Megan Cattel was going about her Saturday chores when she got a call from a friend about her partner, Shuai Hao. The two had gone clothes shopping for the fall, and she hadn’t felt like tagging along. Looking at his name on her phone screen, Cattel could sense something was wrong—this friend wasn’t the type to call. When she picked up, her worst fear was confirmed: Hao had been attacked on the subway headed towards the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn, from where their friend was calling. The friend wasn’t able to tell Cattel much—just that Hao was hurt and wasn’t able to speak on the phone.
“I just immediately started crying, because that is so scary when you don’t know many details,” Cattel recalled a few weeks after the mid-August attack. “I didn’t know if he was conscious or not. I didn’t know the extent of the injuries.”
Later, Hao would post about the incident on Instagram, writing that “a white stranger suddenly came up to me and stabbed me multiple times in the face and neck,” before escaping to a different subway car. As the train continued to move, fellow passengers helped give Hao, who was bleeding heavily, basic first aid. When the train stopped at the station, a bleeding Hao and his friend exited the subway car onto the platform, but so did the attacker. Hao’s friend, who asked to remain anonymous, told Jezebel the attacker approached Hao again, “throwing punches in the air” before police officers eventually arrested him. The aftermath on the subway platform was recorded by a bystander, who posted the scene on TikTok.
On her way to the hospital where Hao had been taken, Cattel went through possible scenarios in her head: Would Hao have to stay overnight at the hospital? Would he even be alive when she got there? When she arrived, a head nurse told her that Hao was conscious and stable. His relatively mild treatment—20 stitches total on his face, neck, and hand—did not convey the seriousness of his injury, though. Doctors told the couple that the attack had been nearly fatal, and the intervention that took place—wherein a group of young people, who were at Hao’s side almost instantaneously, distanced the attacker from Hao and got him to flee the subway car—made all the difference.
“If something had just happened a little bit differently in those split seconds, Shuai may not even be here today,” Cattel said. “That’s what we’re grappling with.”
In the days following the attack, Cattel put out a call on Twitter to try and find some of the bystanders who had helped Hao, to thank them for stepping in. Towards the end of the thread, she encouraged anyone who might see her tweet to take a bystander prevention training lest they find themselves in a similar situation, as witnesses to violence and in a position to help. “There seems to be no quick, short-term solution except just being careful, being aware, being street smart,” she told Jezebel.
These days, the threat of violence weighs heavy on the minds of Asians and Asian Americans. When anti-Asian hate crimes rose 339 percent in 2021 alone, we demanded concrete action from those in power, but outcomes came up short. Given how diverse the conglomerate that makes up “Asian America” is—spanning ethnicities, class statues, and political backgrounds—it comes as no surprise that Asian Americans have come to different conclusions about moving forward, as Esther Wang explored in her New York piece “How to Hit Back.” In New York City, for example, some claim increased police presence in subway cars and on platforms will fix the problem, while critics point out that all these measures do is pin the problem on isolated, interpersonal conflicts instead of deeper systemic issues. Some are in support of policies that strengthen the present carceral system. Others have cautioned against this, knowing that these kinds of changes would disproportionately and negatively impact poor people of color, especially Black folks.
Similarly, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that the Biden administration passed into law last year to address anti-Asian violence has been met with ambivalence from within the Asian American community. To acknowledge that racial hate was involved in a crime would make a difference for those of us who want to see our pain legitimized by the justice system, but there are limitations in what it can and cannot do. In Hao’s case, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office only pressed assault charges, despite evidence to suggest that what happened was a hate crime. As Hao’s friend told Jezebel, “most of the seats were taken” in their subway car, but Hao was still singled out. “I did not see any other Asian person in that subway car, and I don’t know what triggered this individual to attack Shuai,” he said.
