP meetings (which I didn’t). However, we still stayed in touch both personally and professionally since we needed to pick each other’s brains.
“Henry! You know how I know this one kid speaks Cantonese at home? He pointed to my Starbucks Card and said “Kaa Feh!””
“Wow, your own pronunciation is on point this time!”
I kept in touch with Ray, Tanner and Laura. We didn’t have time to shoot videos but there was always food. We also met up to train every now and then which was how I met some dude named Jon. Laura had a talent for photography and wanted us to suggest names for her company. She wanted something catchy with her last name “Bang”, so I gave it to her:
“You use your finger to take pictures, your last name is Bang, so obviously, Finger Bang”
This would be the first of many times I would hear this phrase in the times to come.
After my long tiring days as a school psychologist wearing the professional mask, I would take my naps at the mats at Evolution Muay Thai before class started. That’s because there was an unwritten and unspoken rule that if you were a man, you could not fully fall asleep in the Evolution. It was technically allowed, but those that did would wake up to find surprises such as nuts in their mouth. By nuts, I mean Kru Brandon’s testicles.
“Wait, did he really teabag you Hen?! I thought were joking all this time”
“Katrina, I joke a lot of the time, but yeah…that was a thing at Evolution…and that’s how I first learned situational awareness before I knew what it was called.”
“Wait so like…you had his nuts, in your mouth?! Does that mean you actually tas…”
“No! Well, at least I didn’t. Technically, they’d land on peoples’ face instead and also he had the goddamn decency to wear Thai shorts and jockstrap to cover them…”
“O thank god”
“Most of the time.”
SOMETIME IN 2016-2018 WHEN I GOT TEABAGGED BY BRANDON, AGAIN.
“Goddammit Brandon! Why me? Karina is right over there!”
Just to be clear, Katrina and Karina are two different people. I have no fucking clue what I’ll be doing if they show up in the same practice.
“Because Karina is a woman…”
I was really grateful somebody explained to me later in life than I should have realized rather than after I teabagged the wrong person in their sleep for fun, which would be too damn late. You might think, Hen, why would you teabag anyone for fun? Well, this was a place where Brandon had something that either looked like a fist or a dildo that we randomly beat other people with when we were bored, a place where the appropriate response to Brandon saying “all Asians are ninjas” to me was involved sneaking up behind him, pulling his pants down so he would be careful of what he wished for and a place where I normally played pranks like these:
The only thing worse than waking up with Brandon’s testicles in my mouth was waking up to find Rodny on top of me. Rodny was basically Evolution Muay Thai’s version of Goro. He was big, he was Brown, and if you couldn’t get the fuck out of the way in time, you were going down. Unlike Mark, Rodny did not speak much Chinese. Yet, he actually had a Chinese (Cantonese) name: “Fei Lo” (Fatso).
“C’mon Hen! Shrimp! I thought you were a Blue Belt”
“Motherfucker, you’re 300 pounds!”
“Fuck you Henry, I’m 280!”
Rodny used to have a training partner around his size. The problem was, that training partner was racist with a capital F. After that sei pok gai made it into the oval office, Rodny’s “friend” showed his true colors, wait no, I’m pretty sure that dude technically had zero melanin…okay that was a shit metaphor. Anyways, Rodny’s “friend” left the gym around the same time they stopped being friends. Since I was generally the next biggest person in class, that meant I was stuck with (but more often, underneath) Rodny. Rolling with Rodny was always work. As a consolation prize to spending most of my training sessions as a pancake, we regularly went out to eat dinner afterwards after hard nights of practice. In addition to martial arts and social etiquette, I also learned a bit of Australian, sometimes it was from editing Brandon’s videos so I could put proper subtitles for what he said.
“Brandon, what’s does nub jockey mean?”
“O, yah mean a knob jockey! It’s nawt a noice word. It means somebody who roides the paenees, but with their arsehole!”
This tech allowed me to spend my time with Antonieta. There was one thing our weekend dates seemed to have in common other than the usual: hearing about people from my internship who ended up using their weekend for work that nobody compensated or credited them for. A typical weekend for me entailed me enjoying Antonieta’s presence, relaxing on my right arm while feeling survivor’s guilt from seeing the messages from my co-interns from the cell phone from my left arm.
“Honey, who’s messaging you?”
“PITs again. Tried to offer help but wasn’t really successful.”
“Should I straight up tell them to just try to use my fucking tech for once because I have a way bigger caseload but still enjoy my weekends?”
“No Henry! Don’t say that!
“Don’t push it. They’re comfortable. They’ll come to you when they’re not. Hug me!”
In my professional colleagues’ eyes, I was the person who “beat the system.” That wasn’t my intention, but it wouldn’t be the only time I did that, like that time I won a prize at a wedding game.
“Honey, I got the lai see (red envelope), what you want me to buy you with it?”
“You know you weren’t supposed to win that right? It was rigged! It was supposed to be one of the groomsmen.”
“Oops…well thing is, I kind of predicted certain patterns for the first few rounds so I was able to just be at the right place and the right time…”
“And the last round?!”
I know I’m not supposed to hear crickets during a wedding ceremony, but I’m pretty fucking sure I heard them when she brought that up. I explained what happened to Coach Gene:
“So yeah…uhh…I didn’t think I’d send some guy flying halfway across the room when we tied up, even though I was clearly bigger, I mean that doesn’t even happen with even smaller people like Karina or Joe. It’s not like the laws of physics would magically change in a wedding in front of all those people! I’d assume after all these years, I’d know my own strength by now….”
“That’s what happens when you tie up with people who don’t wrestle at all. You have to know their strength too.”
“Sometimes it’s easy to forget when you’re used to people that train and know how to work with resistance.”
“Also people who are 300lbs.”
That’s when I heard a familiar voice:
“Fuck you Henry, I’m 290!”
WINTER 2017: I had difficulty training consistently as my job was exhausting, even with all the tech that I used. After all, the job was meant for a cyborg that I became rather than a human. I had difficulty with prolonged grappling matches, particularly if I did not land that takedown. I had difficulty getting on top even if I swept my opponent from the bottom. Fortunately, I had discovered the dark side of Jiu-Jitsu that did not require such explosiveness: Leg Locks. My training partners would joke that I had no conscience because I would leglock white belts including Joe and Karina. Both of them were much smaller and had less experience grappling but a lot more experience with striking. Thankfully, for everyone’s health, it was kneebars and cross body ankle locks. I was in no mood to compete but Rodny encouraged me.
“Grappling Industries, you down?”
“I called it quits last year”
“C’mon homie! One last ride!”
“The fuck is this? Fast and Furious?”
“I need somebody to train with after class!”
“Alright bro, one last ride!”
I sucked it up and did what I could to train. Unfortunately, I had no hopes to drop weight in time and I was forced to compete one weight division above what was appropriate for me. Somehow, I finished my first two opponents in under one minute each via takedowns and leglock. My cardio gave up in the finals and I ended up with a silver medal. Rodny used what he had drilled as I cornered him. He also encountered his own obstacle in the finals, not his cardio, but somebody who accomplished the miraculous feat of outsizing him.
“Rodny…I know there’s no weight limits in your division and I’m supposed to like encourage you but, how the fuck can someone be so hu…you know what, you got this!”
Rodny also got a silver medal instead of a gold medal. As usual, we pigged out. I celebrated with the team and with Wifey. No we weren’t married, that was the term I called Antonieta.
2018: I got accepted to a doctoral program all the way in New Jersey, thanks to the help of people including Dr. Rhone. That’s when Rodny called me Dr. Leglocks. That name stuck. At Evolution, I wasn’t Henry anymore, I became “Dr. Leglocks.”
