I thought I was safe. I have always lived what seemed like a “nice life,” in nice neighborhoods — currently just outside West Chester — with a nice professional job using my nice professional degree.
Even though I cultivated a second career teaching self-defense skills, my personal sense of danger was largely theoretical and revolved around being a woman. Recently, especially in the last year, I’ve learned how wrong I was — that it was my Asian hair and eyes more than my gender that would put me at very real risk, and that it is vital for me to share effective personal protection strategies with the AAPI community too.
As a Chinese American woman born to immigrants from Hong Kong, I knew I was an outsider in the small, Upstate New York town where I grew up, but the differences seemed benign. The teasing I endured from classmates didn’t seem racially motivated, just cruel. As an adult, I dropped the foreign parts of my name and lost my native Cantonese language skills, feeling more American with every step. I rarely worried about being Asian. The times I was heckled with racist insults were few and far between. I lived a life free from threats of racist violence.
My gender, small stature, and periods of single life seemed more likely to attract harassment and crime. They were why I learned how to shoot guns, to fight using Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and otherwise defend myself against all of the normal sorts of threats that women worry about. In time, they were why I founded On Her Own, a social media project where I share what I’ve learned about how women can survive and thrive in today’s world.
My feeling of racial belonging started changing when “kung flu” went from joke to popular vernacular during the COVID-19 pandemic last year. It lurched when my college roommate told me how a random white woman hurled racist insults at her and her daughter while they were shopping one day. As the wave of anti-Asian crime swelled in early 2021, I became increasingly concerned. These people around the country being assaulted and attacked with increasing levels of violence looked like me, like my family. Yet there was barely any attention from the media and authorities did too little to condemn these acts. My fears intensified when eight people were killed in metro Atlanta, including six women of Asian descent.
I think and write extensively about the distinction between feeling safe and being safe. The feeling of safety, and the emotional peace it brings, is sometimes illusory. I often discuss how to identify when danger is lurking in the wings and how to prepare for its reality. So it’s been disquieting to find myself caught in a trap like one I’ve often warned others about: my feeling of being safely American enough blinded me from my precarious position as someone who at any moment could be deemed an enemy outsider, free to be attacked. I once would have thought that paranoia, yet here we are.
One tenet of my personal protection philosophy is that in that moment of gravest extreme, you must assume you are on your own. No one is coming to save you. That assumption is so core to my beliefs that it is embodied in the name I work under: On Her Own.
My feeling of being safely American enough blinded me from my precarious position.
It has never felt more true to me than now, when I have at times had to beg the people around me to recognize the danger that I and those who look like me are in today. When I see AAPI leaders shouting for our history and experiences to be heard and honored. When I leap on the crumbs of official affirmation that our plight is seen and that it matters, because I don’t expect more than those crumbs.
As a woman, I find it socially difficult at times to embrace aggressiveness and the willingness to struggle for my own survival and my own flourishing. The burden of my cultural baggage, of being the good and quiet Chinese girl who doesn’t make waves, adds to that difficulty, but current events make it even more important for me to fight for my life and to teach others who look like me to do the same.
As an advocate for women’s safety, I fight for gun rights. I also fight for the use of high-quality pepper spray, for effective physical fighting skills, for eloquent ways to talk myself out of danger, for firm boundary-setting. Now, every one of those strategies for personal safety is as important to me as an Asian American who sees that nobody is coming to save me. That’s why I’m asking that support for the AAPI community include not just helping us feel safe through words of support, but helping us ensure access to the tools and abilities that make it possible for us to be safe.
We need to make more educational resources, online and in person, available to AAPI communities, and they need to be tailored to teach people of all ages and abilities, in their native languages. We need to preserve and expand access to effective tools, including firearms and pepper spray, so that we can defend ourselves without relying on others to show up in time.
I’m doing some of this work, and willing to do more. Will you help too?
Annette S.L. Evans is a competitive and defensive firearms instructor who is also a corporate in-house lawyer in her spare time. Her views expressed here do not reflect those of her employer.