Oren Yaniv, director of communications for the Brooklyn DA, wasn’t able to comment on the case specifically, but told Jezebel that the office needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a hate crime occurred to add it onto an assault case. “So, if an attacker uses derogatory slurs or makes a confession or we can find social media posts, for example, expressing hate, we can charge a hate crime,” Yaniv said via email, adding that “the maximum sentence the defendant is facing for the top count in [Hao’s] case, attempted murder in the second degree, cannot be increased with a hate crime enhancement.”
For Hao, Cattel, and many others of Asian descent, like myself, charting out ways to secure our immediate physical protection permeates our daily thoughts. Amidst fear and confusion, one thing rings clear: It feels increasingly unfeasible to wait around until the system changes. In the wake of persistent violence, the only options seem to be to learn how to muster up the bravery to fight back against attackers, or to trust that those around us have the bystander intervention skills to step in and defend us. As part of a diasporic community whose very acceptance in the U.S. hinges upon our ability to keep our heads down, even I struggle to convince myself that my survival—and deliberately learning how to take up space in order to sustain it—is worth the trouble.
When attacks on our community began to see an unprecedented uptick come in the pandemic, the Brooklyn-based organization Right to Be began offering Asian and Asian American-specific bystander intervention training. Following the wave of Black Lives Matter protests, 60 to 100 people might have attended any one of the virtual trainings, according to facilitator Dax Valdes. But shortly after Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Alyssa Go were murdered, each webinar would bring in hundreds—if not thousands—of participants, with the trainings peaking at 5,000 attendees. “We really want to reach the folks who need it, who may not have access to the technology or be comfortable in the English language,” Valdes told Jezebel. As such, the trainings offer simultaneous translations in Cantonese, Mandarin, Thai, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Hindi.
With Cattel’s encouragement echoing in my mind, I decided to attend a session myself. During a joint training by Right to Be and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), Valdes and his co-host Marta Ectubañez explained that xenophobia operates on a spectrum of disrespect: Displays of dislike, prejudice, and hatred of Asians and Asian Americans can range anywhere from staring, to making racist jokes, to full-on attacks. Subsequently, there are many different ways to combat these actions, through what are commonly known as bystander intervention’s five Ds: distract, delegate, document, delay, and direct.
“We talk a lot about using bystander intervention to interrupt those smaller actions before they even get to the things that we hear and see on the news,” Valdes said. Whether it’s challenging a racist joke told over dinner among friends (direct), or striking up a conversation with someone who is being verbally harassed in public (distract), bystander intervention advocates for not waiting until the point of violence to do something.
The pandemic spurred violence against Asians and Asian Americans, but tying Asian people to viruses is nothing new. In their book Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections, scholar Mel Y. Chen writes about the aftermath of the SARS epidemic, during which Asian people became the “walking symbol” of the virus. Viewing Asian and Asian American bodies in this way transfers people’s hatred and frustration onto Asian people themselves, making them vulnerable to an onslaught of attack—verbal, physical, and otherwise.
But bystander intervention training gives us tools to interfere, perhaps not just verbally and physically, but mentally as well: “It’s giving permission for us, as Asian and Asian Americans, to speak up when historically, we have been conditioned to be quiet. All of the stereotypes exist around Asians being subservient or being emasculated,” Valdes said. “Give yourself permission to use your voice and speak up, and then also to ask for help.” According to him, expanding the network of those capable of bystander intervention in moments of hostility can reduce the harm inflicted by disrespectful actions. “When we ask for help, it doesn’t mean that you’re weak. You’re acknowledging that these events do hurt.”
The energy in the room was a mix of excitement and nerves—perhaps the only appropriate emotions for a poetry reading held in a training gym. We were a group of all women and femmes, almost all Asian American, there to listen to Jenny Liou read from her debut poetry collection, Muscle Memory, which chronicles her 17 years in the cage as a professional MMA fighter. Following the reading, us participants were also set to take a self-defense class from Jess Ng, a Queens-based, globally acclaimed Muay Thai trainer. It felt like the only logical step following the bystander intervention training I attended—a way to turn defense inward, to test the limits of my own attempts at self-preservation.
