Jackie Ho: remembering our heritage and power through martial arts

This is part of our 5-part series where we share stories from LA-based community members and leaders on reconnecting with and reimagining their identities. We hope these stories ignite some deeper conversations for you, too, because we believe that this journey of self-discovery makes us stronger and fuller as individuals and community members. 


Jackie Ho
Ex-pastry chef turned ninja warrior Barbie

How does your heritage affect your life? 

It is the defining part of my life as a Vietnamese-Chinese, first born of Vietnam War refugees.

I think about my heritage through the lens of martial arts because I think that's a stereotype that has been so negative. When I started learning it, I felt really ashamed about it because it would always be reinforced through conversation even on the street with random strangers. Like “Oh, you're Asian. You must know Kung Fu or Karate.” And I even had some people tell me, ‘you should learn it in order to be part of the film and entertainment industry.’ At that point, I felt one: shame and resistance around it, because I didn't want to be defined by just that. But later on, it took me ten plus years to really incorporate balance in my life and it actually has made me feel complete. So it was at one time a point of contention and now a point of liberation for me. One because martial arts make us feel powerful. Also as an Asian woman. I don't also want to be perceived as weak. That’s the one thing that has made me feel stronger, more confident, and also have peace of mind as well and a deeper rootedness to my culture. Just being Asian, wanting to make this stereotype more of a superpower. And that's what I'm working towards right now, actually: being a superhero. 

Tell us about your mom.

Honestly, she'd be an amazing travel influencer because she’s just a little adventurer. She's a young mom. She had me when she was 20. And I actually have learned a lot from her to relax in life even though she works so hard - she's the one that always tells me to have fun, that I work too hard. I’m like, “Mom, either this or that, like, make up your mind!” I think America has had a really good influence on her in that way, by opening up her mind to more possibilities in the world to feel happier and not pressured by expectations. She really adopted that and I do thank her for not being so traditionally Asian and so strict. She really gave me free rein because I showed independence since I left for college. And she's like, “Do you, be happy. I can't control anything you do, as long as you’re well and healthy.” 

That's what a lot of Asian parents want for their kids at the end of the day, despite all the added layers of responsibility they have, just because status and having recognition in society and community is really important to them. 

Everyone is tight-knit and when thinking about the presentation of myself and my family in the community, I do think about it as a way to show up stronger, better, more interesting, and showing that the American lifestyle can be infused with Asian traditions in a way that's balanced. It’s not either or, and that’s what a lot of us are figuring out right now. 

What is your relationship with your heritage like? 

I realized that I’m a quarter Chinese when I was 13. My mom just flat out told me in the kitchen, “You realize that your dad's half Chinese, right?” And I was like, “Wait… what? You just told me this now?”

But then it started making sense. My grandmother spoke in Mandarin and Cantonese which I didn't understand at the time. I knew it was Chinese. But then it just never got explained somehow in the family conversations. But then my mom told me that my dad's half Chinese, which makes me a quarter. And I was like, “Okay, cool. That explains the height, I guess.” But I also realized that that makes me still fully Asian, but just the different ethnicities within our community makes us so rich with different traditions and rituals. I've been learning how to communicate being Vietnamese Chinese and not just Vietnamese, even though I grew up with Vietnamese traditions, food, and music.

But, I am learning to really absorb [these cultures] because the martial arts that I practice come from different Asian cultures. So I feel like that's integrating parts of me and respecting it through people who are ethnically true to their culture. I practice samurai swordsmanship, which is traditionally Japanese. I feel like culturally, behaviorally, I'm more Japanese.

Through film and entertainment, I always want to be very careful about how I present myself, especially when I'm being cast as characters like a ninja who has a katana. I have to always explain that I know it’s how I present it because I'm very passionate about the culture and of course it's such an iconic symbol in all the film and the lore.

But everything I do is in respect to culture. For Japanese, I have to be very mindful whenever I communicate casting. I also practice Silat, which is an Indonesian martial arts, with a lot of jungle, deep-rooted movements. All these martial arts come from a mode of survival in really tough environments. Everything that is enacted, like rituals and ceremonies come from these ancient, old, really distilled and simple honorings of nature and human conditions. 

I feel like it's going to be a lifelong journey in learning about my heritage because it's going to incorporate so many others. While I’m by blood Vietnamese-Chinese, but by spirit, I’m all these things because I choose to practice in these ways. 

It's the most exciting thing right now for me because I love learning about cultures through martial arts, because that tells me how people have survived, what their mindsets were like, and how they also live their lives around these modalities. 

The martial arts community is pretty tight knit in L.A., especially amongst the Asian community. Someone I talked to once shared how martial arts really changes your mindset on life because in the morning you go get your ass kicked. That's definitely the hardest thing you do that day. And then you go about life and everything feels like a breeze comparatively.

What I like about martial arts is it is not just you doing a thing, but it's your response to something. Someone throws a punch and then you dodge or you react to that. And then they also do that same dance when you initiate a movement. I love when I get to talk to people who do martial arts. Everyone seems so grounded yet very fiery too, which is a really cool duality. It's awesome. 

