Photo of female-presenting individuals standing in a fighting pose for self-defense class.

Different Kinds of Harm: Why I’ll Think Twice Before Taking Another Self-Defense Class

by Shin Yu Pai

The first thing that I signed up for after getting my second Moderna vaccine was a self-defense workshop for women held outdoors in a public park. While I’ve missed going to the gym and seeing friends play live music, my mind has been on the other ways in which life has changed during the pandemic. My nervous system has been on high alert since the Atlanta spa shootings in March. Concerned friends suggested that I take a class with a women-led dojo that quietly organized a self-defense class based on local demand and word of mouth.

For the past four months, the media has been dominated by images of Asian women, who look like me, under constant attack. We are bludgeoned by hammers, stabbed at bus stops, beaten on the street, punched in the face. Here in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, a local Japanese high school teacher’s face was bashed beyond recognition by an assailant using rocks hidden inside a sock. 

When I got to my class, our instructor, or cefu, said that 80% of attacks are enacted by someone the victim knows. She said the chances of being attacked with a weapon are also relatively low — it’s those assaults that make it into the news, skewing public perception. I took this information in, thinking of the cell phone and security camera video footage that seems to pop up on my Twitter feed at least once a week, documenting horrible crimes against Asian women. I resisted the urge to raise my hand in protest. 

I was one of five Asian females enrolled in the class ⁠— two of whom were a mother-daughter pair. There were two Black girls under the age of 16. Everyone else varied in age from 13 to mid-60s and was more difficult to identify under their masks. I wanted to know what brought us all together. Why did you sign up? What do you want to get out of these two hours? Did your daughter sign you up, or did she ask you to come to this with her? I wondered in silence. Cefu was white and didn’t ask our reasons for being here. But to ask would also be to invite the possibility that one, or many of us, were there because we had been assaulted before and had come to learn to protect ourselves. To ask would be to invite a difficult conversation on trauma that the teacher might not have been prepared to respond to on a psychological or emotional level. However, she told us that if we needed to sit out a particular exercise or felt a difficult emotion arise that we should feel okay with leaving. My commitment to my goal remained undeterred. I’d signed up to learn techniques to defend myself against racial hate crimes, not weird guys in bars or aggressive family members. 

On the back lawn of the Asian Art Museum ⁠— a rarified collection of Oriental artifacts that sat shuttered during most of the pandemic ⁠— 15 of us role-played a series of exercises led by the cefu and her female assistants. We verbally assaulted each other and tested the boundaries of what it might take to elicit a “no.” At one point, Cefu cozied up to me and snaked her arm across my shoulders while trying to coerce my phone number from me. 

I don’t have a phone.
Then give me your address.
I live with my mother. No.

Later, we paired up with a partner and were told to say whatever we could to pressure the person into lowering their boundaries. 

Could you please give me a ride to my job?
Well, why not? We’re in the middle of a pandemic and it’s not safe to ride public transportation.
I said no.
Maybe you didn’t notice, but I’m Asian. There are a lot of hate crimes happening right now to Asian women and it’s not safe for us to be out in the world.
I don’t care.
What’s wrong with you? Don’t you care about social justice?!
Ooohhh, that’s a good one!

But my verbal attacks and defenses fell apart when we shifted to role-playing physical exercises. One of the aides was twice my size and came close to intimidate me. I’d been coached to not take a step back, to stand my ground. But suddenly she was inches away from me and had ignored my verbal attempts to assert boundaries. When I went off script and said, “Fuck off” ⁠— her eyes lit up. The last words I heard her say were “No, you didn’t.” She reached for my throat, her meaty fingers making contact and applying pressure. 

This was nothing like the other simulations that happened earlier that day. Other teaching assistants ⁠— including the Asian American women assisting the teacher ⁠— politely asked me if I was okay with them touching my neck or grabbing my wrist or if I preferred their hands on my shoulders. Each time before, I had given consent. I had not consented to this assistant’s hands on my throat. There was no safe word that I could speak to call her off.

