Ninjas Vs. Racism: Paradox
My name is Henry Zhang. On the surface, I’m a 3rd year doctoral school psychology student who runs a tech business called Timehacks that is revamping the profession of psychology. I am engaged to the love of my life: an adorable, hard-working speech language pathologist named Antonieta who is beating the shit out of me in this picture. Luck gave me the opportunity to train martial arts under some of the best (on and off) for a decade.
On the surface, that sounds like I’m about to live that American Dream soon that my mom and grandma immigrated here for. As somebody who spent the first decades of life trying to manage being on the autism spectrum who some people thought had no future and could never be a good role model, that was more than I could ever ask for even though my mom had to survive cancer not once, but twice as of March 2021. In the eyes of the people who shape the narrative, my community does not suffer from violent racism and are instead beneficiaries of systemic racism. I was one of the first people who told the world that is not the reality we live in, at least not since 45 called COVID-19 the China Virus in early 2020.
We live in a world where it falls on the few to wage a war against violent racism that the rest of society continues to find ways to deny the existence of. I live in a world where mainstream society, including my own community finds my ideology and methods of weaponizing those around us to be rather extreme despite a body count of innocent people that indicate otherwise. I’ve already told my story, not once, not twice, but three times so far. Each time I write, the world ups the ante. That’s the case this time again, except this time, I’m also writing to clear our name.
I know what our slogan says. We are not people who advocate attacking others. This is a story of people trying to survive a society that keeps finding excuses to spill our blood and pathologizes our will to survive. This is a story of people who are also fighting to maintain their honesty, integrity and hope in this beautiful cruel world.
NOVEMBER 3 2020 – FIRST EMERGENCY MEETING
I waited for my team to log in during my laptop. Next to me, Antonieta was obsessively refreshing her laptop to see updated election results. To many other people, tonight was a battle of political ideas. To us, it was a battle of how many of us would die from violent racism in the time to come as the world found new ways to remain silent. We saw what happened when 45 called COVID-19 and shuddered to think what would come next. Soon a few people logged in
“These are difficult times to come. Whoever wins this election determines whether our future will be really bad, or really fucking horrible. I’ve also consulted the Elder Gods”
“The Elder Gods?”
“Yeah two white dudes named Chad and Brandon”
Everyone laughed at my Mortal Kombat reference, but they knew I was talking about my MMA coach and my Muay Thai coach.
“With my conversation with Chad, we figured that in the event Trump wins, there will be no safe haven. In red zones, it’s open season for us with Trumpanzees. In the blue zones, other BIPOC will riot and take their anger out on Asian Americans because they think we are privileged and are convenient targets for their anger. Nobody will come to our aid, nobody will speak for us, those we expect to speak up for us will again find new excuses to let us burn either due to loyalty to their death cult, or in the name of being woke.”
Everyone in the room reflected on the idea that in the event Trump won again, that this was the only plausible prediction.
“So what did Brandon say?”
“His exact words were, “You people need to get guns””
“”You people” huh?”
“We’re talking about a guy who jokes about all Asians being ninjas when I try to sneak late into his class to avoid doing burpees and a guy who teabags his students for fun. So it’s exactly what you think.”
Back in 2012, Kru Brandon gave me a place to train that inadvertently saved my life when I was at my lowest point. He also appeared in some of my YouTube videos back when I did YouTube videos, including this gem that I also did with my wrestling coach: Gene Kobilansky. Eight years later, violent anti-Asian racism spiked in the USA. It’s been around for centuries but people never talked about it so by the time it got to a point where my solution involved ninjas, people were still pretending it did not exist. My instructors gave me the blessing to run a program to teach basic fighting with an initiative currently named Dragon Combat Club (DCC) named after my late friend Ray, to save peoples’ lives when our community was at its lowest point. While I wasn’t an official instructor in any of the arts I had practiced for awhile, my instructors figured that when shit gets this violent, that it was better for these people who might not live to see next week or next day to learn basic fighting from me for free than to get duped into paying for Aikido. Coach Chad told me I needed to be honest about my limitations. So I was:
“I have trained martial arts on and off for the last ten years. While I have the blessing to run this program from my coaches, I am not an official instructor. It’s just that 2020 racism has gotten so bad, that you motherfuckers are stuck with me.”
I wish I could say that art imitated life, that I was descended from two videogame characters in real life. However, I wasn’t anywhere as skilled as my coaches. The only thing that was remotely comparable, was my antics:
“This is a tactical flashlight that you can use to blind people. We recommend you carry it for self-defense. This is a fleshlight. If you order the one with the E instead of the A and get this sex toy in the mail, it means you ordered the wrong fucking one. Although you could just beat somebody the head with it like this as a consolation prize”
“What the fuck?! This was not part of my What Will Henry Do Today Bingo!”
If you’ve read between the lines by now, it meant that in a room full of majestic dragons from my gym, the person who volunteered to address violent anti-Asian violence was basically the tech-savvy X-Rated version of Mushu from Disney’s Mulan. If you’re thinking “Wait Hen, I don’t remember any Mushu in the Mulan that I watched”, that’s because you watched the wrong fucking one, and you don’t get a consolation prize for it either. The paradox was that I felt like an impostor that was honest about being an impostor. That is what I had to be because the alternative was to sit by and do nothing as those who were supposed to speak up for us let us burn.
