By Barbara Yau, AsAmNews Staff Writer
With the surge of anti-Asian violence manifesting across this country, Asian Americans have mobilized like never before, using their skills, talents and resources to help protect the vulnerable. Responding to heightened fears in the community, martial artists have been offering both remote and in-person self-defense classes to help people stay safe and defend themselves in the event of an attack.
Shortly after the start of the pandemic, a 33-year old, New York City based Psy.D. doctoral student, freelance programmer and martial artist Henry Zhang turned his anger into action by starting his own martial arts community called the Dragon Combat Club (DCC) that offers free training to anyone interested.
As an individual who is autistic with ADHD who has attributed martial arts to helping him overcome challenges, Zhang has been able to draw upon his special set of skills, talents and passion to pay it forward to help protect his Asian American brothers and sisters and also bring awareness to neurodiversity.
Since early 2020, Zhang and his team of instructors with a range of specializations including Muay Thai and weapons have trained hundreds of people to defend themselves, and they continue to offer free remote classes to people of all levels six times per week. AsAmNews recently interviewed Zhang, who also recently wrote and published a book, to learn more about him and his work as an activist.
AsAmNews: “Tell us about the DCC and what prompted you to start this group.”
Henry: “First of all, martial arts has been a part of my life, and I needed to continue training. Second, there was a rise of violent anti-Asian racism beginning in March 2020, and only Asian Americans seemed to know about it.
That being said, nobody else was doing anything. When people had any actual conversations, it never amounted to anything productive. On one side, people were looking for an excuse to hate on other marginalized groups, which I personally found rather repulsive given that a lot of my colleagues, customers, and training partners came from those other marginalized groups.
On the other side, you had people who were supposed to speak up against racism, but ended up finding excuses to sound ‘woke’ by calling out on our privilege or anti-blackness to minimize or justify society’s silence/erasure on these attacks.
While I don’t need to explain why the former group is an issue, many people failed to realize that the latter merely made the same problems they complained about a lot worse by their actions. Consequently, I concluded that the use of dialogue to combat anti-Asian racism would be ineffective and cut myself off from the dialogue and created my own community. Over time, I came to realize that when I was younger and angrier, having a place to train saved my life in some ways, and this is my way of paying it forward.”
AsAmNews: “What skills are being taught in your classes to help people defend themselves? What sets DCC apart from the other self-defense offerings available?”
Henry: “The foundation of DCC is what we prefer as the 3-phase protocol. We want to make every effort to avoid violence or use the least amount of violence possible while simultaneously preparing ourselves to survive the most violent of scenarios and familiarizing ourselves with the full spectrum of violence.
Our first phase is avoiding violence, learning our situational awareness protocol which has helped many people avoid being attacked. Our second phase is basic combat sports training where they will learn how to virtually defend/counter against strikes and certain grabs. The third phase is techniques for life and death situations, and they generally employ the use of force multiplier tools, such as pens, knives, and tactical flashlights.
DCC does not train fancy multi-step moves that would never work against an aggressive attacker. One of the concepts we take from combat sports is that the techniques must work in real-time against resistance.
During the late 2020 and early 2021, DCC was the only community-based self defense program, to our own knowledge, that was free, ran almost every day, and methodically integrated in all three phases.
At the time, in what people considered ‘self-defense,’ there were these false dichotomies that people commonly believed that if you didn’t want to be violent, then you didn’t need to train violence, or that combat sports training methods were not applicable for self-defense even though such skills were fundamental.
We did create a very lengthy infographic about our philosophy and distributed it around April 2021. Thankfully, by May 2021, I have been seeing more community based self defense programs take similar approaches where they employ combat sports practitioners and integrate all three phases to some degree.”
AsAmNews: “You have spoken about your diagnoses of autism and ADHD, which has impacted your life in many ways. How has this influenced your work in martial arts, both as a practitioner and as an instructor?”
Henry: “As a disclaimer, I’m just speaking as one autistic individual who also has ADHD. Not everyone on the spectrum has near eidetic memory or advanced pattern recognition like I do, which has been quite useful in learning techniques.
However, I’m also very physically clumsy, so for the first few years, I was able to learn simpler techniques very well and basic body mechanics to generate power but struggled with things that required lower body coordination such as kicks or triangle chokes, and speed was not an asset of mine.
This changed in 2020 when I was so enraged at the anti-Asian racism and had nothing to do outside of graduate school other than train, which somehow finally allowed me to perform certain techniques that my lack of coordination previously interfered with.
As an instructor, I am very blunt. Even our first slogan ‘Violent Problems Require Violent Solutions’ reflects that. It’s honest and makes people quite uncomfortable to the point where many did or do not want to associate themselves with me. A lot of my trainees are surprised at my close attention to detail in that I’m able to notice seemingly minor errors in their technique, and many like how I’m able to explain things.
That being said, I do speak very fast, so that can get in the way, but I try to physically model and emphasize certain details when doing so to make up for that. Having a good memory also helps me a lot in learning and explaining the details.”
AsAmNews: “Congratulations on the recent publication of your new book! Tell us about ‘Dragons on the Spectrum,’ and why you decided to write about your professional and personal experiences as a person on the spectrum.”
Henry: “My best friend Lizzie who taught me my social skills when we attended our Master’s program together wanted me to write it. As a fellow school psychologist, she believed there are a lot of inaccurate and negative stereotypes that my story would help either dispel or force people to really reflect on. As I wrote it, there were more reasons, such as helping people understand how I see the world and what I’m hoping people can think about to make the world a less messed up place. Here is an excerpt of my book’s foreward:
‘I initially wrote this story based on the suggestion of my best friend Lizzie. She wanted the world to see that my journey was not about stopping autism from defining me, but rather determining how being autistic defined me, and shaped the lives of those around me.
My journey in the Stop Asian Hate movement that takes place later in this story is just one of many. I hope this story encourages others who have been by our side to tell their stories. I hope this story, along with their stories, stories that uplift Asian Americans together with other marginalized groups, will be retold in the same institutions that have failed us and have engendered circumstances that pit marginalized groups against one another despite claiming to fight against racism.’
It’s a story we hope shatters a lot of preconceived notions about empathy, neurodiversity, able-ism, martial arts and also racism of all forms. In addition, I’m noticing that with these anti-Asian hate attacks that many people who end up being vocal are fixated on who the attacker is and who to blame to push their own agenda rather than actually helping people who are struggling and fighting to live in this situation, and I’m hoping this story contributes to changing that.”
AsAmNews: What are your future plans with DCC?
Henry: “I don’t have any grand schemes. I just want people to stay alive, and train, and to understand that in times of anger, we cannot turn to hate, but that we find it in ourselves to do what it takes to become the solution. We are planning some in person events in public, so we can incorporate more grappling. I’m also hoping our story spreads so people understand to see truth and humanity in ourselves and others rather than what those who control the media want us to believe.”
Dragon Combat Club is on IG @dragoncombatclub and FB @Dragon Combat Club.
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