I froze, forgetting every self-defense technique that had just been drilled into our brains. It took me 10 excruciating seconds to collect myself and remember the sequence of defensive actions: Kick the assailant in the knees, chop her in the throat, apply fingers to the eyes, a knee to the groin. Since this was all simulated, I didn’t actually strike her. But my faux performance of fighting back did lead her to drop her hands from my body. 

Afterwards we were both quiet, aware that something had gone wrong between us. She finally offered feedback that I let her get too close. At a certain point, it’s harder to push someone away. We didn’t talk about my going off script. I didn’t tell her that I was triggered. I thought about all the times I have said “no” in my life. All the times that my “no” was disregarded, and how that required me to get fiercer, louder. We didn’t discuss what kinds of language might be over-activating or provocative. Or that she shouldn’t have put her hands on my throat without asking for explicit consent. My heart raced, even after the line of students behind me completed their turns. 

The grip of the aide’s hands on my neck sent me into a panic. During the last 15 months of pandemic quarantine, only my husband and 7-year-old son had come close to me. Now, the first touch of a stranger was not a kind handshake but getting fake choked and restrained in a bear hug from behind while another fake assailant held my arm down, though I agreed to some of this as a learning experience. 

After the class, I kept thinking about my encounter with self-defense and how it had led me to let down my guard in what I believed would be a safe space. I wondered if the thing that I’d needed was there to be some acknowledgment of the racially fraught moment in which we are currently living, in which Asian and Black women and girls face particular dangers. I told myself that maybe I’d needed the class to be smaller, or for the cefu to more closely observe the dynamics of what was happening. To not just come to the aid of her students and to help them stand their ground, but to also offer instruction to her assistants on how to be skillful and slow down when their own aggression might be triggered. I focused my thoughts on critiquing the class and its structure so that I wouldn’t have to look at my own behavior.

On one hand, I regretted subjecting myself to a kind of trauma that I wasn’t prepared to defend myself against: the deeply embodied memory of assault. I didn’t tap into the memory of being physically assaulted by a stranger on the street during my second year in college in the moment of simulated attack — it’s only now, at a distance, that I remember how visceral memory can be. 

On the other hand, I’d let my defenses down under controlled circumstances, believing that I’d be safe from injury in the company of other women like me, so that I could rewire something in my neural network around trauma. But I needed the experience to go beyond situational awareness, to more deeply consider how any kind of embodied violence has the potential to reenact and reactivate past traumas. The invitation by the cefu to “sit out” any discomfort wasn’t clear enough for me. I needed explicit warning. I promise that you won’t be physically injured. But I can’t guarantee your emotional safety. I can’t prevent you from getting retraumatized.

Though I felt stirred up by the fear, panic, and feeling of violation that came up in me after the incident with the aide, I chose not to walk away. I wanted to reach the end of the class to see if there was something that could be gleaned from the experience, some gem of wisdom or encouragement from the person I wanted to ascribe with authority on defending against aggression. I hoped for some magic phrase that could recontextualize everything that had just happened. I wanted to respect whatever I hoped she had to transmit through her teaching. 

As the session wound down, Cefu emphasized how important she thought it was to take more than one self-defense class. She said it would help get the feeling into your body and to hone your intuition. But one class was enough to turn me towards listening to my inner voice. I recognize how and when harm can happen. I know now that we have to respect the wisdom and the boundaries of our own bodies first. No teacher will draw that line for us. We must be our own protectors.

Shin Yu Pai’s essays have appeared in Atlas Obscura, YES! Magazine, City Arts, Tricycle, KUOW’s Seattle Story Project, Seattle’s Child, and ParentMap, and new work is forthcoming in Seattle Met. She is the author of several poetry books, including the forthcoming collection Virga.

📸 Featured image is attributed to roanokecollege (under a Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0 license).

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