After a few tense days that ended with Joe Biden winning the election and me squeezing Antonieta in joy to celebrate, I realized the war that started due to 45’s rhetoric was not over. People were in denial about actual facts. It was hard enough to live in America with a conscience without being Asian American. I continued to envision a future where the world would be debating disinformation as if it were opinion and peoples’ humanity as actual human beings got killed. These visions were much like the ones that allowed me to be two steps ahead in my professional career, running my business and running my club: they seemed outlandish and always came true. Despite all my attempts to believe otherwise and finding different ways to challenge and evaluate my logic, I came to the conclusion that we had less than four years to prepare for a future where all my members would need to train their own groups so the people who needed it could survive violent racism until a better day. Being able to see what the neurotypical could not usually came in handy as long as I controlled how I expressed it, which I didn’t figure out until I was an adult. Figuring out that people did not see the world the same way I did forced me to get better at explaining things. Needless to say this pissed off a lot of people during my childhood:
“So from this block, you’ll turn North”
“Henry, what’s North”
“Henry, we don’t know what North is?”
“Like you guys can’t see it?”
“Are you all fucking stupid?! You’re on Roosevelt Island, just look at where Manhattan is and you know that’s west, so obviously 90 degrees right is that is to the north! Goddamn fucking idiots!”
During my childhood, these senses led my mom to use me as a GPS, the GPS would engage in vulgar dialogue and temper tantrums instead of rerouting whenever my mom went the wrong way. Unfortunately, my senses as an adult who just went through 2020 as an Asian American disturbed me to the point I wished I could turn them off. The country talked about unity. I spoke about unity and hoped for it. However, I wasn’t counting on it to live. That’s why I paid some dude named Logan to teach me how to use the tactical pen as well as the blade that just came in the mail. It was a tool I purchased during Election Day after a discussion with KB who was huge, jacked and also trained MMA for years but had some insurance in the event that wasn’t enough against violent anti-Asian racism.
“KB, you sure this is NYC legal?”
“Under 4 inches”
“Looks nice…I’m buying it”
“Hell yeah, Blade Brothers!”
“Let’s hope we never need guns and armor”
“Yeah let’s hope”
“But look at the bright side, if we did, we’d be the Bang Brothers”
My weapon skills were in its infancy at the time as I only started learning weapons through Kali during May 2020 after I donated to my best friend’s home gym, Five Points Academy after his death.
John Wick’s wife gave him a dog upon her death. Zero gave X his arm cannon as his last gift. Ray’s passing led to events that opened my eyes to the world of weapons training. That was his parting gift, the art of Pekiti Tirsia Kali. Unfortunately, after a few months, Five Points schedule no longer matched mine which was unfortunate since Simon Burgess was a great dude. That’s how I ended up briefly training with my old BJJ buddy Logan. I explained my situation to him, that given what little I know of weapons and the level of violence we’re already facing, I cannot in good conscience have an honest conversation about self-defense without including weapons.
Logan was surprised how quickly I learned. It was partially because of my 10 years of prior MMA training and also because my form of autism allowed me to acquire patterns faster than the typical human being. He also kept insisting that I do not ever use a live blade during training. I listened to his advice while wondering “what’s the chance that I would stab myself? Ahh whatever, I’ll be on the safe side.”
Unfortunately, Logan got busy shooting videos while I got busy with finals so I only got to learn with him a few times. Thankfully, Ray’s friend, Jon, would join our team and contribute his decade of weapons training to refining our program and co-teach with me.
Jon trained Kali and Silat on and off for the last 15 years after a childhood of being bullied as an undersized Asian American. I originally said 10 years but just like how I called him a science teacher in my second story when he was an engineer that taught some engineering classes, that was a big typo. He also ran some security details. At DCC, his unofficial title is “homicide instructor.” Ray passed away too soon, but I came to realize that in many ways, he was still there when we needed it.
Even after the Capitol Hill attack and Biden’s inauguration in which one of my professors expressed relief that Biden was still alive after that day, my visions were still there. The same mental algorithms that gave me ideas that alienated me from others at the same time informed me how to run my tech business, allowed me to learn combat skills at an accelerated rate, helped me figure me how to optimize the training at DCC amongst other things showed me that the conditions that engendered the level of violence that required people to protect themselves never truly changed. The events of February, beginning with the murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee and a subsequent crime of hate attacks informed me that I was wrong, not because my predictions were too bleak, but because they were too optimistic.
During this time, connected with a long time martial artist named Conrad Bui who was an instructor of Silat, Muay Thai, BJJ and Kali who teamed up with another longtime martial artist named Patrick Vuong to create a combatives training company called Tiga Tactics. During this time, Jon and I had been figuring a way to design a system that integrated our styles and a way to disseminate knowledge about self-defense since there was too much misinformation out there. Tiga seemed to be an extension or evolution to what Jon and I had been trying to design: combat sports training methodology integrated with fundamental survival skills. It was predicated on the concept that you do not start with your weapon out, or that the fight may start without you being aware there is a weapon. Therefore, when they offered a 10 week course on using Edged Weapons, I joined to continue learning so I could protect myself and those around us.
The first two hour session managed to amaze and bore me at the same time. Although the latter may have been because there was a lot of talk, I have ADHD and we did not do anything physical other than drawing the weapon. Yet, it was more than necessary since it would be the very thing that save lives:
“Remember the basic defensive mindset: Be Alert, Be Humble, Be Kind. What does it mean to be alert? It means that you are not just aware of the bad things, but also the good things. The nice weather, the beautiful trees, the smiles. It means that you are aware of not only other people’s actions but also your own.”
We learned how to detect pre-emptive attacks with distance and scanning our environment effectively. Knife fights rarely happened, most of the time, they were assassinations. After all, knives were not meant to be seen. We learned what we carried was not a substitute to training, it was an added responsibility and extension to our training.
“Everyone, I want you to repeat after me. The Blade Is My Tool. I Am The Weapon”
“The Blade Is My Tool. I Am The Weapon”
“The Blade Is My Tool. I Am The Weapon.”
“Remember that it’s not the other way around. You do not want to be a tool!”
This became another paradox of our club, that carrying a tool for situations where your hands are insufficient requires you to become proficient with your hands to begin with.