During orientation, I made my first friend in my doctoral program named Sade even before attending the program. Much like my previous mentor, Dr. Rhone, Sade’s family immigrated from Jamaica. Sade was a former teacher who, like me, wanted to know how to better serve people. This time, I made sure not to repeat the same mistake I did with Lizzie when we met. For some reason, she reminded me of Lizzie and Dr. Rhone in different ways but I could not put my finger on why. For various reasons, I looked up to Sade and would continue to do so through my career. I was ready to leave my job and move onto greener pastures and learn more about how I could be a better clinician.
Unfortunately, I discovered that my mom had ovarian cancer. I was initially oblivious to how this upset me until Antonieta reminded me that I was sad. My grandma simply did not want others to know who she felt. I realized that with the responsibilities of attending my doctoral program and now being a caregiver, my competitive days in martial arts would be long over. This also sucked because Chad just returned to Evolution after many years as the new BJJ/MMA coach, this time as Black Belt, and I was really loving his new energy when teaching.
“LISTEN VERY CAREFULLY, IF YOU DO NOT PLACE YOUR HAND HERE AT THIS TIME, YOU WILL FUCKING EAT IT! YOU WILL GET KNOCKED THE FUCK OUT!”
Coincidentally, I was working at a lab under Dr. Shernoff, whose study involved many things including operationalizing effective and ineffective instruction. This gave me newfound appreciation for how Chad, Gene and Brandon taught. Chad, along with many other teammates, left his old instructor for reasons I sensed but could not put my finger to. That’s a horror story that I will leave them to tell. Thankfully, Chad replicated what his instructor did well while avoiding the same things that previously discouraged me from training that I could not put my finger on.
FALL 2018: I liked my cohort in my new doctoral program and quickly got comfortable working and getting to know more than just one person. One of the first classes I took from Dr. Gregory, suddenly, or finally, gave me the vocabulary to verbalize my own emotions even though the intent was for me to help the clients process their emotions. I also realized there were others like me, kind of:
“Sorry Natalie, my ADHD meds are fading right about now, yeah I have ADHD, and no I’m not joking.”
“OMG Henry, me too!”
“Wait, what…really? I uhh…didn’t think…there would be others who made it this far…o wow, that’s really cool!”
Lizzie’s strategies helped me avoid rubbing people the wrong way while Antonieta’s strategies which involved food allowed me to rub them the right w…wait, never mind, phrasing. I befriended people including Tori who was a passionate advocate for individuals with intellectual disability. We had very different views on cognitive testing but at the same time, understood where the other person came from in ways we both struggled to convey with words. Somebody still had to protect me from my own big mouth every now and then. That person was Sade:
“Henry, I know where you’re coming from when you say that, but I’m not just worried as your friend, but we need you, the profession needs someone like you, and maybe the world, and I don’t want this to get in the way of you being able to help those that need it.”
Prior to my mom’s surgery, I went with Sade to a talk about Autism, where I also met schoolmates Shin and Hyein. I was impressed at how well the presenter, Dr. Vanessa Bal conveyed the nuances of Autism:
“People assume that just because someone can talk or use eye contact, means that they can’t have Autism, however, we know that’s not true”
No shit, I’m 30 and I’m pretty damn sure I’ve picked up a few words by now, in four different languages, okay, maybe five. A lot of those words are inappropriate.
“We have to account for the fact that people can acquire skills with age…”
O, she’s spitting facts.
I had to leave early with my assessment kit and miss a class that Sade would fill me in on. As Sade hugged me and wished me luck for my mom’s surgery, Shin asked me if I knew Sade for a while. I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. I needed to get home and wake up to accompany my mom to surgery and then Antonieta would swap in to take care of my mom as I would conduct practice assessments on her friend’s kid. One PIT, Eli, gave me a place nearby when Antonieta was with my mom. A classmate named Julie quickly mobilized the entire cohort behind my back to give my mother a get well card prior to my early exit. Basically, it took a village just so I could get my homework done, amongst other things.
This was when I designed tech to help automate their work, which they considered a “lifesaver.” They also liked how I quickly turned their pictures into memes for our PowerPoint presentations, even though I’m sure during one instance, one classmate wondered how the hell I had access to those images so quickly to begin with. I set up their Cloud Drive so they could easily access important tools, and figured out their patterns so I was able to put in what they needed before they finished their sentences. I also brought some tech that I had been prototyping from my old job to the cohort. That tech was quite primitive compared to what I developed later, but even today, some of them have only figured the more basic stuff out, which they claimed saved their day. As my classmates were stressed out, I realized how stressed I was from my previous job. I reflected on how this was a record on how long it was since I was this calm. I was away from people who forced me wait fucking eons trying to figure out how to right click instead of using my ninja seals or encountering parent said they refused to acknowledge their kid’s disability because it would mean the kid would have their future. I had picked up on some creative ways to manage, sometimes muttering profane sub vocalizations in another language, other skills I learned and my tech, that also made me forget how stressful it was.
SPRING 2019: During our second semester, we had to apply for an externship. I did not apply to that many places during the first round since I was not sure when my mother would heal from cancer. During the second round of application, I got a last minute interview for a neuropsychology externship placement at a prestigious hospital over Zoom. Sure, I could have cancelled my training or went all the way home to get an actual dress suit. However, I did not want to interrupt my training routine. The person who interviewed me assumed I was at home. Technically, I was home. By home, that meant the bathroom of Evolution Muay Thai where the only appropriate attire I wore was a suit and tie. I got accepted on the spot and after I hung up, told the gym the good news in a suit, tie and…not much else that was appropriate for a professional interview. The entire gym celebrated my acceptance immediately. The celebration became even louder as we found out that my mother had beaten the shit out of cancer as she had survived chemotherapy.
Antonieta began to have difficulties with her career. Not with the technical aspect, but understanding what her supervisor was saying. She began to question if she was Autistic too. She brought up this concern to her coworkers who claimed they had a feeling all this time. If Antonieta’s coworkers had a feeling someone like her was on the spectrum, what about me? I quickly asked my old coworkers that I thought I hid my condition from, including one social worker. No, not the one whose appetite I ruined, a different social worker:
“Phyllis, did you know that I was autistic all this time?
“Uhhh Henry, imma be real with you, we’ve been knowing that! The way you talked, the way you thought. You ate lunch at the same time, all the damn time. We all knew you was different! That’s what made you you! You got the job done, you were respectful. No point of us bringing it up since it ain’t never caused no problems, at least not with me!”
That was the same response across the board, including my new classmates who made me comfortable opening up, as well as that social worker whose appetite I ruined. That also included the director of a school I worked with that I stayed in touch with. Coincidentally, that same director helped me find a new placement for Antonieta who ended up with a supervisor that got along with her much better. During that time, I saw all these abuses that parents subjected their children to (including bleach, being an anti-vaxxer) to “cure” their children of Autism. Perhaps after many years, it would be time to heed Lizzie’s advice. I announced that I was on the spectrum and the reason I kept it hidden all this time. I also explained that while other people on the spectrum may share some of my struggles, that I had met so many on the spectrum that many of my struggles may not apply to everyone else. I was again shocked at the level of support I received, from people who felt they discovered something profound to people like Rodny that I had to explain more to later but just wanted to show support anyways.
