After Strangers Saved an Asian Man in a Subway Stabbing, I Fought Back My Own Fear
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Megan Cattel was doing her Saturday chores when a friend called her about her partner, Shuai Hao. The two of them had gone shopping for fall clothes and she hadn't felt like coming with them. When Cattel saw his name on the screen of her phone, she could tell something was wrong — this friend wasn't the type to call. When she picked up, her worst fears were confirmed: Hao had been attacked on the subway bound for Hoyt-Schermerhorn Station in Brooklyn, where her boyfriend was calling. The friend couldn't tell Cattel much - only that Hao was injured and couldn't use the phone.
"I just started crying right away because it's so scary when you don't know a lot of details," Cattel recalled a few weeks after the attack in mid-August. "I didn't know if he was conscious or not. I didn't know the extent of the injuries."
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Hao later posted about the incident on Instagram, writing that "a white stranger suddenly approached me and stabbed me multiple times in the face and neck" before fleeing into another subway car. As the train moved on, fellow passengers helped administer first aid to Hao, who was bleeding profusely. When the train stopped at the station, a bleeding Hao and his friend got out of the subway car onto the platform, but so did the attacker. Hao's friend, who asked not to be identified, said Jezebel the attacker approached Hao again and "threw punches in the air" before police officers finally arrested him. The episodes on the subway platform were recorded by a viewer who posted the scene on TikTok.
On the way to the hospital where Hao had been taken, Cattel considered possible scenarios: Would Hao have to stay in the hospital overnight? Would he even be alive when she got there? When she arrived, a head nurse told her that Hao was conscious and stable. However, his relatively mild treatment - a total of 20 stitches to his face, neck and hand - did not express the seriousness of his injury. Doctors told the couple the attack was nearly fatal, and the intervention that took place - in which a group of young people who were by Hao's side almost instantly removed the attacker from Hao and got him to escape from the underground Escape train – made all the difference.
"If something had happened differently in those split seconds, Shuai might not even be here today," Cattel said. "We're struggling with that."
In the days following the attack, Cattel took to Twitter to try to find some of the viewers who had helped Hao to thank them for their intervention. Towards the end of the thread, she encouraged anyone who might see her tweet to take prevention training for viewers so they don't find themselves in a similar situation, witness violence, and can help. "There doesn't seem to be any quick, short-term fix other than being careful, being aware, and being smart on the road," she told Jezebel.
Today, the threat of violence weighs heavily on the minds of Asians and Asian Americans. When anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339 percent in 2021 alone, we called for concrete action from those in power, but the results failed to materialize. Given the diversity of the conglomerate that makes up "Asian America" -- spanning races, class statues, and political backgrounds -- it's not surprising that Asian Americans have come to different conclusions about moving forward, as Esther Wang did in her New York article studied "How to Fight Back." In New York City, for example, some claim that increased police presence on subways and train platforms will solve the problem, while critics point out that all of these measures are blaming the problem on isolated, interpersonal conflicts rather than deeper systemic issues. Some support policies that strengthen the current prison system. Others have warned, knowing that these kinds of changes would disproportionately and negatively impact poor people of color, especially blacks.
Similarly, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which the Biden administration passed last year to address anti-Asian violence, was met with ambivalence within the Asian-American community. Admitting that racial hatred was implicated 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 limits to what it can and cannot do. In Hao's case, the Brooklyn prosecutor's office only returned charges of assault, despite evidence suggesting it was a hate crime. As Hao's friend Jezebel said, "most of the seats were taken" in their subway car, but Hao was singled out anyway. "I didn't see any other Asian person in that subway car, and I don't know what prompted that person to attack Shuai," he said.
An animated image of Michelle Go is shown in Times Square during a vigil for the 40-year-old New Yorker after she was killed in January 2022. Go, an Asian American, was bumped into by a stranger in front of a train at the Times Square subway station.