Our instructors asked us to meditate on whether we would take a life and why. In my mind I thought: well, whatever the fuck it takes to live. Conrad’s answer was more profound:
“I am willing to take a life if I need to. Do you know why am I willing to take a life? I swear, it’s the cheesiest answer ever: Love. Love for myself and love for my family.”
Eventually, I would end up learning the “fun stuff” such as chaining my Muay Thai strikes into deploying the weapon. I immediately integrated what I learned to my club, not just the “fun stuff” which I integrated into MMA takedowns but also the “boring stuff.”
The first half of March 2021 was exhausting. It did not matter that we were referred to as next generation ninja. We were still human. I had watched helpless Asian Americans beaten and killed over and over again for a year while the rest of society, including those that were supposed to speak up for us, kept finding new ways to make excuses about how it was not racism or how calling it hate crimes was racist. The week before, while doing our everyday errands in two separate incidents, a teammate and I managed to avoid being another helpless statistic. We were stalked and hunted due to our race (although I’m sure someone will wokesplain it as a crime of opportunity). With our training, we were able to detect their intentions preemptively. Once we confirmed we were followed, they discovered they would become potential prey even though deep down we feared for our own lives. This was all thanks to the “boring stuff.” Around the same time, Coach Chad intervened against somebody approaching an elderly Asian. That felt wonderful until one station away around the same time, another Asian American elderly male was sucker punched. By that second week, the realization we were at war fully hit me. That was before the senseless murder of Pak Ho. It did not matter how many speeches I gave, how I trained those around me every day since April until people on the other side of the country: we could not protect them all. This did not stop new obstacles from arising. I had this conversation with my classmate, Emily, after my mother and grandmother planned a “new phase in life” upon finishing their vaccinations.
“So are you going to let them go out?”
“Yeah sure Emily, she can go out, as long as some guy who has trained MMA for 10 years as well as Kali who is equipped with a tactical flashlight, pen and a knife walks her…”
On March 15th, Emily, I and the rest of our student support group called FOOD watched Raya and the Last Dragon. Our fellow schoolmate Annie loved it and suggested it for her 2nd viewing, not only because it was an awesome movie, but because she was Indonesian American and finally felt seen. Asian Americans in general deal with erasure, and even moreso for Southeast Asians in America because in the few times Asian Americans are in the conversation, they’re not the ones people were talking about. While she said she felt “spared” from the spike of Anti-Asian violence this time around, she grew up being bullied for her race after the events of 9/11. What we faced was not new to her. We took a nice break from the world to watch Raya and the Last Dragon which featured the Southeast Asian martial arts that DCC’s system came from, including Muay Thai, Kali and Silat. As an autistic martial artist nerd, I happily geeked out after the movie to my schoolmates, including some who had already trained with me. Perhaps this was the beginning of the nice break from the world that I needed.
March 16th should have been Spring Break when I would have time to sit down and work on my paper and finally conduct data analysis on my dissertation. That was also the day that my break ended. I was bombarded with work and more attacks on Asian elderly. One finally fought back but needed medical support. The other elder was not so fortunate and had a broken neck. We were not done grieving the loss of the previous murders or processing the idea that people fled to this country to live the American Dream only to become American Targets.
This was Tuesday night, so at 7PM, I was greeted with the familiar Brooklyn Italian accent when I logged into his class. I trained and learned what I could. My legs were sore, and I had a 10 minute window before I ran my own class. Those ten minutes were a nice physical break, but it was sure as hell was not a mental break with a conversation as one of our Brown Berets would be the ones to give us the bad news. The Oakland Brown Berets was female led and to our knowledge, all female. Following the murder of Vichar Ratanapakdee and another spike of hate attacks which followed, the Oakland Brown Berets was amongst the first to hit the ground weeks before mainstream media (as well as the Asian Americans in power who were supposed to speak up for us) broke their silence. In response to their actions, I allowed two members of each team that fit our ideology, including theirs, to train at our club. The Oakland Brown Berets sent us Jill and Karen. After the murder of Pak Ho, I had opened my club to all members of the teams within our club’s network. Unfortunately, the Oakland Brown Berets were too busy patrolling as they had to deter anti-Asian attacks in their area while simultaneously dealing with a surge of violence against Brown American street violence at the same time. They did not patrol the weekend before, nor did any of them show up to practice, not because they needed a break, but because they took part in the vigil for Breona Taylor’s murder.
“Heads up, I just found out there was a shooting in Atlanta that targeted Asians. We don’t have much other information but please stay safe everyone.”
“Will do. For those that can make it to practice, see you in 5. For everyone else: just like Jill said, stay safe”
“This news article says: motives unknown at this time. That is sus”
I had no time to contemplate, as I needed to run practice. That night, it was just Milda & Jon. We drilled our strikes, our takedowns, and our weapons. We then took turns defending attacks we threw at each other on the screen. First set of rounds was unarmed attacks (punches, elbows, knees, kicks, takedowns), much like a virtual version of MMA stand up fighting. The next set of rounds involved countering against weapon attacks. You might think, in real life, you’re going to die against a knife. That is exactly what happened virtually. The point was to develop your agility to new heights and also realize that the best counter against an edged weapon was to either grapple (which we could not do remotely) or not be there.
“Milda, if you’re drawing your weapon and it’s stuck, hit them again with your non-weapon arm to force them to defend!”
The last set of rounds focused on our five primary tools: open-handed strikes, elbows, knees, takedowns and the weapon draws. The high virtual body count helped us understand the fundamental paradox of self-defense:
We would start with our weapon holstered and the attacker had to use attacks to “earn their draw” by making sure the defenders could not detect when they pulled out their knife, just like how MMA fighters used strikes to set up their takedowns. The defender would also need to sense when the attacker would try to draw their weapon and defend accordingly.
