The afternoons at Petchrungruang have been crowded lately. I’m sitting in a somewhat unusual spot between the two rings, rolling my wraps. I’m sitting here because my usual spot on a bench across the gym has already been usurped by a few Italians who train in the evenings; it’s a wrench in my routine, but a sublimely mild one. My friend Robyn is visiting from the US and will have a fight next week. She looks at me while we sit and adjust our wraps, “What do you want to work on today?” Robyn asks. I’m stumped. There are things I work on everyday, but they’re very small things. When you tune a violin you have two places to adjust the strings: 1) up by the “scroll” at the very top of the violin there are black pegs, around which each string is wrapped. You turn the peg to tighten or loosen the strings by centimeters; and 2) down by the “bridge” at the base of the violin there are metal pegs, tiny turns make small adjustments to the strings. You run your bow over the strings to play the note or pluck the string with your finger while you twist the black pegs at the top, then finish up the fine detail at the little metal pegs. This is what my training is like; it’s like “tuning,” very, very strenuous tuning. So, I’m always working on getting in tune and a big part of that is mental, getting myself to a place of relaxed aggression so the things that I already know can come out.
I’m so used to my routine though that even having to verbalize it kind of makes me pause. I forget that all of this, all of it, is pretty alien to someone like Robyn who isn’t familiar with the sights, sounds, language, smells, trainers, the kids, the bags, the equipment, the training regiment, the techniques… all of it is like a sensory overload. I forget that the bizarre smells or choking smoke from burning chilies that waft over from the restaurant at the front of the garage aren’t even identifiable to her: “where is that coming from and what the hell is it?” are reasonable responses. Being thrown into clinch with the Thai kids and not knowing “what I’m supposed to do or work on,” is disorienting – I remember being lost when I was first thrown in back in February 2014 – but now I’ve adjusted to the process and accepted the uncertainty. Not knowing the rules, the technique, or even having a language with which to communicate with your partners is overwhelming. But Robyn’s handling it well. Seeing her see everything for the first time re-awakens my awareness as well. Things I take for granted or don’t notice anymore suddenly have bold outlines again.
For me, having another woman at Petchrungruang to train with is freeing. We can just jump in the ring and spar together without any worry – the boys have this with each other because of their equal status to each other, their ages, their familiarity, and their freedom within their gender and culture and language. Normally, I have to climb some kind of curb in order to get work in with them – I have to ask someone in order to make it happen. They don’t communicate with each other; they just get in the ring and start playing. With Robyn here, it’s the same for us. We just share a look and put our equipment on and it’s go-time. We share the same relationship with each other that the boys do, so we don’t have to ask. It’s incredible. When I lived in Berlin I did my best to only speak German, something my roommate Micha helped me with and insisted upon as well. It was the only way to fluency and it worked. But the times I could talk on the phone in English with my family was this same kind of freedom – the comfort of one’s own language when you’ve been reaching, even with growing ease and success, in a language that is your second. Being the only female – or even just being female at all in a male space – is like navigating in a second language. You may become fluent, but it’s always a slight distance away from your native tongue.
And there is strangeness to it, too. In the mornings at Petchrungruang and I’m the only one training 95% of the time. When there are other people in the mornings they’re not training like I do. Some guys just skip rope and do weights; some will putt around until it’s their turn on the pads and then leave shortly after. So even if there are other people there, given the disparity of what we’re doing it’s like I’m in my own space anyway. Even doing knees at the end of training with Robyn on the bag, where I do a set and then she does her set and we alternate back and forth until we’re finished… it’s just so nice. This is how the kids train, with partners, with gymmates and buddies and brothers and all the kinship words you can think of. It makes a huge difference to be sharing the work, the task, the fatigue and getting the tired-giggles with someone else, with a friend. It means a lot; maybe not even something I can put into words exactly. The difference between me and we is so tiny; and it isn’t.