When I moved to Hong Kong, one of the first things I asked locals, or expats who had been living here for a while, was what do you do when there is a typhoon? Their answers were pretty much what I expected: stay away from windows, make sure you have enough food and water if the storm… essentially everything we were told when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast a couple years ago. What surprised me most was how dutiful I was in following their advice. Just yesterday I realized that I have about 8L of water set aside and several days worth of food in my kitchen.
For as long as I can remember, I have been preparing myself for apocalyptic situations. When I was little, my family would go to REI on Fridays so that my brother and I could take advantage of the free rock climbing hours. As I waited for my turn, I would run off to the survival guide section. I was so fixated on learning how to collect rainwater, that sometimes I’d almost miss my turn on the wall. I was a bit bookish as a kid, devouring several volumes just hours after borrowing them from the library. But my obsession with survival guides wasn’t blind book consumption. I was afraid that if I was somehow abandoned in the wilderness, I would die because I didn’t know how to take care of myself.
Growing up, I had a very active imagination, which was evident in my fanciful drawings of fictitious dinosaurs. But what was a gift in art class became a curse when I tried to fall asleep at night. I always slept with my back against the wall so I could keep an eye out for any attackers. I was afraid that some criminal would sneak into my room and stab me in the back with a jeweled dagger. Some nights, closing my eyes was easy, but then I was afraid that if I opened them, I’d see a ghoulish monster hovering inches from my face.
These absurd fears of mine motivated me to learn various survival and self-defense skills. The swimming and rock climbing were natural picks for an active kid, but it took a bit of whining to convince my parents to let me take fencing, archery and karate classes. When my high school offered a self-defense class for female students, my mom casually suggested that I attend, only to realize it was unnecessary. While the other girls were getting coached on how to throw their weight into an elbow, I knocked the test dummy to the ground and giggled as I watched sand leak out of its side.
In college, my paranoia seemed a touch more “normal.” I practiced walking in straight lines, sprinting and holding my breath while hiding in bushes. I learned how to get away and stay hidden from campus safety when they broke up parties. At this point, it seemed natural to continue my education in self-defense. I didn’t think much when I jumped at the opportunity to be part of a Kung Fu production or when a friend offered to teach me how to use a gun.
Needless to say, my relatively newfound love for post-apocalyptic young adult fiction did nothing to calm my paranoid obsession with self-defense and survival skills. I used to spend a fair amount of time running on treadmills and ellipticals in lovely air-conditioned gyms, but after reading The Hunger Games, I started to do my cardio outside. While trudging through the sandy lagoon trails near my childhood home, I’d motivate myself with ridiculous thoughts: “If The Hunger Games was real, and it took place in your district, you better hope you have home turf advantage. Learning to run in sand is a MUST.”
I like to think that I’m a pragmatic person and that all of this paranoid behavior has a legitimate foundation. I never set out to master any of these skills I acquired. Realistically speaking, the toughest part of the apocalypse is the beginning because no matter the situation, your survival is basically left up to chance. If you get a shit hand, like you’re in the middle of a dense city when a zombie outbreak happens, you have to rely on the skills you have to get you out.
But I suppose the real reason why I keep picking up new self-defense skills is that I like to feel in control of my situation. I know that an apocalypse in any form would be chaotic and a certain amount of preparation eliminates the whole “I’m so fucked” line of thinking. That sense of calm afforded by functional preparation would allow me to make better decisions in a chaotic environment.
I like to think that I could be brave and be an asset to my friends in a time of crisis, but what am I supposed to do when it’s best to stay put and hide? The whole point of my arsenal of self-defense and survival skills was that I could be an active participant and get myself out of a terrible situation. Sitting and waiting in silence was the most difficult skill for me to learn. It requires patience and a mental strength that I’m not sure I have. I hate feeling like I could be doing something to help the ones that I care about, but am forced to wait it out. That feeling of helplessness and lack of control was what I wanted to avoid in the first place.
This morning, twenty-five of my thirty students did not attend class in support of the Occupy Central movement. It was hard for me to roll out of bed and teach when I knew my students were out there making history, after I spent a day hiding up in a tower in Braemar Hill. As it turns out, I had a lovely discussion about the recent events in HK with the five students that showed up. They explained that they were in class, not out of cowardice, but because they felt a responsibility to learn and that there were other means of achieving the same democratic goals that their more outspoken peers have taken to the streets for.
I realized that my desire to participate is really out of habit and emotional fervor than rational choice. I was more helpful in the classroom, discussing Western ideas of civil disobedience and the difference between intention and interpretation of action, than I would have been in the streets. As I returned to my office, I untied one of the yellow ribbons on the handrail of the stairwell and tucked it neatly in my pocket.