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Helen Taylor, an instructor at Defense Yourself Bay Area, is teaching her students a potentially life-saving move: the “hammer fist.” It’s a modified punch that uses a clenched hand like they’re playing Whack-a-Mole. That way, people are less likely to break their fingers—and more likely to hit their target.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, Taylor’s teaching the move via Zoom. It’s just one of many online courses being offered to Asian Americans for free as a way to stay safe and fight off racist attackers.
“We bring our fists right up to the camera so nobody has any questions about it, and we ask everybody else to hold up their fist so that we can make sure they’re doing it correctly,” said Taylor, a first-generation Chinese American and the lead teacher for Defend Yourself’s “Empowerment & Self Defense for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans” class. “We then physically point to the part of the fist that will be used to strike the target.”
In 2020, the number of violent crimes targeting Asian-Americans skyrocketed 149% compared to the year before. To help combat the widespread fear and uncertainty in the AAPI community, many self-defense organizations and instructors in the U.S. have started offering free online seminars for the young and elderly alike. Students learn basic physical attacks, like eye-gouging and targeting an assailant’s soft spots, but instructors also emphasize verbal techniques. And sometimes, the most valuable advice is just to run.
“Say someone was to lunge at you, or throw a punch, we learn where they’re expected to hit and what strikes would be most effective hitting back.”
“We literally have participants echo back to us, ‘Stop!” We also emphasize other phrases like ‘Leave me alone’ and ‘That’s inappropriate,’ Taylor said. “We want to give participants words they may have felt like they did not have permission to use or say before.”
Eric, a graduate student in Chicago originally from China, said he wasn’t particularly involved with the AAPI community in the U.S. before signing up for Defend Yourself’s online class, offered twice a month, with around 30 other students. But by watching the class from his apartment—which is more than 2,000 miles away from Taylor and some of the other students—he’s found a sense of solidarity he’s never experienced before.
“It gave me a comprehensive understanding of the type of harassment we face here,” said Eric, who’s in his late 20s. “I think the most important takeaway you learn is to be assertive. You learn to act for yourself, anchor yourself, and settle down no matter how big the challenge is—and to try and communicate to protect yourself.”
While Taylor’s classes have traditionally been filled with people in their 20s and 30s, more older students have started signing up this year. The number of violent crimes targeting Asian Americans skyrocketed by 149% in 2020, compared to the year before, and the majority of the attacks have targeted the elderly in coastal cities. Earlier this year in New York, three Asian Americans were assaulted within 36 hours of each other, and a 61-year-old Chinese immigrant is now fighting for his life after being stomped in the head this week.
“I think there is more fear in the older community about what they’ve seen go on and more desire to understand what they can do about it,” Taylor said.
That fear has even spread across the border to Canada, where anti-Asian attacks have also drastically increased. One prospective Chinese-Canadian graduate student, who asked to remain anonymous, told VICE News they’ve seen similar classes spring up in the Great White North.
“I was initially skeptical about training via Zoom because when nobody hits back at you, you’re really only absorbing less than half the teachings, right?” they said. “It was hilarious seeing everyone with their pandemic hair and belies attempt air punches, but it also felt oddly empowering.”
The Chinese Hawaiian Kenpo Academy (CHKA) in New York City has also been offering online self-defense courses. But they’re not teaching high-level martial arts—in fact, it’s the opposite. Most of the biweekly courses, which draw a couple dozen participants, focus on rudimentary blocking maneuvers and attacks that don’t require too much effort, especially for the elderly.
“Martial arts can get really fancy and interactive, but as you learn, the most effective things are the most simple—that’s what our online instructors drill home,” said 24-year-old NYC resident Fan Yang, who’s taking the courses on Zoom. “Say someone was to lunge at you, or throw a punch. We learn where they’re expected to hit and what strikes would be most effective hitting back. We learn to look for soft targets—poking your fingers in their eyes, kicking out their knees—it’s simple things like that, but if you don’t know it, you don’t don’t know it.”
“But once you do know it, it’s really a wealth of knowledge,” she added.
One tactic Yang doesn’t need to practice, though, is to just run. She’s been taught that sometimes, rather than engaging with an attacker where the outcome is unknown, avoiding the conflict altogether is the best way to stay safe.
“Having these things happen even in New York, it’s pretty scary to read about these incidents—but just knowing that if I was ever to be in a situation, I can have a reaction and confidence in the current context,” Yang said. “With self-defense, the hope is that none of us ever have to use it, but I do find it boosts my confidence, and it’s quite empowering.”