After a conversation with Rodny, I recruited him, Lizzie, Ray and Laura and many others (e.g.,a classmate named Amy from grad school and other Evolution training partners and people from Team PTX) for a job that did not pay. However, to me, it was personal. We needed some big and strong people for this job. While Antonieta was always by my side, she could not be a part of it this time. I drew out very elaborate diagrams for this job. Much like my time in the district office when I laid out my strategies that I had difficulty explaining, other people were perplexed at the complexity of my ideas and were unsure how it could be feasible. That was where the similarities ended:
“What the fuck? Are we trying to kidnap someone?!”
“So, we’re committing terrorism now huh?”
“You need me to bring body bags? I got some.”
“I honestly don’t want to know if you’re kidding or not.”
“I’m not. I see you got some unresolved beef from years ago Hen.”
Technically, I did have some loose ends that needed to be taken care of, but I’m pretty sure this is not what Dr. Rhone meant about having friends in high places and low places.
“Did you misspell Operation IED?”
“No, I swear to fucking god! We’re not bombing anyone! It’s Operation I.L.D., Invisible Like Drax!”
SUMMER 2019: I visited Lizzie’s school for an assignment from one summer class by Dr. Schneider, and to help out with a favor she needed. I needed to take notes on how a special education school operated while Lizzie needed help with a career fair, something involving martial arts. I brought in Coach Gene. I wasn’t sure if wrestling was enough material to capture people’s attention so I asked Chad if it was okay to demonstrate some MMA striking, takedowns and submissions just in case. His response shocked me.
“Dude, you’ve been training for awhile, you’re more than qualified to demonstrate basic fighting to beginners, good luck!”
During our presentation, I also told them my story about how martial arts helped my own struggles with being neurodivergent as well as my anger. Of course I had to keep it PG or PG-13. This shocked many school staff, and I saw on many of the children’s faces that they were able to connect. That wasn’t the case for all of them as even getting tossed around by Gene was not enough to capture their interest. I also used that as an opportunity to deliver something to Lizzie behind Antonieta’s back. The wrestling alone provided enough entertainment as Gene and I tossed each other around in front of all the kids (who became surprisingly well behaved). After the career fair, I completed the rest of my assignment. That’s when I found out that some of Lizzie’s coworkers were already familiar with me.
“Hi Batman! I’m Peggy, Lizzie told me so much about you”
Long story short, Lizzie gave me that nickname because of my tech skills and martial arts skills. I didn’t think it would spread to even one other person.
“Am I not supposed to call you Batman?”
“No, I just didn’t think anyone other than Lizzie would ever call me that, or that it’s how she refers to me.”
I figured now that would mean there would now be two people who referred to me as that, like ever.
Turns out I did not have to use Chad’s blessing. While I was quite honored at what he told me, I figured I would never use his blessing except for those few times I trained Antonieta:
“Okay, when defending: keep it short and sweet, like a gummy bear’s cock”
“That’s how Kru Brandon taught us.”
“But hun, gummy bears don’t have cocks!”
My next assignment from that summer class was to attend a parent training workshop. I didn’t have to look for a school, my old internship placement found me. I would sit in a Mandarin language parent training workshop and explain what I knew about Autism as a former school psychologist and doctoral student. In the middle of the workshop, as planned and agreed upon, I revealed that I was autistic . This shocked parents including one who said “but you don’t look like it.” To this date, I still have no idea what the fuck being autistic is supposed to look like. Nevertheless, this was an opportunity for me to explain my struggles and how I was fortunate enough to get to where I was that day. This meant reminding them that not all individuals on the spectrum may have the same splinter skills, if at all, and that regardless of one’s needs, that being autistic needed to be humanized, rather than vilified or romanticized. After all, why did someone have to go through what I had to go through just to get their humanity back and “earn” the respect of others? In a just world, it should not have to be this way. But we don’t live in that world. In the fucked up world we live in, that’s the sacrifice people make so that those with similar struggles, even without the same gifts, may have a chance to see a better tomorrow.
I wanted some closure about being autistic. My ADHD was being managed by medication and while I had a career understanding others in ways that surprised them and their families, I needed to understand myself. I decided to enroll in a study by the same individual who impressed me last year to receive an evaluation. I’m sure that was a bit annoying for them since they needed to find an assessment that I was not familiar with, which they did. I’m also sure it was frightening for the evaluator too
“Make your blocks look like the picture”
“Ahh okay…wait..where the fuck did the 9th block go?!”
“O my god I am sorry, here it is”
“O shit sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you! I just curse a lot with my verbal filters off!”
After the results, the evaluation team told me that I was clearly autistic. However, a clinical diagnosis required functional impairment. They believed since I utilized a level of insight and strategy that they had almost never seen before in conjunction with some important relationships I had in my life (e.g., Antonieta and Lizzie), that such a diagnosis was no longer necessary.
“I’m amazed at what you’ve done to…I don’t know if it’s the right word…compensate?
“Live, I just want to be able to live.”
“And you’re willing to do things that others would be uncomfortable or offended by.”
“Whatever it takes, anything, no matter how painful, because that’s what needs to be done”
I also disclosed Operation ILD. No, they didn’t call the police on me. They wished me luck.
I later read the summary report and learned that my Full Scale IQ exceeded over 99 percent of individuals my age. I was so shocked that I yelled “what the fuck” next to my co-extern, Whitney, who peeked over, saw the results, and had the same reaction, albeit with less profanity. I am still shocked but it somehow explained certain things. I got this far in life despite barely being able to read for most of it. I could see things ahead of time that most individuals could not that were actually not delusions and use it in ways that helped others. At the same time, there were things it did not explain. I mean for fuck sake, I’ve followed people around thinking it would change only being liked as a friend, I’ve broken and entered into someone’s office thinking I was following directives, accidentally asked a professor to “show me to tap that” in front of an entire class without realizing it, I might have ended up teabagging the wrong person for fun if Kru Brandon didn’t explain to me social etiquette and I actually needed someone to explain to me how to get people to like me in the workplace. Perhaps that was the whole point. Perhaps that was literally the reason why Tori and I had different views that both came from a valid place. Tori advocated for peoples whose humanity were robbed by society because of a score along with difficulties performing skills to succeed in life that the score was correlated with. In contrast, I lived a life where I was forced to leverage the skills that the same score was correlated with for a chance that others would treat me with respect and humanity. With the debate in the profession on whether cognitive testing mattered, I pondered if the real question should rather be how it mattered.
The day before Operation ILD, I thanked Brandon for helping me get this far in life and that it would not be possible if it was not for him. I still never fully articulated how deep of a pit he helped me climb out of.
“Hey, sorry it took me so long to say it Brandon, but I love you too”
Brandon was happy and also confused. I’ll explain more later.
I picked up Antonieta and told her to meet up at High Line Park with Lizzie for her late birthday gift. Antonieta noticed something was different about me as I picked her up.
“Umm…are you okay?”
That’s when I wondered if it was actual crickets I heard because this time, it was actually that time of year. Well that’s what I thought until I realized I was in a fucking elevator.
“Just annoyed, same few moh gwei yong pok gai from the other cohort again.”
I was referring to the other summer class where we had to share with another cohort, that included some people who were disrespectful and trying to take up space for the sake of sound woke instead of learning the actual material (Biological Basis of Behavior). I did not want to cause any trouble so I maintained my facade of calm by muttering profane Cantonese sub vocalizations that nobody picked up on this time.
“Sei ham gaa chan were talking about how people who have ADHD should just learn to deal with it and how ADHD meds just protect teachers who don’t know how to teach. I was not going to say anything even though they pretty much verbally da fei gey for 20 minutes until my friend who also got ADHD messaged me saying she felt uncomfortable. So, I took care of that problem.”