Milda is a biologist I met from my college days. Her family immigrated from Lithuania. She joined due to concerns about safety from the events of 2020 including her relative getting attacked on the subway. It only got worse after the first major terrorist attack in 2021 which was also the first attack on Capitol Hill since the 1800s. Being a biologist only to hear half the country make science and numbers a political topic and then be ultraviolent about it is probably more than enough to make you want to join what some people call a modern day clan (and also attend quite consistently). She was one of our newer members but that did not mean we were immune from being virtually impaled by her knife.
After practice, we learned more about the details of the shooting. A scumbag who posted white supremacist anti-Asian rhetoric and other indicators that he had fetishsized Asian women shot up a massage parlor killing six Asian American women. As much as I couldn’t care less about the race of the person committing the hate crime, the attacker’s race also is the very reason why the authorities brought him in unscathed and alive. The police did not call it a hate crime or an attack motivated by racism, but speculated that the attacker had a “bad day.” For the Asian American community, this would be one of the most terrible days of our lives so far. But to that dumb racist motherfucker who wore a badge and had a voice, it was just a bad Tuesday.
Our team typically met on Friday nights outside of practice to process events of the week, review footage of hate attacks and determine if our program was sufficient to prepare other people. Obviously, we could not wait until Friday.
“Jon, we need an Emergency Meeting, what time are you thinking”
“As soon as possible”
I invited newcomers as well as affiliated patrol groups to our healing space. Unfortunately, somebody who ran a team we refer to as “Ginyu Force” commented they did not like our “Violent Problems Require Violent Problems Solution” slogan, said that “I know you are angry, but we don’t advocate for violence” and removed me from the chat group despite my explanations that this was strictly for self-defense. I was told my removal was because I was not patrolling and not because of what I said. I wasn’t the first ninja they booted. They also removed Jon weeks ago because they were uhhh….uncomfortable with our methods or words he used such as “happy hunting.” He wasn’t exactly comfortable with them either given how easily he was able to sneak up on people who were too busy talking to each other or on their phones when he wanted to test their awareness to determine what their needs were. I made the extra effort to explain to the person who kicked me out where I was coming from. They publicly thanked me on their Instagram story for what I did and I left things as it was as there were people who needed safety and healing.
During our emergency meeting, we had the usual crew such as Katrina, a Filipina who realized she was in danger back when many other people Filipinx-Americans thought they were immune from anti-Asian racism and more: a graduate student I met at Columbia who expressed fears for her parents’ safety, the self proclaimed pacifist who lived in Philadelphia who joined us after I was the first who asked her if she felt safe (given how violent I knew things were), a speech language pathologist that wanted to take safety of elders in her own hands, and a schoolmate that joined training literally 2 hours before she had to walk her mom out to grocery shopping for the first time in awhile.
We mourned a sense of humanity, room to mourn, and in some cases, a quiet Spring Break that were all robbed from us. I had learned that more of the people I trained had instances where they had to use their training to avoid being another hate crime victim on the news than I realized, or in the eyes of many, the receiving end of an attack from somebody with a “temper tantrum,” a “bad day,” or another “crime of opportunity.” While #StopAsianHate began to trend, we knew that there were only a few of us. The country was silent until this mass shooting in Atlanta. The very people who looked like us that were a part of white supremacy that silenced us all along were now talking about condemning white supremacy. They only cared about who killed us even though it’s all based on the same damn rhetoric and we’re the ones who were getting killed. The people with voices that were not devastated used their energy and platform to debate whether the killing was a case of sexism or racism. After we processed the pain we felt and the burden we carried, I introduced our program. I discussed protocols we used to detect and avoid pre-emptive attacks. I also discussed our recommended force multiplier tools. The first two were “recommended” (mandatory if you want to live).
- The tactical flashlight blinded assailants while allowing for striking and discouraged people from closing in.
- The tactical pen was a recommended stabbing device for people with white-collar jobs that had no justification to carry anything more.
We did not recommend the blade for carry even though that was in our training. The blade was something people carried at their own risk. Given that many self-defense situations do not require lethal force, it was our ethical responsibility to exhaust non-violent methods as well as less than lethal methods first (e.g., hands, pen). While the sight of a tool’s handle or the tool itself may deter an attacker, our club was forbidden to draw any tools for intimidation. Any tool that was drawn was to be used immediately. This was another paradox of our club:
- We needed to train to be able to kill in the event it was necessary to protect oneself and others
- We needed to train to become proficient in less than lethal means in order to maximize the range of scenarios where it was not necessary to kill to protect oneself and others.
The next morning I had to conduct neuropsychology assessments in person at my externship using such tests I needed to quickly prepare for before the patient showed up even though I was probably a mere shell of myself. Thankfully, this was also my first time doing digital assessments and I happened to be tech savvy. In the game Arkham Knight, Batman was old, worn out and relied on his technological advanced suit to enhance his performance. His nemesis knew that and always questioned whether it was him or the suit that did the work. It was definitely the suit for me that day.
I left the clinic and waited around the corner for my mother to pick me up via car. I noticed a man who towered me standing 5 o’clock from me when my mother’s car drove nearby. She quickly opened her window and sprayed me with disinfectant. During that time, I noticed that the man was approaching me from the same direction. It was not that warm, but he had his right hand in his right pocket. I quickly turned and looked at him and flashed the pocket clip of one of my tools. He immediately stopped in his tracks and looked the other way. I kept my eye on him as I walked around into the car and my mom drove off. My mother drove my grandma and I to Chinatown for other errands. I told Antonieta about my second encounter.
“Second time you had to flash someone in one month huh?”