Oren Yaniv, director of communications for the Brooklyn Attorney's Office, could not comment specifically on the case, but told Jezebel that the office must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a hate crime occurred in order to add it to an assault case. "So if an attacker uses derogatory slurs, or makes a confession, or we find social media posts expressing hate, for example, we can charge a hate crime," Yaniv said via email, adding that "the maximum penalty is the." Defendants at risk because the highest number in [Haos]'s case, attempted second-degree murder, cannot be increased with a hate crime increment.”
For Hao, Cattel, and many others of Asian descent like me, planning ways to ensure our immediate physical protection permeates our daily thoughts. Amid the fear and confusion, one thing is clear: it feels increasingly impossible to wait for the system to change. With continued violence, the only options seem to be learning how to have the courage to fight back against attackers, or trust that those around us have the ability to step in and defend us as bystanders. As part of a diasporic community whose acceptance in the US depends on our ability to keep our heads down, even I struggle to convince myself that my survival - and to consciously learn how to take up space to sustain it – is worth the effort.
As attacks on our community witnessed an unprecedented surge in the pandemic, Brooklyn-based organization Right to Be began offering Asian and Asian American intervention training to viewers. According to moderator Dax Valdes, after the wave of protests against Black Lives Matter, 60 to 100 people might have taken part in one of the virtual training sessions. But shortly after the murders of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Alyssa Go, each webinar drew hundreds — if not thousands — of attendees, with training peaking at 5,000 attendees. "We really want to reach the people who need it, who may not have access to the technology or may not be proficient in the English language," Valdes told Jezebel. Therefore, the training courses offer simultaneous translation into Cantonese, Mandarin, Thai, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Hindi.
It gives us permission, as Asians and Asian Americans, to speak up when we have been historically conditioned to be quiet.
With Cattel's encouragement echoing in my head, I decided to attend a session myself. During a joint Right to Be and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) training session, Valdes and his co-host Marta Ectubañez explained that xenophobia operates on a spectrum of disrespect: Dislike, prejudice, and hatred toward Asians and Asian Americans can vary greatly from Staring to racist jokes to violent attacks. There are then many different ways to combat these actions, through the so-called five Ds of viewer intervention: distract, delegate, document, delay, and direct.
"We talk a lot about using viewer intervention to interrupt these smaller actions before they even get to the things we hear and see on the news," Valdes said. Whether it's challenging a racist joke told over dinner among friends (direct) or starting a conversation with someone who is being verbally harassed in public (distract), bystander intervention advocates, not until the time the violence to wait to do something.
The pandemic has sparked violence against Asians and Asian Americans, but tying Asians to viruses is nothing new. In her book Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections, scholar Mel Y. Chen writes about the aftermath of the SARS epidemic, during which Asians became the "walking symbol" of the virus. Viewing Asian and Asian-American bodies in this way transfers people's hatred and frustration onto the Asian people themselves, leaving them vulnerable to attack - verbal, physical and otherwise.
Members of the Public Safety Patrol, a volunteer group against hate crimes, take part in a self-defense class in the Flushing borough of Queens on April 25, 2021 in New York.
But bystander intervention training gives us tools to intervene, perhaps not just verbally and physically, but mentally as well: “It gives us, as Asians and Asian Americans, permission to speak up when we have been historically conditioned to be quiet. All stereotypes are that Asians are submissive or emasculated," Valdes said. "Give yourself permission to use your voice and speak up, and then also ask for help." According to him, expanding the network of those who are capable of viewer intervention in moments of hostility can reduce the damage caused by disrespectful actions. "When we ask for help, it doesn't mean you're weak. They acknowledge that these events hurt.”
The energy in the room was a mixture of excitement and nervousness—perhaps the only appropriate emotions for a poetry reading in a gym. We were a group of women and femmes, almost all Asian American, to listen to Jenny Liou read from her first collection of poetry, Muscle Memory, chronicling her 17 years in the cage as a professional MMA fighter. After the reading, we participants were also allowed to take part in a self-defense course given by Jess Ng, a Queens-based, world-renowned Muay Thai trainer. It felt like the only logical step after the spectator intervention training I had attended - a way to draw the defense inward and test the limits of my own attempts at self-preservation.