I knew if it was Lizzie, she would probably ask me “uh oh, what did you do this time?” However, Antonieta didn’t.
“I smiled and laughed at them, explained where I came from. Then I told them “meds don’t protect teachers, they protect people like you from me, so I can maintain my professionalism every time you open your mouth.” They stopped talking afterwards.”
“Aww you stood up for your friend!”
“No! Too hot!”
I brought Antonieta to High Line Park. There was a celebration for LGBTQ rights that day. Antonieta was excited. I was happy but I was concerned about the job. We met with Lizzie who gave Antonieta her late birthday present and ran off to the bathroom. Before I opened Antonieta’s gift, I looked in her eyes and told her:
“For the last seven years, you have given me happiness, love, warmth and growth that I didn’t know was possible. You go above and beyond what I ask for. What others saw as obsession and rigidity, you see passion and persistence. You give me the strength to go through each day and each week, because I know I’ll get to see you at the very end. The way you treat people inspires me to be a better person every day. It would be an honor for me to bring you the same joy by spending the rest of my life, by your side, as your partner and best friend.”
As I asked the love of my life to marry me, she turned around and saw Laura’s camera and a wall of our fifteen friends that appeared out of thin air like ninjas. I spent the last few months planning this. My schoolmate Amy was somebody that Antonieta did not recognize, who could communicate in the event that things didn’t go as planned, such as a celebration on High Line Park. She was the only member from my cohort who came, but the rest of my cohort helped me sequence my speech and updated the rest of the cohort on Operation ILD in real time. Rodny and the other guys from Evolution and Team PTX functioned as crowd control. They used various disguises to stay hidden until Antonieta turned to a specific direction when another team that followed them gave them the signal. Tanner used his incognito appearance to sneak drinks back and forth to the team who waited in the hot summer day. This would be necessary to set up the picture I wanted to capture the moment. Antonieta read my stress levels a little too easily but luckily, having some horrible experiences at school which did happen provided the perfect cover story. Laura was disappointed at how her picture turned out, but I told her the only thing she should be disappointed about was that she chose the name Shutter Bang instead. Most importantly, Antonieta said yes. Also, I was relieved that this meant that I would not need to consider if Rodny was serious about his backup plan of cocaine and hookers. My classmates chipped in for a congratulations gift for us during my last day of the semester when we took the next picture.
“Hey hun, look at this picture of my cohort from our last day.”
“Henry, why are you squatting like that?”
“Uh yeah, they told me to squat down and I took it literally.”
A few months later, on the way home from my neuropsych placement, I saw Woodchipper. The same one who said I had no future because of my condition. I saw that person many times on the way home. I remembered the saying that I read from a book that Logan. After years, it was time to tie up those loose ends. I told Lizzie what happened afterwards.
“Lizzie, I bumped into Woodchipper…and I uhh…yeah, I did what I needed to do, I’m not sure if I did the right thing though.”
“O my god Henry, did you…put her in a Woodchipper?”
“No! Well the thing is, we saw each other immediately. After we greeted each other, I showed her the ID from my current neuropsych placement, said I’m on my way to getting a doctorate and somehow the conversation changed to me bringing up that I’m engaged now. I know you said I’m not supposed to show off like that because that can make others feel alien…”
“Henry! No, that’s PERFECT! THAT was the time you’re supposed to gloat! You told them they were wrong the best way possible! I am so proud of you! We are so celebrating!”
I was willing to live my entire life without acceptance for who I was if I had to. I was willing to live my entire life without closure if I had to. Yet, words could not describe the joy and relief of realizing that I no longer needed to.
“That was so sweet! it’s like the part of Henry we haven’t seen before!”
“Katrina, I think you’re just used to all those times when I introduce Phase 3, pull out a knife and go like “There will be a time and place where you will absolutely, positively, gotta kill a motherfucker””
“Is Jon…asleep? Jon! You missed out on the best part Jon! It’s Henry’s soft side!”
“Huh? Umm….It’s too…long (snores)”
“To be fair Henry, this story is long, it is like…almost 11PM.”
Jon continued to snore under Katrina’s yelling.
“So Henry, who is Woodchipper?”
“Let’s just say, there’s another reason why I appreciate what Antonieta helped me unlearn.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It is late.”
So are you ever going to tell us who Woodchipper is?”
“I don’t need to”
Jon continued to snore.
“Fine Jon, we’ll put chapter breaks!”
Did you miss the hint? It’s your chapter break!
CHAPTER III – UNTETHERED
FALL 2019: I waited for my schoolmate Sade to interview me about my upbringing for a class I waived since I took something similar in my last program. As I had calculated, she had become quite revered by her colleagues including myself. There were many schoolmates I was okay with having me for their assignment, but if I had to pick the one person in my cohort to do the assignment, it was Sade. It only helped that she got me edible reinforcers…uhh, I mean cookies.
Of course, I got asked about my experiences with racism. I mean it was a diversity class.
“It’s all a blur from my childhood….same shit, teachers did nothing. Didn’t matter if I was bullied for being Asian or socially awkward. Grandma said if I just studied harder, the bullying would go away. I grew up angry, and overweight. If you look at my resume, it’s all martial arts that are good for fucking people up. Those disciplines were direct, effective and concrete means to hurt other people. None of that, “o if you decode it properly you may be able to use it effectively” stuff. When I was young, angry and impressionable, I remember Kru Brandon giving this passionate speech about how martial arts was meant for killing. That’s part of what got me in the door and that’s the honest truth.”
“What’s the most recent instance you experienced racism?”
“Eh, some mild stuff. Some guy stopped me and asked me if I spoke English. I mean shit, I grew up in this country, just got a 4.0 GPA from my last year in a doctoral program and that motherfucker actually asked me if I spoke English. So, I just said out loud “Sorry, I don’t speak any English at all. I wish you best of luck in your endeavors” and ran off.”
“What’s something your family has told you that you live by?”
“My mom used to tell me, it does not matter how horribly stupid you are at something, all that matters is that you do your best to make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.”
“By the time my mom was reunited with me again at age 5, I was able to mentally multiply up to eleven, I memorized every subway map and location to the point that she used me was a living GPS, if I could focus hard and long enough and you told me your birthday, I could calculate the day of the week you were born. The only reason I couldn’t do that in two seconds was because I always had to think which month had 30 or 31 days.”
“So obviously, they had high expectations, and even without that they would have expected me to become a doctor of some sort to begin with. So imagine the kind of disappointment that led to when they saw someone like that failing their classes. Problem is, I couldn’t pay attention or socialize, and it wasn’t until I was nineteen that I realized I had no reading comprehension, which I still need meds for. I’m sure if I asked myself if I thought it was impossible, I would’ve said yes. I had no plans to ask my family how I was going to do what they asked of me anyways. I figured it was not my place to ask, just my place to try, and the least I could do for my mom and grandma who gave so much for me to have a better life, was to try, even if I did not believe. Forced me to get creative in figuring things out.”
It also took me a long time. Luckily, I had the right people in my life. I could at least partially be me in my professional life, and completely be me somewhere else. I was a doctoral student, neuropsych extern, happily engaged to the love of my life and the same reason people told me I had no future didn’t just become the reason I had a career, but was running my own tech business. My neuropsych placement supervisor and my lab supervisor (led by Dr. Shernoff) were very shocked how I was able to use excel to figure out solutions in minutes that they did not think were possible. Dr. Shernoff suggested that I eventually turn what I did into a business after I graduated. Then I realized, graduate school did not pay and my appetite did not decrease. Why wait until I graduate? I figured I’d give a demonstration to my program’s Director of Clinical Training.
