Some Asian women are learning new skills to protect themselves, bolstering their sense of agency, confidence and competence on the street.
By Yasmin Tayag
On a warm April afternoon in Washington Square Park, I squared off with my friend Noelle, a petite Filipino policy researcher, and shoved her. She slapped the ground as she fell, landing seat-first with a dull thud. Dazed yet grinning, she braced both hands on the ground behind her, lifted her leg, angled her foot and kicked me in the shin. Then she got up, brushed herself off and let me do the same.
This sparring match was part of a private self-defense class I organized for my Asian friends in New York. Reports of vicious attacks on Asians, especially women and older adults, had filled my news feeds since February, when the media began covering anti-Asian hate incidents that rose during the pandemic.
For the first time in 12 years of living comfortably in Manhattan, I became afraid to walk the city’s streets as a Filipino woman. Whenever I stepped outside, I thought of the attacker who shoved an older man to the sidewalk in Oakland or the one who senselessly beat and kicked a Filipino woman near Times Square. I wondered what I would do if it happened to me.
So I organized the class, hoping my friends and I would pick up a few tricks and perhaps emerge feeling less helpless. Psychology researchers have found that self-defense training can increase confidence in women, improve mental health and decrease feelings of vulnerability. But I have since learned that self-defense offers much more than skills and confidence; it can foster a powerful sense of agency.
Self-defense begins in the body.
There are many self-defense styles out there. Some are based on traditional martial arts like taekwondo, karate and judo, while others combine moves from other fighting systems, including Krav Maga and street combat. But most types of self-defense teach you how to avoid dangerous situations and harm an attacker, so that you can make a quick getaway.
One type, called empowerment self-defense, trains you not only to defend yourself against violence but also to interrupt assaults in their early stages by making confident eye contact and saying things like “Back up, I don’t want any trouble.” If that doesn’t work, it may be time to cause some pain.
An essential step is preparing for the shock of an attack. In promotional videos for an organization called DC Impact Self Defense, students yell at the top of their lungs while hitting pads or instructors in cushioned suits, simulating their reaction to a real-life assault.
During any fight, most people feel incredible fear and anger, which triggers an adrenaline response that makes many freeze, said Jill Cermele, a psychology professor at Drew University in New Jersey, who studies the efficacy of self-defense and teaches empowerment self-defense.
With training, you can harness the adrenaline response to deliver a painful blow or make a quick getaway. And many self-defense skills can often be adapted for older people or those with disabilities. A walking cane, for example, can deliver a nasty blow.
“It’s the practice of doing that tells you, ‘You can do it.’ I know I can do it because I’ve done it before,” said Dr. Cermele.
There is robust evidence that supports the effectiveness of empowerment self-defense, but other approaches may be helpful too, said Jocelyn Hollander, an expert on the prevention of violence against women and a sociologist at the University of Oregon. In late April, I took a class based on a form of street fighting karate that the Chinese Hawaiian Kenpo Academy, in the East Village, offered free to Asian Americans over Zoom. The school’s founder, an ex-Marine named Jack Shamburger, taught us how to strike the soft parts of a perpetrator’s face — eyes, nose, ears — with the part of the fist you would slam down on a table, calling it the “hammer fist.”
We kicked an imaginary attacker in the scrotum, a target that could make him vomit, said Mr. Shamburger. He also taught us how to use our cellphone as a weapon, holding it with two hands and thrusting its edge into a person’s throat. I practiced these moves on a make-believe assailant for over an hour, lodging them into my muscle memory. If I ever needed to use them, I would be prepared.
Self-defense is a mind-set.
In the weeks following the two classes, I was still afraid of being attacked, but I felt better equipped to protect myself. More than anything, I felt newly aware of my body and its potential.
This confidence, it turns out, is protective. Perpetrators seek out easy targets, like people who scurry around quietly with their head down, said Dr. Cermele. The confidence gained from self-defense, said Tsahi Shemesh, founder and lead instructor of Manhattan-based Krav Maga Experts, is a way to “remove the target from your back.”
A lasting benefit of self-defense training, experts said, is a concept related to confidence called “self-efficacy” — the belief that you can use your own skills to serve you when they’re needed. Some of the instructors I spoke to said that many people, especially women, come into their classes thinking they are incapable of defending themselves, only to discover that they can once they try.
“It’s ‘I have confidence in my competence,’” said Karen Chasen, vice president of Prepare Inc., a violence prevention organization and member of Impact International, a group of organizations that teach empowerment self-defense.
Dr. Cermele was constantly afraid of being assaulted before she attended her first self-defense class in 1998. She felt physically vulnerable as a woman, and the stories that her trauma therapy clients told her filled her with fear. She avoided dark parking lots for fear of assault. In her first experience on the mat, a male instructor in a padded suit asked, “Hey, what time is it?” Dr. Cermele immediately started to cry. Feeling helpless in the face of an imminent assault was paralyzing.
But after just eight hours of training, Dr. Cermele was able to step out of her car in a parking lot at night for the first time without fear.
Self-defense is community defense too.
I wasn’t the only Asian person in the U.S. with the idea to learn how to defend myself this year. Self-defense schools in cities including New York and San Francisco have reported an uptick of Asian enrollment in their classes. Rej Joo, an instructor and program manager at the Center for Antiviolence Education in Brooklyn, said that since February at least half the students in their classes have been Asian women — a sharp rise from previous years, when he estimated they made up only about one in 10.
One reason Asians are learning self-defense is to “help change the stereotype that Asian Americans won’t fight back or can’t fight back,” said Stanley Sue, an expert on Asian American mental health and a psychology professor at Palo Alto University and the University of California, Davis. Asian Americans are often stereotyped as the model minority or the “quiet, unobtrusive Asian,” he explained. These stereotypes may make perpetrators think we are easy targets and that we won’t defend ourselves. But self-defense is a way to flip the script.
Whether they’re held over Zoom, in a classroom or at a park, these classes also foster community. Linda Leu, a self-defense instructor and the executive director of Impact Bay Area, a chapter of Impact International, said it was a big deal for Asian people to be able to open up about their experiences with racism or violence in her classes because they are taught to avoid talking about unpleasant things.
“That can be detrimental to our mental health, our physical health,” she said.
In one lesson in our class, Noelle yanked my ponytail, stopping me in my tracks. Hair pulling, our instructor had told us, is a common attack against women. I reached behind my head with both hands, encircled my fingers around Noelle’s wrist, and stepped back to pull her arm toward my body. At that point, I could have snapped her wrist. Together with the other women in the class, I was astonished at the potency of this move — and that I could execute it.
I never want to be in that position again, or propped up by my hands on the sidewalk, about to deliver a kick. But if I need to, I’ll be ready to stick it where it hurts.