You build the fire pit in order for the flame to survive. However much air is there, you watch out for the rain. Martial arts is a language. It’s something you physically do and act upon. It's all non-verbal and you really get to know a person through the way that they respond. It doesn't matter what they say.

I’ve rolled with people in Jujitsu. They seem nice and really respectful, but when it comes down to it, you see what their true heart is and how they respond to your body. Some people are who they say they are, and it really shows in their practice. But sometimes there’s a dissonance.  

Are there values surrounding the art of the fight? 

It’s really interesting that martial arts are rooted in values. Anyone can take it however they want; they can adapt certain aspects of it that they love, especially the physicality. If their heart or spirit isn’t at peace, it comes out in a way that’s aggressive. It’s always a really interesting dance. To each their own. I’ve only been practicing for two years in mixed style, like a medley. 

Bruce Lee said it first. I love what he said about taking everything and then making it your own -- you can take out what doesn’t make sense and leave the essentials. Like I said, I’m practicing six martial arts styles right now at about the same time. So that means that's six different mindsets, ceremonies, and understandings of its histories. 

People ask me, “How can you compute all this?” Honestly, I’m still trying to answer that question through practicing because I unpacked my heritage, the meaning of it, and the rootedness of it about two years ago because I felt like something was missing as we were just coming out of the pandemic with all this stuff about Asian hate. 

Seeing how our communities were so affected made me question through pain, which gave me more perspective. Even though it’s painful and uncomfortable, I needed to get back into it in a way that makes me feel powerful and just understand where this all comes from. I'm still unpacking. It’s not a pretty journey and it’s not clean either, but I just know that my spirit is so strong right now because it's strong enough to take on all these different paths. 

Knowing me right now, it’s either extreme where I go in hard or I just don't do it at all. I have to give my all. There's just something in me that won’t stop wanting to answer these deep questions. I might not ever get the right answer, but I know I'm learning so much and that makes me feel more myself and the more connected the more I do it.

Was there a moment that made you consciously think about your relationship with your heritage? 

The moment that really woke me up about being Asian was during all of the Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. The idea seemed foreign to me at first. Then when it really hit me, I would cry every single time I'd see someone who could be my grandmother or my grandfather get really hurt then die. It made me feel like I wanted to step up and be a hero or a voice of justice. 

I kept thinking about what that would look like. I wanted to join in the conversation on social media, to show up in the chat rooms and seminars and talks that people were having. There was so much going on and everyone was just trying to do something and give, which I love. Banding together to really share and grow from the pain together. 

For me, sometimes it’s not enough - you need to act. The myth that Asian people don’t fight back is such a disheartening stereotype that made me angry. I don’t like bullying. I remember when I was younger, there were a bunch of kids that picked on my brother since he was the only Asian boy in the group, and I had the ball in my hand at the handball courts, ready to go off. 

But that was the only instance I remember since then that made me feel really, really angry. I felt like I've been like a passive consumer as an outsider looking in until the pandemic. If I couldn’t just show up and be like a superhero taking these guys down, I’m going to do it in a way that makes sense. 

Actually, I'm learning now that all the martial arts I’m learning are sick and very much like Batman. But for me it was just more about how I can use my voice, my body, and my whole spirit to show that the Asian community is strong, especially as a woman, too. Breaking down all these barriers of these stereotypes since we all need each other to show up in this way, to show that it’s possible and reinforce the contrast of what other people are telling us what we are not.

I want to be the one who’s like, “You know her? You see her fighting?” I want to do that, too. I want to be that person. I never ever want to see an Asian woman being victimized or taken advantage of. I’ve had those experiences in college with a bunch of Caucasian guys thinking that they could get their way because I won’t fight back or was too afraid. But not now. It made me really want to be there for my people, or anyone in general who are the oppressed underdogs who are bullied because of how they are or how they are presented in the world because of race or gender. I never ever want to see anyone be in a position where they can’t fight for themselves. 

What are your dreams for our community?

I definitely want our community to stay involved with each other, to learn, to share, especially through food, and through the fight as well, especially through martial arts. The more we do it, the better it gets, every day. And Brandon’s right: you just do the hard things first in order to get through the day. But that also shows such a strong state of resilience that really defines our community. The more we tap into that and remember that we are resilient because we’ve gone through so much already. We can’t undo the past, but we can create a new future, especially with how we raise our kids, stay involved with community, produce and create things in the world, and contribute through art, entertainment, sports, and through all the avenues you can think of that makes us beautiful and recognized.

I also want everyone to take care of their mental health. Our society right now is so saturated and moving really fast, with technology and questions of existence like do we really matter? Yeah, we still do. We just have to keep remembering. Society makes us try to forget or get distracted. We need to do things that are rooted and make us more grounded. 

I'm really passionate about showing up in entertainment, as a figure for other people to look up to. I had a dream about this when I was younger where I was a performer, but then I forgot about it as I forgot myself. Now in the last two years, I've been remembering, which is really nice.

I don't remember a time when I wasn't practicing martial arts or being in film or entertainment. It's just so wild. Once I started embodying everything that I forgot, I felt like I was reborn. But in a way, as if I remember who I am. 

That's what I want us to do: to keep remembering. Life's too short. Our memories can be fleeting, but they can also be beautiful the more that we practice traditions like with martial arts or just stay curious.

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