“Henry, wow that is…”
“Yes Dr. Segal, names and pronouns and psychometric results are all automated. Enter the Standard Scores in the excel sheet and it will take care of the percentile rank and ranges, not just in the table but the body of the report. The idea of a clinician using their mental resources for these low-level tasks will be a thing of the past”
“Yeah, that can really ruin the credibility of the clinicians”
“I refer to these as Variable Report Templates, or VRTs. Most psychologist report templates are notorious for excessive use of jargon and reports that describe the technical aspects of the test rather than the child and their needs. These VRTs can be customized to meet the needs of each organization, and they come with branch system”
O right, Antonieta told me I needed to explain that….
“It turns writing client-centered reports into almost a multiple choice exam, except one can add, delete or combine afterwards which addresses the inherent shortcomings of that. That sample report I submitted to my site that you saw was mostly automated using a more primitive version of this tech.”
“And I actually learned a lot about the child you were evaluating from reading it.”
“That’s because it permitted me to allocate my mental resources for higher-level tasks. Basically, it’s technology, with all of its strengths, and none of its weaknesses.”
I’m not sure Dr. Segal caught the Wesley Snipes’ Blade reference, but he didn’t need to.
“What’s the name of your startup?”
Antonieta came up with the name Timehacks. She also knew that nobody would understand how my tech would be helpful so she suggested I shoot video demonstrations. Of course, some people would not be able to learn, let alone internalize using complex “ninja seals” via video, but there was this new app via Zoom. This allowed me to teach complex skills individually over the internet (including those in the other side of the country). It took me a while to explain how it wasn’t just a template since it also involved training the clinicians in a set of skills that would generalize across different tasks. Mortal Kombat 11 came out that year and taking influence from “Cyber Initiative” from that game (coincidentally by one of the ninja clans in that game’s universe), I unofficially called the process “cyberization.” Many clinicians, particularly those serving neighborhoods with low socioeconomic status became my customers and thanked me for improving their life. My first customers included my fellow PITs, who were amongst the first to accept me, that I desperately wanted to help but could not communicate how. Lizzie would help me understand the process for Functional Behavioral Assessments, something that people did not think could be automated. I proved them wrong. For once, I was not only okay being myself, I became comfortable, even around new customers.
“Henry, how are you able to do these things?”
“Uhh…would you believe me if I said I can basically sense patterns that…most people can’t?”
In a world where some orange sei pok gai in the oval office had their sickening definition of what men’s locker room talk was, I experienced what real men talked about in the Evolution Muay Thai locker room.
“No, I don’t know any programming languages, Timehacks is basically a makeshift program using computer shortcuts, Word and Excel and training people on its use over Zoom.”
“But either way, I’m loving it”
“Yeah man it’s a game changer for school districts that are under-resourced!”
“Definitely needed, our clients don’t have the privilege to wait for the system to get their shit together to get what they need, let alone in time. There’s all this talk about,the system, which changes too slowly, or just working harder, even though individuals are already trying to work as hard as they can. So I figured, why not just become the solution? You all know Coach Gene does programming too? He actually was one of the people who gave me the idea.”
“You could definitely hire some computer programmers like me when you get big!”
“Yeah sure Steve, when that happens.”
“Yo, Dr. Leglocks! We gonna finally have some MEAT this time?!”
“Whoa Fei Lo, phrasing!”
“Umm…hey, did I miss something?”
“So yeah Jase, last time we went to eat vegetarian because Karina suggested…”
“Hen, why are you feeding this Panda again?! I see the pictures on your Instagram and I’m like no wonder Rodny is…”
“Man, fuck you Steve! So Dr. Leglocks, where are we going this time?”
“Steve’s mom’s place”
Steve’s mom’s place, for dinner. Post training gluttony sponsored by Timehacks.
“Dr. Shernoff, you suggested that I start a business after I graduated but I figured why wait?”
5 minutes later
“That is amazing Henry! But please don’t drop out of school because of this!”
“Of course not, I won’t, my grandma would kill me!”
My neuropsychology supervisor would continue to express how impressed she was with the tech I designed for her clinic:
“You know Henry, you could really make money off of this one day.”
That was the moment that despite being so deep in a hospital that was at least a five minute walk away from anything resembling windows, that I managed to hear crickets.
That semester was a busy and productive one. I met a professor named Dr. Riley who seemed to dislike anti-vaxxers as much as I did, for reasons different than me. Tori also catfished into this student support group called FOOD. I assumed there would be free food, but there wasn’t. Instead, it was called Focus on Our Diversity. That’s where I got to meet Emily and Radwa who joined when they had their own concerns that I did what I did to listen to.
Despite not being able to shoot for Team PTX anymore since 2018, Antonieta and I continued to keep in touch with Ray, Laura and Tanner. Ray had become a psychiatric nurse while struggling to find time to train all the martial arts he had learned including Muay Thai, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Hung Gar Kung Fu, Kali, Taekwondo, amongst many others. I attempted to train Judo when Evolution had a Judo instructor named Garry St. Leger. However, I ended up just spamming single and double legs I learned from wrestling because I did not have lower body coordination to perform the most basic judo throws that required standing on one leg. Technically, the moves I performed were probably Judo since I’m sure those techniques have Japanese names that almost nobody actually refers to, unless we lived in an anime where people shouted the names of the moves in Japanese for no apparent reason. I did not know much about Kali other than some movies that I watched. Hung Gar did not make any sense to me. I could not for the life of me figure out how low stances and flowery hand motions for striking make any sense. But I never bothered bringing that up since it’s not like Ray couldn’t handle himself with all the other styles he became proficient in. I’ll leave Joe to describe Taekwondo (not the child friendly version) accurately if he ever decides to write his own origin story.
With my mom healed from cancer, I also got to train again not just at one place but two. I got to train under Garry Tonnon, who was part of the Danaher Death Squad (DDS), at my school’s BJJ club, that was until Rutgers kicked him out for some reason. DDS found its success in competition from using approaches that were tried and tested based on a specific methodology rather than conventional wisdom. At my home gym, Evolution, I dropped into Brandon’s team training when I could before regular practice even though I had no competitive aspirations in Thai Boxing. Box jumps, jump ropes that seemed to last forever, having a rope tied to my stomach as I tried to drag another person, striking past exhaustion. I did not want to compete in Thai Boxing not just because striking was not my forte, but because I calculated that competitive training would result in these awkward moments in my professional life where someone would ask why I have a black eye under the soundtrack of cricket sounds in the background. I started developing more power but the speed never came, and my kicks still felt unnatural. This extra training all gave me an excuse to pig out with Rodny with my new source of income. During rest time, I also became notorious for showing off my tech skills and how my “ninja seals” could get things done in seconds that would take most people minutes, but since they were not school psychologists, I had to show off my work in a way that they could relate to, using my Photoshop skills:
Every time somebody needed a Brazzers logo Photoshopped onto an image quickly, I was the person they called for the job.
I helped Chad with some tech stuff (no, I don’t mean the stuff in the images above) and in return, he gave me privates. Just to clarify in case your mind is still in the fucking gutter that I probably just placed you in with the last three images, I mean private lessons. Chad had told me I had been a blue belt for too long and that it was time we put in the work together to promote me to Purple Belt (in Jiu-Jitsu, blue belts can help beginners but it’s not until purple belt that you run classes), and that it was just one of the steps he saw me accomplishing. That was the first time in my life I even thought about that color. I wasn’t sure if that would happen because while power, pattern recognition and some types of precision came easily, I could never for the life of me figure out what to do with the speed and lower body coordination despite finding ways around all the other problems that have stumped me. I figured it was not my place to ask, just my place to try, and that was the least I could do, even if I did not believe, even if my body got in the way of becoming what I thought I could have been. Thankfully, my professional career and my life (or anybody’s life for that matter) did not have to depend on it.