“Sure hun, unless we’re counting what we do at home”
I also told my club, but not the people in the same car. Our Chinatown trip was my grandmother’s first time out in a year. She was robbed of her right to be outside without gear, both due to COVID-19 and violent racism. I’m not sure she fully understood why because as soon as we were in Chinatown, she said “Henry can go to the bank while I go grocery shopping.”
Without hesitation, my mother and I both yelled at my grandmother in unison:
“No! Do you not read the news?!”
As I walked my grandmother, I multi-tasked between following protocol and repeatedly turning down requests from my grandmother for us to split up. It was like taking care of a child who was also an authority figure while knowing somebody out there is hunting her for who she was. To be honest, I could not blame my grandmother for not reading the news. Most of my schoolmates tuned out from what happened until the week we came back from Spring Break. I wish I had a Spring Break too. We were devastated. Hearing voices is usually a bad sign but it was probably helpful in this instance:
“I noticed how with every tragedy, you all found a way to come back stronger.”
“In the absence of hope, purpose is what keeps me going”
Conveniently, I got a message from this kid named Emma Tang that I spoke to a week ago.
“OMG, 280 people?! I was only expecting 10 or 20!”
She was shocked how in a few hours, 280 people (our limit) signed up for a self-defense workshop that we had been planning to co-host that I had forgotten about. I immediately relayed my feelings to Antonieta.
“Honey, how the fuck are we going to train 280 people at once?”
I was excited, anxious and horrified at the same time. I’m not sure how she felt but she helped me come up with the logistics of having a team that was skilled enough to correct people on basic techniques to man different breakout rooms so every person would get sufficient feedback.
During Friday night hangout, some of my team met with Emma. That team included Sean, Rich, Jon, Milda and I. Sean was an engineer who I met over a decade ago who was reunited with us after we realized we had the same views and struggles. Rich was Ray’s training partner from his Muay Thai gym who worked a full-time job, patrolled for SafeWalks NYC, trains and like me, had to take care of his mother who was ill. With his extensive Muay Thai experience and athleticism, defending his attacks virtually was a challenge. He picked up takedowns and weapon skills quickly. This did not stop him from wishing we had the Konami code once we had to virtually defend against weapons. We felt helpless in other ways too. We had elders who refused to follow our advice and we hoped that if they stayed in the “big streets” that they would be safe. Before Emma arrived, I briefed them on the grimness of our situation:
“Stop Asian Hate may be trending but we’re fucked. People either pretend to give a shit to push their own agenda or they’re too devastated. It falls on us.”
“That’s all we can do. I mean what are we going to do? Cry about it?”
“To be honest Rich, I cried about it. Had two productive days and then I broke down this afternoon. That’s how I had the energy to run practice earlier. Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do”
Emma came in. We discussed our plan for breakout rooms that people thought was genius, except it wasn’t really my idea. We also discussed the format and expectations. Emma wanted us to keep it professional and also PG-13 since some teenagers would attend.
“So, no homicide stuff huh? How you feeling about this Jon?”
“Actually that’s a good idea, we haven’t screened them and it’s good enough to give them the foundation.”
“So not even a pen?”
“No, too much of a liability. Like you said. The Blade Is My Tool, I Am The Weapon.”
Also the change in language Emma wanted would be a huge departure from my uhhh….usual character. Jon pointed at me and mockingly laughed at me as if he would be able to finally go through two hours of co-teaching with me without putting up with my antics. No killing stuff, no sex jokes. I was trying to process the fact that we went from being called Darth Brazzers’ Death Squad to keeping it PG-13. Even though Jon’s face was rated R since he was buzzed at the meeting. After we discussed our plans, Emma left early which was the perfect time for me to break character.
“So Hen, any review about what we’ll be doing”
“Yeah we’ll have an outline, really basic shit but I know palm strikes may be new to you but body mechanics are the same. Just remember, this bony part near the wrist is for “da yun”, the soft part is for “da fei gey””
Everyone laughed except for Milda, making me realize I had to explain that in Cantonese “da yun” means hitting people while “da fei gey” means hitting airplanes which was slang for whacking off. The conversation then got a little darker.
“This may be a surprise to some of you, but this has been in the works, it’s just that I’ve had to accelerate the timeline”
“I’ve been planning this shit since November. You see, I had engineered aspects of DCC so that in the event the world really goes to hell a few years down the line, namely around 2024, you would end up training groups on your own, not because of any directive I will give, but because you’d figure out on your own by then that if you don’t, we’re all fucked.”
There were less than 10 people in that meeting, but I was referring to all 50+ members of DCC at the time. They realized this was why repeated the same things each weekend, why I opened my club and that my mission was not just saving lives, but creating people who would repeat a cycle that for once, was for the better. What we carried were just tools, we were the weapon.
“In retrospect, this was a genius idea except for one problem: a few years down the line was too optimistic of a prediction.”
That’s how we got to where we were that night: trying to figure out how the fuck we would train 280 people at the same time using plans we were not fully ready for. I selected a dozen of us, ranging from people with more training than I did such as Rich to those who started their training at our own club to lead their own breakout rooms that I felt were skilled enough. Needless to say, the latter group did not feel ready. However, when the rest of the world either didn’t give a fuck or just pretended to, it was either us or nobody. The rest of the internet was debating about whether the term hate crime was racist. Those motherfuckers were still pontificating about white supremacy while perpetuating it, or writing some extra woke take about how it was sexism and not racism while people were getting fucked up and killed by their race. I needed to come up with strategies to limit social media enough to keep my sanity while still knowing what I needed to prepare my team for: axes, rocks, knives, metal pipes, and pee. If you’re wondering if that was another typo or a “goddammit Hen” joke (this was so common in DCC that it became its own acronym: GDH), it wasn’t. This happened everywhere, even on the “big streets” and that pee thing happened in my neighborhood that was considered a “good” neighborhood.
