Amy Choi was assaulted and mugged at knifepoint in Manhattan’s West Village one morning six years ago. “I couldn’t leave the house for a few days,” she recalled in an essay for Shondaland. “I couldn’t walk alone for weeks.”
But Choi, who is 41 and lives in Brooklyn, said that attack and the trauma that followed did not spur her to buy any self-defense items. Rather, it was the recent string of crimes against women of Asian descent that made her feel more unsafe than ever, convincing her she needed to take steps to protect herself. She now carries around a kubotan, a pointy self-defense tool about the size of a pen, and a loud alarm button recommended by a self-defense instructor she worked with last month.
“Maybe it’s because that [West Village attack] felt random and opportunistic, and the recent surge was so targeted towards Asians,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Though the weapons might not ward off future violence, she said, “carrying these and practicing using them is helping me feel some agency for myself.”
Choi is one of a growing number of Asian American women who say they've equipped themselves with self-defense items in recent months as more anti-Asian crimes have been reported. Of 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian harassment and attacks reported to the group Stop AAPI Hate since the start of the pandemic, 68% were against women.
They've strapped themselves with noisemakers, pepper spray, metal knuckle rings, and, in some cases, Tasers and stun guns.
While a group of Asian Americans told BuzzFeed News that self-defense tools and weapons are not a solution to systemic racism — and may be illegal to carry in some states — many expressed that the devices give them a sense of control over their personal safety following news of the lethal shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta last month and a stream of gruesome security footage of Asian people assaulted in broad daylight in the presence of bystanders.
Community leaders and advocates have long decried police departments and political officials for not doing enough to proactively curb racist violence against Asian Americans — often not even acknowledging them as hate crimes. In the absence of institutional protections, handheld instruments of defense embody the burdens these women now carry in a world that feels increasingly unsafe.
Jennifer Kim, a Brooklyn resident, first bought a personal safety alarm last spring. As more people in the city were attacked, she ordered pepper spray and watched videos on how to use it in an emergency. But she wanted a backup.
So this year, she got a kubotan for situations where she might need to engage physically. She keeps the kubotan and alarm on her keychain in one coat pocket, and the pepper spray in the other. She has also studied jujitsu. “It’s just multiple ways of defending yourself,” she said.
Kim said while efforts by the NYPD, like the formation of the Asian Hate Crimes Task Force, have helped her “feel safer to a certain extent,” she wanted to be able to protect herself when police are not around. “Most times, police aren’t present during an attack.”
"I definitely have that concern where I might just panic and freeze up or not remember that I have those devices,” she said. “Or something can happen so fast or they come up from behind you and you have no time to react. But I guess I feel like it’s better than having nothing at all on my body."
Jeanie Pai, who’s in her thirties and a native New Yorker, acquired pepper spray and a sharp cat-ear knuckle keychain over the past year. She said she bought these two items in bulk and handed them out to her closest friends and family.
“I can’t say I feel safer, but the items do bring about a heightened sense of awareness and vigilance,” said Pai.
Even having grown up in a densely populated area like New York City, she's disheartened by the idea that she has to equip herself with her own protection because she doesn’t feel sure that members of the public would intervene if something happened. In the case of the 65-year-old Filipinx woman attacked in Hell’s Kitchen, Asian Americans online were not only upset to watch the footage, but also that it showed witnesses standing idly by. In February, a Filipinx American man named Noel Quintana recounted to BuzzFeed News the horrifying experience of having his face slashed on an NYC subway, adding that no one on the train or subway platform came to his aid.
“The dichotomy of today’s bystander effect in urban areas is unbelievable, and it’s heartbreaking how I can’t trust witnesses to help if I’m ever attacked,” Pai said. “Carrying my defense weapon gives me peace of mind, but it is also a sad reminder of my vulnerability as an Asian woman.”
These tools, she believes, are “not only for yourself but to protect others if you see someone in trouble.”
Twitter user @kehlar, a 46-year-old Taiwanese American woman who wished to remain anonymous, felt the need to up the ante of self-defense in a major way this year: She started carrying around a whistle and alarm anytime she stepped outside her Bay Area home. She tweeted in March that she felt "like an easy target" because she's "a petite middle-aged Asian woman."
“I’m at a point now that I feel that we as AAPIs need to take matters into our own hands and protect ourselves and the vulnerable people in our community,” she said.
“Carrying these self-defense items makes me feel more ready to defend myself. I’m not sure that it makes me feel safer.”
RJ Castaneda, a Filipinx American resident of the Bay Area, recently bought pepper spray for his parents, sister, and female cousin. He now carries pepper spray as well when he goes out for exercise and has attended a bystander intervention workshop. “I fear randomly being attacked while running,” he said, adding that he is even more worried for his sister and cousin. “Being a woman already has its safety concerns, but the surge in Asian attacks only added on.”
Almost everyone BuzzFeed News spoke to acknowledged the pragmatism of self-defense tools as a short-term coping mechanism. These items offer protection not just from assailants but from the fear Asian Americans shoulder as they simply move through an average day.
“There are so many people who are scared and not leaving their homes,” said Barbara Yau, cofounder of the groups Concerned Asian American Citizens of New York City and Safe From Hate, which has distributed thousands of free personal safety alarms. “I think that people are just looking for confidence when they walk out the door. They want to have some kind of plan.”
Yau, like many others, does not believe a few self-defense tools can fully address problems hundreds of years in the making.
“I don’t think [these devices are] really a solution, unfortunately,” said Yau. “We were hoping that news would get out and people would be afraid to attack if people had some kind of alarm. But I think it is a Band-Aid. I don’t see that it’s deterring crime at all.”
The US has a long history of anti-Asian racism and violence dating back to the 1870s, when Chinese workers who made low wages were blamed for rising unemployment rates and lynched in cities across the West. By 1925, immigrants from most of Asia were barred from entering the country.
“Prevention does not solve the problem of predators,” said Pai. “A good start to a solution could be studying Asian American history in relation to Western colonialism and capitalism, and understanding the root causes of [the] Yellow Peril [narrative].”
But those fixes seem far more distant than the measures available today.
Choi, the 41-year-old from Brooklyn, said that immediately following the mass killings at the Atlanta spas, she organized a group of her friends, mostly Asian women, for self-defense training with a martial artist in her backyard. The class, however practical and imperative for self-protection, was also about communal processing.
“That experience was so much about being able to gather with other Asian women, connect in real time and in person over the tragedy and the violence, laugh and be worried and practice poking an eye out,” she said. “It was about being together and remembering we have each other, too.”
“Does a self-defense class in a Brooklyn backyard dismantle systemic violence? Does it end anti-Asian racism and misogyny? Does it change gun laws in America? No and no and no. And all of that is big, big, big. But you know what would make me feel safer? If literally everyone who cares about me or everyone who cares about anyone Asian took a de-escalation training, and actually used that training when presented with a situation.”
Correction: Amy Choi was robbed at knifepoint. A previous version of this story misidentified the perpetrator's weapon as a gun.