When it came time for the training, our group shuffled nervously into two lines to face Ng. Over the next two hours, she’d teach us the proper stances to confront an attacker, how to make them lose their balance, how to strike them in the face and groin, and how to use a weapon against them. Between each move, we’d practice with each other, this group of women who seemed no friendlier to violence than I was. At first, we were playful in our exercises, shoving ever so slightly, barely enough to cause imbalance. “It feels like a dance,” one of the women said to me as I pretended to be an attacker, inching towards her as she shuffled backward, her dominant foot always leading, her hands up in front of her face. To some extent she was right—I’d mime danger, and she’d respond in rehearsed defense.
“I feel like I would still run,” another exercise partner confessed to me, her raised arms framing my face. Moments before, we had been taught to always face an attacker head on, using our skills to protect ourselves from blows and strikes when necessary, never to turn and run. That would give the attacker the chance to run after us, grab us while we weren’t looking, and bring us to the ground.
Despite Ng’s instruction, I understood my partner’s hesitation, her inclination to still flee. As Asian American women, we are used to making ourselves as small as possible, to be as little of a disruption in every space we occupy. Fighting back is all but contradictory to how we’ve been taught to exist. But in the face of physical attacks, when the stakes are literal life and death, did we have any choice other than to flex this untrained muscle? Did we have time to doubt our own strength? To doubt ourselves entirely?
Ng has held dozens of self-defense training courses specifically catered to Asian and Asian American women out of her Queens gym, Southpaw Stitches, and out in the community since 2020. Sometimes, a class with 40 spots fills up within a few hours. Ng’s approach to these classes—coming from a place of compassion and understanding—is key to making her students feel safe learning. “These are not people that are showing up to a dojo every day to learn a martial art. It is everyday people that worry for their safety,” she told Jezebel.
It quelled some of my anxieties to see Ng, someone who is about five feet tall, possess so much confidence, signaling to me that it was possible to emulate her strength and technique. “I think why they ask women like me with competitive and martial arts backgrounds is because we can empathize, and we do understand what it’s like to navigate this city, and navigate [this] country as an East Asian woman—even taking the subway and always looking behind our backs and being hyper-vigilant,” she said. Though she’s led more than her fair share of trainings, the work continues to be both emotional and political, made more so by the news of the murders of Lee and Go. “It does hit home, because we see ourselves in them. We see our families in their families when they’re mourning,” Ng said.
As the night went on, I could feel the group’s aggression start to spill out of us, each thwack against the pads a little bit more earnest, a little bit more urgent. Slowly but surely, we began trusting the strength within us that we’ve been coached to ignore our whole lives. We began hitting like we meant it. When it was my turn to practice the face strike, I let myself surrender to the exercise, the meat of my palm tingling as I kept coming back for more.
Three months after the attack, Hao and Cattel’s life is still far from back to normal. The couple physically moves around New York differently. “We’re not comfortable just venturing out by ourselves and going out everywhere on the train,” Cattel told Jezebel. The couple has set up a GoFundMe to cover the costs of recovery, including outstanding medical bills, fees for courtroom proceedings, and car service fees (in lieu of taking the subway). While Hao’s stitches have been taken out, the scars left by this incident have permanently altered how they relate to the city they call home.
Many of us are still doing what we can to advocate for wide-sweeping change, but that wait will be long. What we can do for ourselves in the moment seems to span the length of a city block and the speed of our reflexes. Walking away from my trainings, I felt a newfound trust in my gut, along with a knowledge that the fear that’s been nestled in it for years can be combated with immediate action. And while I’m not so naïve as to think that any single two-hour-long session can guarantee my safety, having community leaders who advocate for our lives as things to defiantly love and fiercely protect is part and parcel to the work of fighting for more than just survival.
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Shuai Hao as Asian American, not Asian.