During Monday, I told FOOD how I had been alone my entire life in many ways because I was on the spectrum and that being an outcast today was nothing new. I told them that while I can mask as neurotypical, I am an outcast today due to the choices I make because that is the only ethical choice.
“Henry, you described yourself as an outcast and a walking weapon”
“Yeah that seems to be the only way I connect with people, what I do.”
“You’re more than just a walking weapon Henry, and not just to me”
“Henry, I get where you’re coming from though, you do these things that others cheer you for, but they’re not willing to do themselves.”
“Or in some cases, do not even want to associate with me for. I really never thought of that Annie”
“You do what you do because you care about other people, and that makes you more human than the people who think you are extreme ever will be.”
In the sea of bad news, and shittier reactions came a pleasant surprise when I, and in extension, those around us needed it the most from Conrad. He informed me that based on my prior training and the actions from last year that I had sufficient training (and probably skills I forced myself to rapidly acquire the last year) to become an official coach for the Tiga Tactics Combatives Program. I had to perform a few additional formalities as well as a final task: Antonieta needed to survive a knife attack with resistance (where the I, the attacker would repeatedly attempt to stab her). This came with good, bad and ugly results.
The good part was that she survived.
The bad part was that she refused to be video-ed.
The ugly part was that after she secured the knife, she forced me to stab myself in the groin. Thankfully, I had followed Logan’s advice (okay Conrad said it too, but I heard it first from Logan) and used a training blade instead of a live one.
The news of this unexpected promotion was met with joy in my community. Around the same time, my mother finished her chemotherapy for the second time. That was another news I shared to those around me who were still drowning in bad news.
“So what does it mean for us now?”
“Honestly, it helps with impostor syndrome a little bit. I’m still a student in many ways. I still have a lot to learn from people like Jon who helped me get here”
“Hey Hen, you’ve helped me with my unarmed striking too, I really appreciate it.”
“I’m glad we can help one another Jon. Look I get that I can say I’m a coach, but please don’t call me coach, just call me Hen…it’s either that or Darth Brazzers.”
“Goddammit Hen! I am never calling you that!”
I went from being the X rated version of Mushu in the beginning of the Mulan movie to being the X rated version of Mushu at the end of the Mulan movie that got recognition after a long journey.
My mom began to take walks to do errands. She regret it and needed to rest every few blocks. Obviously, I was there too so I wouldn’t regret it.
“Good thing you are here, because you can tell, I cannot run”
“You actually have to know there is danger in the first place for there to run.”
During our walks, I told her to change where she looked about every 2-3 seconds, using windows as peripheral vision, how to keep distance. I told her about how situational awareness prevented some of my trainees from being on the news. I finally disclosed to her the first time I had to deter an attacker when I was getting her cake but not the second incident in the same month. That resulted in a long conversation where I fully explained what I did outside of school & work. My mother finally understood why it was necessary almost one year later.
“I’m not telling you this to scare you mom, I just want you to know the world we really live in.”
Nor did I tell my mom about that time Jon was alarmed how easily he snuck up on members of Ginyu Force who were busy talking to each other only for me to tell them in the nicest way possible that we are concerned for their safety and that if Jon were a real attacker, they’d be gone.
Days before our mass training event, I let Jon take over running class so fellow DCC members from my grad school and I could attend a meeting for the Asian Students Association at my school. This was the first meeting we had in about a year. I was not expecting much. Last year, everyone felt helpless and the only solution anyone suggested (which involved getting good at punching out racists) was considered rather outlandish. I was expecting to complain to Jon how fucked we were afterwards. However, this year it was different. People were more articulate with their rage. They acknowledged the necessity and what I did and thanked me. They shed tears as they expressed their grave fears for themselves and their own family. When I was much younger, Kru Brandon saved my life when I was at my lowest point. I reminded these people again, at their lowest point, that my doors were open to them. A handful of them joined us. They all knew the need to be validated, the need to heal and process, and at the same time, they understood the need to do what it takes to live until the day society finally saw us all as human beings.
Conveniently, these newcomers also became guinea pigs when they joined practice a few days so my team could practice running their own breakout rooms to train beginners the day before our first mass event. The mass event went smoothly, the trainees loved it and our breakout room leaders had a rewarding experience, partially because only ⅓ of the 280 people actually showed up. My dialogue was rated R even though I chilled with my usual jokes but whatever, nobody complained and it’s not like Emma paid me. This would not be our last mass training event.
A few days later, a 65-year-old Filipina named Vilma Kari had her head repeatedly stomped against the concrete by a man who was over 200 pounds. This assault occurred as a nearby security guard watched and closed the door. Another person tried to intervene only to run away after the assailant drew out his knife. I was simultaneously horrified and also grateful we did not need to mourn another death.
After recovering from the shock, I had to reflect on some difficult truths:
Would I have intervened? Yes
Would I have the means to terminate him if necessary? Yes
This was coming from somebody who had 10 years of martial arts training that included weapons and carried gear.
Is there a good chance I could be killed when intervening? Yes.
It did not matter that I had 10 years of martial arts training. The only honest answer was yes.
How did all the people with the big platforms respond? Promoting Bystander Intervention Training with the 5Ds. I have nothing against that, it’s a small part of our own self-defense program. The problem was that it was the extent of what most people were willing to talk about. That may be sufficient for dealing with racism on Sesame Street. However, if violent racism was so bad that there is a trending hashtag named #StopAsianHate, it is very clear that we live on a very different street (and mind you, my neighborhood is supposed to be one of the good ones). Over the course of the last month, the leader of Ginyu Force became a media starlet. While we had our differences, their team had their place and I was happy her hard work paid off. Unfortunately, she pushed the same convenient message and nothing more. Acceptance in mainstream society meant engaging in Olympic level cognitive gymnastics to distance yourself from that V word, even if it enables the trauma and death of innocent people. This is not another “Goddammit Hen joke”, that V word I’m talking about is violence. We both hoped for peace and nonviolence, but unlike her, I wasn’t counting on it to live. My eyes had been wide open for awhile to the fact that if you are unwilling to even prepare for violence yourself, it means depending on the state to take care of that problem for you.