At the end of 2019, Antonieta and I went on vacation to Canada. We watched Ip Man 4, not once but twice. I saw audience members become shocked or laughed at how racist the White American characters were towards the Chinese and Chinese Americans. I heard some people utter “there’s no way somebody could be this racist!” In my mind, I’m sure there was, but that was a time in the past, or somewhere in America where ethnic minorities would never travel to anyways. Look, I know I’m a complete martial arts nerd, but that’s totally not why we went to Canada, this was:
“You want to order all this food?”
“Don’t worry honey, Timehacks will take care of that!”
“O, so you’re ballin now huh?”
“Hmmm look (Smartwatch), another customer…but too bad it looks like they’ll need to wait until we go back to America.”
“But hun, Canada is America…”
On the trip back home, I looked at Antonieta’s angelic face laying asleep on my shoulder and all the things she did that brought a smile to my face. I reflected on how I had climbed out of pits that would bury others. I was told I had no future because of my condition, but I didn’t get here despite what I had, I got here because of it. I knew that in many ways, I was fortunate, not just because of my splinter skills, but the relationships I had formed, and that all this work only ended the war against able-ism in my own life. Nevertheless, I was human, I was accepted, I was loved, and I’d have the means to support those who I could. There was much work to do, because at this rate, if I didn’t, I’d probably end up taking my buddy’s mantle of Fei Lo. Nevertheless, it was either a happy ending, or the beginning of a better life that those around me helped me reach, even when others did not believe it was possible.
2020: During the beginning of the year, I discovered something quite horrific: Dr. Rhone had never eaten at Chinatown before. For someone who helped me get to where I am today and was one of the reasons why my business was going well (as well as how I had this side business at all), that was quite unacceptable.
Antonieta and I took her to Chinatown where we introduced her to the same foods and drinks from the places we frequent, that Dr. Rhone referred to as “that food porn thing.” This was something new to Dr. Rhone, as she had bubble tea for her first time, something Antonieta and I were quite used to. Unfortunately, when we discovered something even more horrific, we realized that this would become a thing of the past.
“Henry! Did you hear what happened in Wuhan, China?”
“Sorry Tori, I have no idea what’s going on. Surprise! What’s going on?”
“It’s this thing called the coronavirus, it seems really terrib…”
“Ah, just Googled it. Fuck, I hope it never shows up here.”
Unfortunately, when the virus finally arrived, it awakened another one: violent anti-Asian racism. That same sei pok gai in the oval office called it the China Virus. Next thing you know, Asian Americans were getting their asses beat left and right, not just by white people that were basically knob jockeys for that same pok gai, but also plenty of imbeciles from other ethnic minority groups who ironically parrotted the same racist epithets or their oppressors as they inflicted their share of violence. Those we trusted to speak up for us played semantic games on whether certain anti-Asian attacks were racism. The rest that were vocal, who were as enraged as I was, used their rage as an excuse to spew their own hate to vilify other marginalized groups, groups that included the very people who made me the person I was. I saw a few others trying actual solutions, including a Thai Boxer named Justin Troy who started pooling resources to get others to start martial arts training, but there were too few who tried and too few who listened. Consequently, I envisioned a darker future where the nature of discourse would fuel anti-Black racism in one group of Asian Americans under the guise of empowerment and safety while the opposing group used the superfluous words from their education to enable anti-Asian racism under the guise of anti-racism. I envisioned that the next police murder on a Black American would not only devastate Black Americans, but also shatter any sense of community amongst Asian Americans given the circumstances. These were not fears like what would happen if I revealed I was neurodivergent. This was the same type of vision that allowed me to stay three steps ahead in my professional life and operate Timehacks: they were calculations that I could not explain, and it was unethical to create a demonstration.
That did not stop me from trying to explain. How could I not try to stop a future where the suffering of my training partners, colleagues, mentors and customers was weaponized against my own family and vice versa? I announced my concerns on social media, but for those who needed to listen, it fell on deaf ears. I was used to people treating me like a madman my entire life, but this time, some even treated me like an uneducated madman. These moh yong motherfuckers sitting from the high places had the goddamn audacity to lecture me about the model minority myth, as if I did not learn about it and unpack the topic during my own graduate education, as if it somehow excused the violent assaults on Asian Americans. They callously defecated those words out of their fucking mouth as I pondered whether my years of MMA training, that was previously overkill for self-defense in the prior years, would remain sufficient and began researching what tools I could purchase that I could use in the event I needed more.
Advanced pattern recognition generally came in handy. Great for business, great for getting me to where I was professional despite what I had faced. I was already used to people not believing me my entire life, or that my predictions were just another opinion. Back then, it meant that I would not get paid, or they would not enjoy the benefits of what I had to offer them. Unfortunately, this time, it meant that people who looked like my family would be murdered for their race, and that their deaths would be enabled by not only a system that explicitly promoted racism, but also a system that claimed to fight it. What the fuck was the point of this gift that people praised me for if all that it did was let me know, ahead of time, and all the time, that innocent people were going to to die anyways? At least I had a place where I could forget it all, and a place that equipped me to do something about it when it was time:
“Alright, a few of yah smahtarses brawt up thaht gummy beahs don’t have cawcks. So now, weah gonna keep our defenses shawt and tight like a smurfette’s vuygina!”
As COVID-19 affected more of the United States, I had waited at the corner of the gym with my mask on for the gym to open, also wary of potential attackers. I wasn’t the only one who was scared.
“Holy shit! What the FUCK Henry?!”
“Ummm hey Chad…I’m wearing a mask to prevent…coronavirus”
One of my Muay Thai coaches, Dave had a better reaction, something inspired from my antics and my Darth Vader esque N99 mask:
“Hey Hen, I got a new name for you buddy: Darth Brazzers.”
That would be the last week I heard that name Dr. Leglocks again. Every time I stepped into practice, I was Darth Brazzers. Dave also introduced me to his wife, Winnie, who founded Asians in America. I’ll explain why that’s important in another story.
Unfortunately, as COVID-19 forced my mom to worry about her safety with me traveling around as well as the gyms to eventually close, there wouldn’t be that many times left. Chad had plans for me, and I felt horrible that I would ruin them. He knew when he saw my face.
“You okay buddy?”
“Chad, I uhh…sucks to say this but…I want to train, I’m actually getting better faster now, I need this training more than ever, people who look like me are getting fucked up left and right but…my mom’s immunocompromised.”
I fucking hated this for reasons beyond just changing my schedule, but I needed to do what I had to do. It was and would be necessary, as we’d hear the same bad news for my mom again a few months later.
“Coach, I also know you also had plans for me…getting my Purple Belt.”
“Look, I know you gotta do what you gotta do first to take care of your family. Be well, stay safe, I’ll always be around for you”
“For now, just enjoy your last training session buddy.”
Memories from better times
I still had a roof over my head to be grateful for, but I had lost one home and so much more. I reflected on what I told Antonieta when I asked her to marry me, realizing now there was no promise of when I would ever see Antonieta again. There was no place to train. They were gone as I watched people who looked like my family beaten left and right. I watched my calculations that others dismissed as ignorance and madness become a reality, as they enabled the same violence that made my mother and grandma afraid to leave the house. For the first time in my life, I lost my motivation or any form of joy. That was when I figured what this thing in graduate school called anhedonia that I learned about actually felt like. I found out on one of those days some ham ga chan called my fiancée the coronavirus and in retrospect, she got off lucky. I yelled at her for not carrying a weapon. I felt dead inside for many days.
