I have lately been obsessed with the rather murky concept of self-defense, a side-effect of living for quite a while in multiple cities where a statistically not-insignificant number of people are interested in robbing you.
I have lived in Washington DC and New Orleans, two of the more notoriously crime-ridden US cities, and then of course most recently in Phnom Penh, Land of Smiles And Also Purse-Snatching. In recent months, I’ve had my phone stolen from me in tricky snatch and grab incidents more time than I care to relate (though never, I should admit, in an even vaguely threatening manner).
It wasn’t just me: seemed like every week that one of my friends in Phnom Penh would come forth with a new and increasingly grim mugging story, showing off scars or sadly lamenting their brand-new laptop, cellphone, or handbag. Soon after I witnessed a violent attempted-mugging than retaliatory beatdown on a busy Phnom Penh street a month and a half ago, I realized that I’d become distinctly jumpy.
I’ve never been a paranoid type, but suddenly, all the signs were there: locking doors behind me obsessively, peeping out from behind curtains whenever I heard a funny sound, carrying my switchblade with me at all times just to make myself feel better. A strange lizardy part of my brain suddenly understood those conservative wing nuts who wish to be allowed unfettered access to automatic weaponry: well, of course you’d want a personal Uzi! They’re coming for you, aren’t they? Aren’t they?
I needed to do something to make myself feel better. And since getting a Uzi might be possible in Phnom Penh but isn’t exactly suggested, I was happy to enroll in a recent self defense seminar at the newly minted Phnom Penh community college.
Why self defense?
I figured my berserker rage technique of defending myself, while making guttural and horrid canine noises, is probably reasonably effective but perhaps could use a little bit of delicacy and refining.
Self defense courses are a weird beast. Thanks to a common compulsion, you find yourself amidst a bunch of friendly and socially normal people standing around a classroom blinking at each other, about to engage in acts of the most heinous of simulated violence. There’s a lot of awkward giggling.
Mild-mannered types especially seemed to be attracted to this Phnom Penh session, perhaps sensibly aware they could use some advice on the age-old topic of Avoiding Getting Your Ass Kicked. One woman was a schoolteacher who needed to know how to break up the occasional schoolyard fight, another a very gentle-appearing former schoolteacher who’d soon be opening his first Phnom Penh bar.
Me, I was worried that the course would conjure up some strange interior bits of my soul, where all that paranoia and fear and latent aggression churn together into a dark and rather distasteful soup. I rarely get this existential with day long adult learning workshops.
The instructor was an expatriate who does jiujitsu and wished to try out the self-defense teaching thing. He was fit and was named Lance – as would be expected — but thankfully didn’t bring that sort of swaggery kung fu attitude to the table that I’ve witnessed in some similar contexts. For this I was grateful. The class began.
First we simulated a mugging, in an exercise where one person was sent out of the room with a handbag, and a random member of the class would be selected to hold a wooden knife and “mug” the victim.
Most people, quite rationally, approached the “mugging” as a mere simulation and delicately thrust the wooden simulated knife in the general direction of the victim, with a few apologies. This was supposed to teach you how to respond when something surprising and aggressive is directed at you.
I mostly learned from this experience that I should consider taking up mugging as a secondary career, mainly because I was surprisingly good at it, stalking around somebody’s back then directing a frightening slash right up against the eyeballs. I’ll admit that I rather enjoyed being a simulated mugger — finally experiencing some hint of what it was like to not be the gazelle-like urban prey but the urban predator, stalking and waiting and taking.
Suddenly no one wanted to be my partner. I realized I should not grin when pretending to mug somebody. I had looked into the dark recesses of my psyche all right, but the answer was a bit unexpected.
We simulated a number of other attacks, and soon discovered a flaw of a group class like this: most people are terrible at simulating aggression and rage.
Socialization and a functioning society demand that people get along and not derive pleasure from violently kicking the shit out of each other, or even pretending to — a pressure that’s especially strong on women and girls.
This is all understandable, but it also meant I never felt particularly intimidated when a sweet schoolteacher was delicately pretending to choke me out while apologizing profusely about it. One woman suggested “Imagine she’s stealing your boyfriend!” to get past the mental block. I found it hard to imagine people of such staggering niceness even doing that. Maybe accidentally cutting in front of me at the supermarket, or accidentally stepping on a ladybug.
No, the class needed a few trained martial artist types (male and female!) to actually shake us up a bit, or perhaps someone with a face and attitude that demanded a good roughing up. Simply put, the trainee sharks were lacking chum.
Thankfully, my friend Mary and I are both little lady heathens and were perfectly capable of roughing each other up — although as amusing as simulated-mugging and assault of a good friend IS, perhaps not the most realistic of scenarios. She’s probably unlikely to steal my liquor or my car in the near future.
Truth is, when it comes to primal rage, I never really needed lessons. I sometimes just lie in bed staring at the ceiling and being insufferably angry for no particularly reason: although I’m usually able to be a pleasant sort of individual in modern society, I tend to turn into a small blonde incarnation of Satan when confronted with airport delays and annoying bureaucratic types wearing glasses who don’t want to let me do something.
The majority of any reasonable self defense course is actually defensive tactics: basically, one wants to do your damnedest to avoid a scenario where you’re going to have to fight, which can mean anything from avoiding strolling down dark alleys to 2:00 AM to (borrowing a scenario Lance trotted out), avoiding entering into committed relationships with world champion kick boxers who really like to drink and do meth.
The course also got into the more interesting aspects of the Cambodian aggressive psyche, largely the fascinating phenomena that is Khmer crowd mentality.
If you’ve spent much time in Cambodia, you’re likely aware of this curious cultural quirk: if you’re robbed from in a public area, one needs only to shout JAO (thief) really loudly a few times — and watch the locals suddenly emerge into the daylight with less-than-gentle intentions.
Then, there’s the classic Over Confident White Boy trap: assuming that since you’re a big six foot tall guy from England who took karate in middle school that you can totally take that wiry little Khmer motodop who’s getting in your face about 2000 riel.
This is an unfortunate logical fallacy, as many white boys have discovered to their own detriment that if you take a swing at one Khmer motodop, you have suddenly angered multiple motodops, many of whom were probably waiting all week for some idiot to try something. Your odds in this scenario of getting knifed, or at least curb-stomped a bit, are rather painfully high. Don’t do this.
We learned how to escape from a headlock and avoid having a beefy forearm get up under your chin, cutting off your windpipe. We practiced escaping when someone has your arms pinned behind your back, and how to use the force of someone tugging away at your handbag or smartphone against them.
We also learned how to throw someone off you who is attempting to rape you using merely the surprising power of your thighs, which was an incredibly awkward classroom exercise but was a rather cool jiujitsu technique.
No, a self-defense course will not turn you into a super warrior, and you should really distrust any ostensible instructor who claims he or she can render you a Rambo in the course of three hours. The point of this is different: confidence building, awareness.
“I don’t actually think this class will make me able to defend myself,” observed my friend Mary as we walked back from the course. “But it’s definitely made me feel more confident.”
That’s really the point: not creating super warriors, but giving people a sense that they actually can do something against aggression and violence that doesn’t involve curling up into a ball on the floor. That’s why you should take a self defense class.