Brother Sean’s E-Vandalism
I could never in good conscience say that the 5Ds was sufficient to protect ourselves from the world that we live in. How could I, after what I said to Logan back in November? How could I when I saw “White Lives Matter” rally planned by people posting Anti-Asian rhetoric happen in response to Stop Asian Hate rallies? How could I, after I saw attacks that hit close to home. Not near my house, but one by what seemed to be the same person who attempted to ambush my teammate with two other people (that were armed) on his way to work, and another that happened a block from where an armed attacker tried to sneak up to me. The grotesque images of blood perfusing from their faces and the bruises on the rest of their body told my team that could have been us if we were unprepared or only prepared ourselves the way those with voices told us to prepare. We are fighting to live and all we fucking get is a trending hashtag and an extra camera angle or two for our own personal snuff film.
“Hen, how do you feel about Ginyu Force?”
“That’s the third time someone this week asked me about the Ginyu Force. I think they’re helpful in some ways despite our differences. Unless they get in our way, let them be. However, as far as helping people survive until a better day, I’m not counting on them to do that. If we followed their lead, we would have been holding a virtual fundraiser for our buddy’s murder last month. At the end of the day, they are willing to do what is convenient and comfortable rather than what is necessary. That is the difference between us. Whatever we were hoping they would do, we’ll need to do that shit ourselves.”
“We need to accelerate the timeline, again.”
“I’ll talk to Emma and schedule our next event.”
To deal with the uptick of violence against Chicano street vendors that was too fucked up to be some loose end, I also scheduled a third event with the Oakland Brown Berets for both our communities. I had no plans to wait until it became a trending topic to do something about it. I figured this was the least we could do. Just like how I needed to tell people why they should be disturbed by 6MWE should disturb people during the capitol hill attacks instead of my training buddy Joe who is probably more disturbed about it, we needed to let those around us know the story about #protectstreetvendors rather than the people struggling to be heard.
The trainees who ran breakout rooms or were about to were planning to list their responsibilities as volunteer experience for applying to internship or to dental school.
“In addition to my resume, I need to study for the DAT”
“What is dat Katrina?,”
“Dental Admission Test”
“How do you feel about dat?”
“How long do you study for dat?”
I told them that was fine, not DAT, but including their contributions to their resume, as long as they did not refer to it as our original name. However, there was one problem: word went around that DCC advocated violence as an offensive measure to intimidate racists. I had to explain to some of my coaches about what we really did, and also had to address it at my club:
“Word is going around that we advocate using violence to attack others. That’s fucking bullshit. Violent Problems Require Violent Solutions means that we are required to be prepared to do so in self-defense, not to assert our dominance or to satisfy our hatred, but to protect the people we care about. That level of preparation is legal and furthermore, it is the most ethical option. That is what it takes to live in a society where it is normative to treat us as subhuman. In our world, to do what is ethical means that we cannot be bound by what is socially normative. A year ago, what was socially normative was to remain silent against violent anti-Asian racism. Today, what is socially normative is to believe the system will handle problems on its own, to only be equipped to be a good witness when another person has their health and their life violently robbed from them because of their race. It is socially normative to remain helpless through the process of being hospitalized or killed when a violent hate crime happens to you, as it would have been the case for a handful of us in the club, and in my case: twice in one month. Being socially normative for the sake of it is not what we do, because the predictable gruesome violent consequences are not the ones we should allow to happen to ourselves, or to the people we love. Coach Chad used to always tell us if we did not prepare or do things a certain way, that we were going to fucking eat it, and by eat it, I do not mean food. I am not anywhere as skilled as he is, but the least I can do is provide people with the same honesty. Always remember our mantra: Survive, Help Others Survive, Protect The Weak, Empower Them, Become The Solution, That Is the Way”
The lesson plan made for our mass training event.
At the end of the day, the ultimate paradox was racism:
- Surviving in a racist world entails doing things you “should not” have needed to do in a just world to begin with.
- It is unethical to wait or pontificate about injustice until the society improves so those around you live the life they deserve, if at all.
- B cannot happen without A
At the end of the 2nd mass training event, I informed my team what I had already known for days:
“We found out who has been telling people who advocate assaulting others.”
My coaches did not tell me who it was, but that was unnecessary, my same algorithms already determined where it came from: my own behavior, namely my post about the shortcomings of the 5Ds. There was only one logical direction as to the people it would piss off, but I did not want to believe it. Even after multiple confirmations, I did not want to tell my own team. However, survival is not about comfort, but about integrity:
“Sadly her name will be quite familiar: it’s the head of Ginyu Force. We briefly trained her. We took her in as one of us. Unfortunately Ginyu is not a fan of our slogan which is what led to me getting kicked out from their group. Apparently me bringing up what could’ve happened if Jon was a real attacker was considered me repeatedly giving passive aggressive death threats..”
“O and Sean, I think they took your 10Ds rather seriously. I’m hearing people who are hearing these rumors about us ask me which one of us advocates detonating other people. Yes, that means we have to actually explain to others that DCC does not seriously advocate detonating other people.”
“How the fuck is that possible? Do they think seriously we are going to attach C4 on our attackers or something?! How is that even practical?!”
We cracked up at Joe’s Metal Gear Solid/Super Smash Brothers reference. Detonation will be the running joke in DCC for a while. Stupidity generally brings headaches but in this case it kept bringing tears of laughter into our eyes.