One day, Kru Brandon released his training videos. I put on my training gear and followed along. For the first week or so, I just drilled my Thai Boxing. I felt alive again. Sure, wrestling and grappling was my forte and I missed it but, I figured this would suffice for now.
In the absence of hope, purpose was what kept me going.
This was something I would tell Natalie many months later when she found out about the type of life I would have to live.
I initially cancelled my membership since I wasn’t going back until I reflected on my past again.
“Antonieta, I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for Brandon. I wouldn’t have been around long enough to meet you because from what I’ve realized over time, I’m pretty sure I would’ve gotten myself institutionalized. When I was at my lowest and did not have means to pay, he gave me a place to train. I went in because deep down, I wanted to learn how to kill. I got what I wanted. Brandon taught me how to be violent in very efficient and effective ways, but he also showed me how to live. That place gave me the means to help other people, both in my profession and out, in ways I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.”
“Awww, so you’ll keep the membership to help the gym stay afloat?”
“Yeah, Timehacks will take care of that.”
“Henry! Did you order from Amazon again? Aren’t you worried that packages might be infected?! They are dangerous!”
“Mom, just give it a day or two and I’ll disinfect it.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t worry about it grandma, it’s something I need for…uhh…my work. I’ll take care of it!”
I caught up with Ray. Ray also lost a place to train and shared my thoughts about anti-Asian violence. We never had to explain how we felt about this, because we never had to. We decided to use Zoom as a cyberspace to train together. When we met, we drilled our Muay Thai. Then, Ray showed some Hung Gar exercises that involved low stances. That was when I realized why Gene’s movements seemed so familiar. Before I suggested it, Ray suggested we drill takedowns, which reconnected me to my own roots. Takedowns were what allowed me to hold my own during MMA classes. It was refreshing, as my legs were brutalized in ways they had not been for weeks. This was the sacrifice I, along with those that came after us, would need to make, to live until we brighter better times. I know that in a just world, that would not be necessary, but I’ve known for my entire life that we don’t live in that world.
On Facebook, I was initially surprised at the number of self-defense ads I got on my Facebook feed. They were great, for getting the practitioner murdered. The programs always contained techniques that got people easily beaten in live combat but they justified the poor quality of training by saying it was “just for self-defense.”
Given the level of work and introspection required just to win in sport or to entertain other individuals, it felt unethical to have a more lax approach when innocent lives were at stake.
How dare they call it self-defense or even women’s self-defense when I grew up at a gym where it was normative for women to inflict and receive the levels of violence that I witnessed? I knew what training for competition felt like, and the only thing logical when others’ lives depended on it was something more brutal, even if my competitive days were long over.
I felt under qualified but I figured that if people cared for self-defense later, it would be better to give the people who needed it a place that gave them functional skills for free than to let them train at a place that charges money for bullshit. Furthermore, I would be doing this by Ray’s side as well as other people. That’s part of what led me to call Tanner and Rodny.
“Fei Lo! We’re going to wake up, get our training over with and move on with our day. Evolution closed but we can still train! See you tomorrow at 6:45AM”
“Get some work in, then move on with your day. If you’re not doing it, I will. I don’t have a choice. A lotta us are getting beat up for being Asian over this whole Coronavirus thing.”
“O shit? That’s happening? Are we meeting up to look for these motherfuckers or something? I’m down. My boi Hen is now doing some gang shit or some vigilante shit!”
“We’re just staying ready in case we see something, just training for self-defense..”
“Oss brother, imma bring my knives!”
“Dude, what the fuck?”
“Yo, you said self-defense homie! I did that Inosanto Kali for a bit before Evolution!”
“Knives? Shit, I don’t know if we’ll ever need to go that far. Let’s just stick with hands for now…”
I reached out to Joe who would eventually join. This was obviously not the first time I used Zoom to train others in complex skills. It’s just that this time, that complex skill was responding to strikes in real-time. I retrospect, I realized that I converted all the resources and skills I used for “cyberization” into a new initiative: weaponization.
As the dialogue continued to be dominated by either people who pontificated about White Supremacy or excusing this violence under the guise of speaking up for Black Americans on one side, and imbeciles who thumped their chance and merely used these incidents to spew hate as well as those who claimed 45 was only referring to the Chinese government, I received a phone call from Noah.
“How you doing bro?”
“As well as I can be in this situation. Have to stay the fuck in, no more foodporn, haven’t seen Antonieta for awhile. You uhh…probably don’t want to know what I’ve been doing to manage.”
“Yeah…in that case, I definitely don’t.”
I’m sure the poor audience who is reading this has an idea after looking at the second picture.
“And that’s not even the worst part….Asian Americans are getting fucked up left or right for being Asian because of some motherfucker in the oval office.”
“I heard, that’s why I checked in. It’s fucked up man, if I see that shit happen, imma shove my foot up their ass.”
In a world where the Asian Americans who spoke up for us excused this violence under the guise of supporting other marginalized groups, this was another breath of fresh air.
“That is the way brother. Thank you. I know you’re in the service and I assume you can already handle yourself. That being said, Ray and I have formed a training group that’ll give you the means to jam that foot even deeper into their asshole. Tomorrow morning at 6:45AM, you down?”
“Hell yeah, you got a name for this crew?”
I heard crickets upon realizing that part was important too.
“Uhhh….I guess..for now….Darth Brazzers’…ummm….Death Squad? Yeah, welcome to Darth Brazzers Death Squad! This is totally not the official name but we’ll go with that for now!”
“Nice! Is there a fee?”
“Don’t worry about it, Timehacks will take care of that.”
I reflected on the pain I endured from eight years ago, and a place that allowed me to become who I was. The pain mirrored what I saw in those around me during these difficult times. I received a blessing last year, and it was time to put that along with other things to how it was meant to be used.
“When it comes to punches and defense, Kru Brandon used to say short and tight like a smurfette’s vagina. Then he realized that since there’s only one smurfette in the village, it’s probably not going to be tight.”
“So now, we’re going to keep the techniques short and tight, like a smurf’s anus!”
“We will now be defending combos from Rodny, virtually. He is faster than he looks! Do NOT be received by his appearance, or you will fucking eat it! Remember, he is over 300 lbs, so even though VR is painless, if he hits you, you die….”
“Man, fuck you! I’m 295!”
This time around, Antonieta was not there to help repair my body. Yet, I found myself training every single day, which I had never done in my life. I drenched myself in liniment oil and hoped for the best. Anything to take away from the horrors of the outside world. Anything to not feel helpless. Anything to be a survivor instead of a victim. Anything to become the violent solution to the violent problems everyone else chose to ignore. In my eyes, what I felt, what was comfortable, what was expected, what was reasonable or what was plausible no longer mattered when my life and other peoples’ lives may depend on how well I could perform and train those around me.
