Nong Jeen is trainer Neung’s six-year-old daughter. She lives most of the time with Neung’s mother, probably due to school – it’s not unusual at all in Thailand for the rearing of children to be shared by extended family while parents work – and we see her at the gym on long weekends or during breaks in the regular school year.
I like Nong Jeen. She kind of flits around the gym, vacillating between hyper and playful and then placing herself in the way of things in quiet, though persistent, search for attention. A few months ago I was walking through Tesco Lotus, the ubiquitous convenience store that I would call “the 7-11 of Thailand” were it not for the fact that there is a 7-11 every 20 feet here, but I saw a little make-your-own necklace kit with pastel colored plastic beads and thought immediately that Nong Jeen would love it. It was 60 Baht ($2), so I bought it and ended up having to hold on to it for 5 months before she returned to the camp from school and stayed long enough for me to have a chance to give it to her. She loved it and made me a necklace to keep, as well as giving me two or three Mother’s Day cards (the holiday break which allowed her to return from school). I’m not great with kids. I don’t find them very interesting and never spent much time around them so I don’t know how to give them attention in a way that is any different from an adult. Strangely, kids dig this and giving a present to a little girl for no reason at all is also a guarantee that I will have her favor.
The necklace Nong Jeen made for me.
I feel a little bit bad that I can’t give Nong Jeen a lot of attention, but I have noticed her around the gym writing on the blackboard and whiteboard, imitating the writing for fight announcements. (Incidentally, I’ve seen Tor (18 years old) do this, too.) Just the other day I had written a note on the board about Big’s fight in Bangkok, even though nobody could go see it, just so the camp was aware of this accomplishment and could think of Big for support. I wrote in English, but at the bottom I wrote in Thai the phrase Chok Dee โชคดี, which means “good luck.” I saw the next morning that the word had been copied to the right and assumed, actually, that I’d spelled it incorrectly (I hadn’t). Upon closer inspection it was no doubt Nong Jeen trying her hand at Thai writing.
Because she’s so clever – and bored – and without much to do around the camp aside from when Den’s nephews are around and she can play with them on the bags and hit the pads a little bit, I thought it might be fun for her (and me) and a gesture of good will toward her parents, who I like very much, to teach her a little English. I had tutored a young Thai girl just a little bit older than Nong Jeen earlier in the year but had to stop doing so because it was too tiring with my schedule. I’d had success using a coloring book to teach Nong Ploy (the girl I tutored) colors in English, having her ask for each color by its name in English when she wanted to select it for her coloring project. (“Nong” in Thai is used to indicate the title of a little brother or little sister, “Pi” is for an elder sibling. So her name is Jeen and “Nong” is added to make it affectionate, like, “Little Sister.” It’s pretty ubiquitous in how one calls young kids.)
I bought a My Little Pony coloring book and a box of crayons and tracked Nong Jeen down at the gym. She was trying to help Not with sweeping and was not doing a great job handling the broom, which is twice as big as she is. But Not was being patient with her, despite his obvious dislike of both the task at hand and having to guide her at the same time. She was uncertain of my intentions when I first pulled her over to the ring and showed her the crayons, but when I explained (in Thai) that we’d be learning the names of colors she actually hopped off the ring and ran into her apartment, emerging a moment later with a school notebook and pen. Girl comes prepared! So I wrote all the colors from the box in English, then spelled them phonetically in the Thai alphabet. I’m not sure how much she reads Thai yet, but I pronounced each color in English and then told her the equivalent in Thai and she’d select out the crayon and make a small block of color next to the appropriate word. This was her new cheat sheet, or something her parents could look at and remind her the English name of the color if she forgot, by reading the phonetic Thai spelling.
Then she started coloring the image of the pony. She referenced the front cover of the book in order to make some of her color selections, which I thought was amazing. Thai kids (and adults) are strongly averse to making mistakes and she must have been interpreting in her own mind that there were correct colors for the image, rather than having free choice – like looking at the box cover on an unsolved puzzle. She did start picking colors based on how the image was developing, choosing far more red and black than I would have expected, given her girly disposition. But that again is a western import on my part – pink is not a “girly” color in Thailand. It’s a lucky, high-energy color and men have no problem at all in wearing it. Black is a bit of a surprise nonetheless as it is a morbid color for Thais – they will not wear black to visit someone in the hospital, for example – but I suspect that Nong Jeen’s selection for the black was actually because she and I (and everyone she knows) both have black hair, so the Pony got black hair, too.
Little Neung on his perch above the ring at the gym.
As Nong Jeen lay on her belly with her feet inside the ring and her face just inches away from the paper, her chin-length and jet-black hair falling like a curtain in front of her face, “little” Neung (not Nong Jeen’s father, a Thai fighter age 18-19) walked over in his Muay Thai shorts and stood in silence for a full minute watching her color. He was trying to discern what was going on but his brow was furrowed, almost fatherly. I told him in Thai that we were learning color names and he picked up the green crayon and demanded Nong Jeen pronounce the color. She looked up and smiled shyly – Neung demanded the color more forcefully and Nong Jeen said, almost smirking, “see kiaow!” (Green, in Thai.) Neung puffed his chest and told her “Green! Greeeeeen!” then looked at me and asked for validation, which I gave. Then he picked up the second green crayon, a darker shade and asked me what it was called. I told him, “both are green,” then pointed to each and indicated “light green, dark green.” Neung’s eyes shot open wide and he repeated “daak green” without the “r”, a tricky sound to be in a dipthong in Thai. I nodded because his pronunciation was close enough and I thought he was just missing the “r,” but then he took the two crayons and flipped around to face Not, who was sitting on the edge of a tire on the floor a few feet away, putting on his running shoes. Neung yelled “daak green!” at Not and then stabbed the tips of the two crayons into his chest, yelled it again and then stabbed him in the belly. Not fell into the center of the tire with his butt and got a little bit stuck, not quite able to defend himself.
Neung is older than Not, so there’s not a great deal Not could do anyway, but he protested verbally that it was “daRk” not “daak”. Then he looked at me for confirmation. His pronunciation was better and I nodded. Neung kept yelling and stabbing Not, then Not asked me again, spelling in English, “D-A-R-K, daRk, mai?” (mai = right?) At that moment, as Neung yelled again, giggling and getting ready to jab the crayons into Not’s side, I realized that he was saying DOG green. He was using the crayons as canine teeth, biting Not like a dog… dog green! “Oh! No, no, not dog,” I said, trying hard not to laugh so that Neung wouldn’t be embarrassed, “dark, daaark green. Like daytime ‘light’, nighttime ‘dark’,” I offered.
Neung’s smile disappeared. “Oh,” he said, throwing the crayons back onto the wooden step that I was sitting on, “I thought you say dog green.” Obviously, that’s less fun.