“I’m not surprised. They accused me of wanting to go for a manhunt when I said happy hunting. From what I’m hearing, now they’re literally standing around and documenting people who are suspicious until it can be escalated to the police.”
“See something, record something. If that’s the case,what’s the difference between them and those security guard that stood by and closed the door?”
“We could have helped them, or at the very least just gone separate ways while agreeing to our differences. In many ways, it’s the same shit all over again: just be good witnesses as the next person gets fucked up so they can bring another person with a firearm into the equation. That’s still violence, except it’s the type they’re comfortable with.”
“That’s three of us who rubbed them the wrong way.”
“You’re implying there’s a right way to rub them.”
“I would’ve confronted Teresa and have a phone conversation about this first like I should, but given the group’s pattern of behavior, we cannot afford to have our own words twisted against us again.”
“So what do we do about them?”
The climactic battle of Raya: The Last Dragon, Raya was focused on destroying her opponent that she was rightfully enraged at. It took her teammates’ actions to remind her that the real reason for her anger was the desire to protect other people in order for her to return to focusing on saving lives. There was too much at stake for us to lose our own focus.
“I tell you this so you are ready in case you need to explain the obvious if you ever have to. Otherwise, we do what we’ve always done: we state the truth and we protect as many people as we can, starting with but not limited to ourselves. That is the way.”
This is our world that required us to exist one year later. The same cycle repeats, except it’s a lot more violent, it’s a lot more tiring, and the more hope you have, the more ways you have to become disappointed. In a sea of shitty news and an ocean of even more fucked up reactions, in a world designed to work against you, it becomes even more important to count your blessings:
“Henry, the Asian Youth Alliance wants to give out essential self-defense tools to women’s shelters in Flushing so women could help protect themselves. What do you recommend?”
“Tactical flashlight and a tactical pen at minimum. Everything else like pepper spray is context dependent. Although with anything, it is best to train it regularly. A wise man once told me “The Blade is My Tool. I Am The Weapon.” When you distribute these tools, even in such desperate times, it’s your ethical responsibility at a minimum to tell others they need to train. I recommend giving contacts for these two people since we are talking New York: Simon and Logan. What do I call you?”
“It’s me, Tess!”
“Shit. I didn’t recognize you. Well, I’m glad you’re still alive after all this time even though you made the biggest fuckup in self defense: not training regularly. I’ll see you tonight at 8pm”
It’s about remembering to do your best even when life gives you some shitty lemons:
“Ms. Kari, I’m sorry about your mom. I’ve been running this initiative since April 2020. We will equip you with the means to protect yourself and those around you”
“Thank you for reaching out and thank you for your kind offer. It is amazing that you are helping the community protect themselves. I need to lay low for now. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”
“You’ve been through a lot. We’ll be here when you heal, and we’re here to help you heal.”
It’s about finding the few who give a fuck amongst the ocean of people who only pretend to give a fuck:
“When I joined Teachers College Winter Roundtable 1-2 months ago, I joined to listen and learn but…I was also trying to find people who we needed to prepare to survive a war. That’s how I found you, when I heard you were worried about yourself and mom”
“Yeah, at first, I was like, who are you?”
“I didn’t think I’d end up getting another person to help prepare others for that same war, or that it’d get to a point where it was necessary so soon. And now you’ll be training your own mini-team. Thankfully, you’ve progressed rather quickly Alice.”
“Are you sure I’m ready to help train these people?”
“I’m the kind of person who thinks multiple steps ahead. You won’t feel ready that day, but you will be. You’ll inspire many people who need it in ways I never will.”
It’s those times you realize your blood, sweat and tears made people open their eyes and more, at times you don’t expect, such as grad school:
“Hey Henry, my tactical pen came in”
“That’s great. I know you had to go before we got to that section, but we’ll show you how to use the pen at the end of this weekend’s class. Hope to see you then!”
And then my professor returned to class, slightly puzzled:
“Umm..I don’t know half of what you’re talking about Henry, but thank you for what you do”
It’s those times when others realize they need to speak their truth about what it takes to live, even if it does not make others comfortable:
“Talking about tactical gear in class. You might’ve scared some white people who were not in the struggle.”
“I’m so sorry, I won’t do that again”
“Actually, I’m glad you did, it was necessary. They’re the ones who influence the narrative. They dictate what is socially appropriate and what is not. That’s why they need to know what the fuck it takes for people like us to live in this world.”
It’s realizing that while the system isn’t designed to help you, that we can still find people in the system who understand the same, because at the end of the day, there are still human beings in the system somewhere.
“We’ve received full support from our school’s faculty in today’s school meeting. I didn’t think I needed that healing space but I did. At the end of the day however, we need more than just emotional support, we need more than healing, we need more than validation, we’ll need to do what it takes to survive, and that’s not something they can do for us.
That being said, I’ve spoken to one of my professors who has helped us in the past, we came up with an infographic we can use to distribute to people to improve their chance of survival. Zero bullshit self-defense advice, techniques, advice on where to train and when. We also had a kid who used to train with me that’s giving “essential gear” to women shelters and asked me for my advice. She asked me for my recommendations, so I gave her the usual: tactical pen and tactical flashlight. Of course, she’ll be giving out our infographic too.”
“I have a question Hen: Why not durians?”
One year later, one small step to a world that does not require our existence anymore. It’s these moments that make me realize that what we do is for those who need to live. It’s these moments that make us realize that what we do is a necessity and is only considered extreme because we live in a society that pathologizes our will to live. It’s these moments that make us realize that our mark on the world is here to stay. A wise man once told me to be alert, be humble and be kind. He told me that being alert means it means that you are not just aware of the bad things, but also the great things.
In this journey so far, I’ve realized that being alert also means keeping sight of what is or could be beautiful without turning away from how ugly and cruel this world can be.