I attended a workshop in my school about “COVID-19 Racism.” The workshop discussed how other marginalized groups had disproportionately poorer access to care and greater exposure to COVID-19. I was grateful that other people put in work for us to have an opportunity to learn about the invisible problems we need to make visible so that professionals can better help families, including those that were my training partners and those from my internship year. I also hoped violent Anti-Asian racism from COVID-19 would finally be acknowledged given its namesake, only to realize that our physically violent battles were made invisible again. Deep down, I lacked the words to convey the sheer disgust I felt building up all these months from how those I entrusted to address racism, even people I knew in my personal life, even those in my own school, treated the violent world where I pondered whether hands were sufficient to protect those around me despite training all these years, as if it did not fucking exist. The classmates who kindly helped me accept myself, with my mother and with my engagement did not seem to notice that world either. It was that moment when I believed that nobody from the high places would come to help us. I reflected on what I was taught in addition to the disgust and the sorrow from everything I had lost so far. The presenters were people who put in work because they wanted a better life for people they were trying to help, just like I wanted for those around me. I needed to be professional, respectful and honest, even when it seemed impossible. In my eyes: silence was dishonesty, especially given the title of the meeting, so I thanked the people at the meeting:
“Thank you for this, I think it is necessary to understand the struggles of different marginalized groups who we are supposed to serve that are affected in ways we may not realize. I hope one day, as an Asian American, I’ll find the capacity in my heart to truly reflect and be an effective ally on this matter. I wish I could say that day is today. Unfortunately, there are some other problems affecting my own community due to COVID-19 that I’m going to need to take care of from my end…”
I meant every word I said. Those would be the last words that many in my school, who attended that meeting, heard from me for a while. I put my hands together and lowered my head to bow Wai, finishing my sentence “with violence” in a whisper I knew they could not hear. Until the day I saw Antonieta in person again, training would become the only time I felt any form of serenity. Yet, it was a unique form of serenity: one where I experienced tranquility and smiled genuinely at those who trained with me while simultaneously hearing the words “打佢到佢老媽都唔認得”, to beat those who preyed on us until even their mothers no longer recognized them, in my verbal language of anger, replaying in my head at its loudest possible volume. During the rare moments of rest, I reflected on how a wise person once taught me to have friends in both high places, and in low places.
During the last weekend I had to prepare for my dissertation proposal, I suddenly received news about Ray’s passing a few minutes before Sunday practice. I ran practice anyway because this was the haven we needed. I’ll never have the words to describe how I felt that day or the next few days as I bit the bullet to pass my dissertation proposal. I thanked Dr. Shernoff for passing my dissertation proposal but never found the words to also thank her for inspiring me to start something that funded my ability to save lives. This wouldn’t be the first time I wasn’t able to articulate how I felt until much later.
Lizzie knew something was wrong with me when she saw me stay up so late. That wasn’t my schedule. She immediately called me and helped me sort things out mentally. She suggested that I contact Ray’s family to figure out how to run a fundraiser that Ray would have wanted. Our team ended up raising thousands for animal rescue and mental health support as per family’s request through livestreaming our training. Kru Brandon called as well. Tori, Radwa and Emily knew about Ray’s death, but much like Lizzie, for reasons I could never put my finger on until later, I never told them the true reason why we trained.
As I connected to various people who were also mourning Ray’s death, we realized how little each of us knew about him regardless of how close he was to each one of us. As we put together the pieces of the puzzle, I learned that I was merely one of the many lives that Ray had saved during his time in this world, with a few of them, such as Laura, already training at the club that we had created. I heard about how talented and dedicated he was at each thing that he committed himself to. We each knew so little about him, yet we were close to him because of the love we shared for what we did together.
“You think he was one of us?”
“Honey, it’s a little too late to diagnose him. Even if he was one of us, only people like you and I would understand that it’s part of what made him such an amazing human being.”
“Yeah but….he was so much like you”
“A lot more than I ever realized when he was alive…”
As I reflected on how much he understood me despite how little we told each other, I donated to Ray’s gym. I would learn from some aspects of Ray’s system that I knew were different but could not put a finger to such as the use of the long guard for his training partner and coach Alma. This was also where I had access to weapons based art of Pekiti Tirsia Kali at Ray’s former gym, Five Points Academy, with Simon Burgess.
“Anything can be a weapon, not’ just’ a knif’, but’ also a scissor, a pen or a cell phone’. Thes’ are what’ we call weapons of opportchunity. The first’ movement’ yau’re going to learn is how to draw yaur weapon. Yau’re going to distract’ them with this hand…”
Great, now I get to learn what to do when I absolutely, positively, need to kill a motherfucker, and possibly a bit of British along the way.
“Henry, are you certain you’ve never Kali trained before?”
“I don’t think watching movies count but…thing is, I have this neurological condition, and at least with the version I have, it helps me learn certain patterns really quickly…”
With a stabbing instrument in my hand, many of the circular movements from other martial arts that originally seemed superfluous finally had meaning. A question many often asked was why somebody would strike like that in a fist fight. Upon seeing what I held in my hands, I realized that was the wrong question. A few days in, I would record myself picking up weapons training to show what I could do, and have something to refer to in the future to compare my progress. I set the bar pretty low for that when I accidentally blasted my ceiling in full force. My windows were closed, but I heard crickets loud and clear after the particles from the ceiling descended on my hair.
Antonieta laughed at how clumsy my weapons skills were relative to my unarmed striking. Being too accustomed to seeing me grapple or strike without weapons, she compared my movements to that of an infant. She wasn’t wrong. This was another thing I needed to endure because there were people other than me that would depend on it.
“Time to defend strikes that Henry is throwing. Watch out, he moves really FAST!”
What did Alma just say? All these years, I never heard anyone say that about me.
“Uhh thanks…Kru Brandon taught me well.”
For the longest time, I could not understand how the things my coaches asked of me were possible for someone like me. I figured it was not my place to ask, just my place to try, and that was the least I could do, even if I did not believe. With more similar reactions from those around me to what they saw me do, I realized that through the pain from everything I lost, my sheer desperation and focused rage, I was no longer tethered by those same limitations. I finally moved in a way I long believed was impossible for people like me. With what I shed, I finally had enough control of my lower body to strike with all eight limbs at will. With my body finally weaponized, it would finally obey the mind it had always held back. I could finally use that eye to its full advantage.
For many months, I believed my battles against the able-ism in my own life would lead to a happy peaceful ending, or at least a new happier beginning for myself and my family. Unfortunately, the callous words of those in power and a system that enabled the consequences viciously ripped that humanity away from Asian Americans including me. Now, a community was under violent siege, a community that contained those that were innocent, those that were vulnerable, those who viewed people like me as subhuman, those who were complicit in erasing our own struggles, as well as the people that I cared about and loved, who helped me become the person I was. However, this time, I’ve realized that as long as I lived, the lessons I’ve learned and the skills I’ve acquired from the sweat and blood I shed would be here to stay. These would be those very lessons that prepared me to spearhead my part in the coming war: a war against violent racism.
I learned from Ray’s brother that he kept many of his accomplishments that most people would boast about as a secret. These were things he never told any of his training partners from all the other martial arts and combat sports that he practiced and became proficient in. That was enough for me to figure out what he was up to. I reflected on what I heard from my younger days about the true purpose of martial arts. It was to develop the prerequisites to become effective for that specific purpose, a purpose that I had not truly meditated on when I lived in a more civilized society. For now, those around me, including Katrina who joined soon after Ray’s passing, would continue to train in “just” combat sports as I continued my studies, for both the mind and the body. In time, they would know what I had truly been preparing them for. But what mattered then, and always, was that we had a haven where we found strength from ourselves and from one another during these difficult times; a haven just like the place I needed when I was younger, angrier, and also lived in a world that did not understand me and kept questioning whether people like me would be around, or deserved to be around, for that brighter day.
“I have a feeling we’re going to turn into some kind of militia or something.”
“Without guns? In America? Very funny, I think at most, we will just be ninja.”
“Should we rename our crew in honor of Ray?”
“You mean an actual official name?”
“He always liked to wear apparel that had his surname Long. It meant Dragon in Chinese.”