Amid wave of assaults, Asian American seniors practice self-defense with canes and fists
âOur positions should be as hard as the roots of trees,â Du told them in Vietnamese. “Our movements should be as smooth as water.”
The students sit in chairs in a semicircle around Du, their attention captivated. Attendance has increased since Du’s weekly classes began in mid-June, attracting more than three dozen seniors, most between the ages of 70 and 80, for a recent session. Du, 45, leads his class with assertive confidence, and his students respond with unabashed zeal. As they rehearse their horse stance (feet apart, knees bent), Ngoc Le, 80, a short man wearing khakis and a Cubs hat, throws a few playful punches at Du’s teenage son Thomas Tran.
“Good work!” Du exclaims, and the seniors applaud themselves before taking their places to rest.
Over the past year and a half, Asian Americans – the scapegoat for the coronavirus – have been pushed, kicked, spat on and beaten in a relentless parade of violence. Some of the most brutal and heartbreaking attacks have targeted Asian seniors. In San Francisco, an 84-year-old Thai man died in January after being slammed on the sidewalk during his morning walk. In New York City, a 65-year-old Filipina was run over on the sidewalk and repeatedly punched in the face on her way to church.
Du began to worry about the safety of his own family a few months ago. His parents were part of the Chinese diaspora in Vietnam and they immigrated to Boston in 1984 when Du was 8 years old. Around the Lunar New Year in February, her mother called her and told her not to leave the house. Du, who has been practicing martial arts for over 30 years, pleaded with his mother with a similar warning.
On March 16, Du’s father passed away from a long illness. On the same day, six Asian women were shot dead in a rampage at three Atlanta-area spas. The next morning, 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie was punched in the face by a random assailant in San Francisco. In this case, Xie retaliated. A viral video taken the day after the assault shows an anguished Xie, screaming in taishane and holding a plank of wood, while her bloody-faced attacker is carried away on a stretcher.
Du, as she put it, had hit “rock bottom”. But then she had an idea. What if she could teach the elders in her community how to stand up for herself, like Xie did, and fight back? Du, who owns Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy, had never taught self defense to seniors before. In the absence of physical strength or mobility, they would need to learn to be creative and resourceful.
In class, By gesturing towards vulnerable parts of the body where they should strike an opponent: eyes, ears, throat, ribs, groin, shins and knees. She reminds them to draw their energy from their hearts, to stay alert, to listen to footsteps, to walk in well-lit areas, to grab their keys, to shout.
“You can do it!” she encourages them in Vietnamese. “Even though they may be more able-bodied than you!” “
The ancients take turns beating padded combat shields, pushing their elbows back and dipping their fists, just as Du showed them. Their delicate sneakers and sandals creak against the linoleum floor.
âWhen you knock,â Du said, searching for the right words in Vietnamese, âyou have to have a certain state of mind. “
Trust. Intensity. Survival. Du, who is more fluent in English and Cantonese than in Vietnamese, struggles to translate this sense of fierce determination into his students’ native language.
In Vietnamese, Hoang suggests, “If you touch me, you will die!” The rest of the class applaud and chuckle in approval.
Du developed the self-defense program with Lisette Le, executive director of the nonprofit VietAID, and Jean Wu, a retired professor of Asian-American studies at Tufts University. The feared Vietnamese elders who relied on the VietAID community center for companionship before the pandemic now feel scared and isolated.
Many had come to the United States as refugees and had suffered the trauma of war. But many older Asian immigrants are reluctant to talk about their mental health, Wu said, even within their families. In multigenerational households, their own children and grandchildren may have lost the language skills necessary to communicate with them.
Du and his collaborators hope that these elders will eventually open up and alleviate some of their heartache. Du has heard a handful of stories from his students before. A woman revealed that Du’s classroom was the only place outside her home where she felt safe. Another told Du about the time she got into a fight with a potential thief, leaving her thighs dotted with bruises after being dragged across the floor.
The program is funded by a $ 7,500 grant from the City of Boston’s Age Strong Commission with money that was redirected from the police department’s overtime budget. Du used part of her funding to purchase solid wood walking sticks for each student in her class. Towards the end of the lesson, Du and his volunteers distribute the canes, each individually wrapped in plastic, to the participants, except those who arrived with their own canes. Seniors can take these rods home at the end of the sessions at the end of the month.
They had already practiced hitting with tai chi sticks. Now Du was demonstrating how to use the hooked handles of their canes to trap an assailant’s neck, how to sink in with one quick motion, how to strike an assailant on the toes.
At the end of the session, several students from Du linger, including Linh Mat, 88, from Ashmont. Mat teaches a popular exercise class for seniors at VietAID to help them build strength and endurance. She sees Du’s class as a complement to her own.
âI pray that I never have to use these practices,â Mat said in Vietnamese through an interpreter.
Her best friend, Thoi Phan, 95, agrees. âBut if we have to,â she adds in Vietnamese, âwe willâ.