In the face of physical assault, when it is literally a matter of life and death, did we have any choice but to train that untrained muscle?
When it came time for practice, our group nervously formed two lines to face Ng. Over the next two hours, she taught us the correct stance to face an attacker, how to make them lose their balance, how to punch them in the face and groin, and how to use a weapon against them. Between movements we practiced together, this group of women who seemed no more violent than me. At first we were playful in our exercises, pushing ourselves ever so slightly, barely enough to create an imbalance. "It feels like a dance," one of the women said to me as I pretended to be an attacker and slowly moved towards her as she shuffled backwards, her dominant foot always first, her hands in front of her face . To an extent, she was right - I played danger and she responded with rehearsed defense.
"I feel like I'm still running," another exercise partner confessed, her arms raised framing my face. Moments before, we had been taught to always face an attacker head-on and use our skills to protect ourselves from punches and punches when needed, never turning and running away. This would give the attacker an opportunity to run after us, grab us while we weren't looking, and take us to the ground.
Despite Ng's direction, I understood my partner's hesitation, her inclination to flee anyway. As Asian-American women, we're used to minimizing ourselves to minimize disruption in any space we're in. Fighting back is all but contrary to what we were taught to exist. But faced with physical assaults when it is literally a matter of life and death, did we have any choice but to train that untrained muscle? Have we had time to doubt our own strength? Totally doubting ourselves?
Ng has taught dozens of self-defense classes specifically for Asian and Asian-American women at her Queens gym, Southpaw Stitches, and in the community since 2020. Sometimes a course with 40 places fills up within a few hours. Ng's approach to these classes - which emanates from a place of compassion and understanding - is key to making her students feel safe as they learn. “These are not people who go to a dojo every day to learn a martial art. They are ordinary people who are worried about their safety,” she told Jezebel.
A man holds a flower as members of the Korean American Association and others hold a rally and press conference near the building where Christina Yuna Lee was murdered in the early hours of February 13, 2022 in New York City after returning home had been pursued.
It calmed some of my fears to see that Ng, someone who is about 5ft tall, has so much confidence, which signaled to me that it was possible to emulate her strength and technique. "I think why they're asking women like me with competitive and martial arts backgrounds is because we can empathize and we understand what it's like to be an East Asian woman navigating this city and [this] country — even with that." Subway and We're always looking behind our backs and we're super vigilant," she said. Though she's conducted more than enough training, the work continues to be both emotional and political, heightened by the news of Lee and Go's murders. “It hits the mark because we see ourselves in them. We see our families within their families as they grieve," Ng said.
As the night wore on I could feel the group's aggression pouring out of us, each smack on the pads a little more serious, a little more insistent. Slowly but surely we began to trust the strength within us that we were taught to ignore throughout life. We started hitting like we meant it. When it was my turn to practice the face smack, I surrendered to the practice, the flesh of my palm tingling as I kept coming back for more.
Three months after the attack, Hao and Cattel's life is far from normal. The couple moves physically differently in New York. "We don't feel comfortable setting out on our own and taking the train everywhere," Cattel told Jezebel. The couple set up GoFundMe to cover recovery costs, including outstanding medical bills, court fees and car service fees (instead of taking the subway). While Hao's threads were removed, the scars left by this incident have forever altered their relationship with the city they call home.
Many of us are still doing what we can to advocate for sweeping change, but the wait will be long. What we can do for ourselves right now seems to span the length of a city block and the speed of our reflexes. As I exited my training, I felt a renewed confidence in my gut, along with the knowledge that the fear that had been ingrown there for years can be defeated with immediate action. And while I'm not naïve enough to think that every single two-hour session can guarantee my safety, an essential part of the work of fighting is having community leaders committed to the fact that our lives must be defiantly loved and fiercely protected for more than just survive.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Shuai Hao as an Asian American, not Asian.
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