The following is the Personal Statement for my proposed research/study project through the Fulbright Grant. It expresses a lot of what I’ve already expressed, and to some extent what I will forever be trying to express. It’s a process of unfolding the layers of understanding, so that each detail comes into focus.
In the spring of 2008 I began training Muay Thai out of the basement of my teacher’s home. My kru, called Master K, was then a 69-year-old Thai man and ex-fighter from Bangkok. He’d been devoted to Muay Thai for over a half-century and teaching the art to students in the US for longer than I’d been alive. His dedication is a testament to his love for the art and national sport of his home country, and his attention to details and the “finesse” of its practice infected me with a love for “Thai Boxing” very quickly.
Although Master K had been teaching Americans in Muay Thai for near three decades, I was one of only a few women he’d had as a student and in the 3.5 years that we’ve been training together I am the only woman he has brought to a level of competition fighting. It wasn’t an easy road to get to this point and there have been heated arguments between the two of us – the kind you might witness between a traditional father and defiant daughter over the opportunities awarded to modern women. Our relationship has grown to be more than a simple teacher/student dynamic toward one that might resemble a first-generation immigrant father/daughter relationship, complete with cultural clashes.
Muay Thai is integral to the history and tradition of Thailand and is an ideal of Thai masculinity; perhaps parallel to the cowboy or boxer in American romantic ideals. Its practice is steeped in ceremony, from how students are selected to how teachers are honored, from the way the body should look to the way the mind should be. Master K has spent half his life in the United States, performing the traditions and practices of his childhood joy, his national heritage and sport, his cultural gendered-ideal, and life-long passion in a foreign land, training strange students. He has been like a seed taking root in uncertain soil and so he is a complex cross of the old and the new – he didn’t change customs from the “golden age” of Muay Thai in Thailand, as those customs have changed in the homeland, and yet he has adapted to an entirely different culture in which his precious heritage must germinate. As a young, American woman I have been, perhaps, both the strangest and most fecund soil.
I adhere to the traditions of Muay Thai, especially the honor and respect of one’s teacher as well as the heritage and history of the art. I have studied Thai language and found that the more I learn it the greater is my understanding of the movements in Muay Thai, a correlation which I find to be both beautiful and curious. As I’ve trained, sparred and fought as an American woman, devoting hundreds upon hundreds of hours in order to understand it deeply, I’ve realized how little of the art can truly be learned from “the outside.” Only by traveling to Thailand and immersing myself in the daily workings of the culture can I come to understand what Muay Thai is in the context of society and gender identity to Thais, and only then can I truly understand what it is to me.
Coming from a women’s studies oriented college such as Sarah Lawrence I of course came in touch with diverse theories of gender and identity. I have always been fascinated not only intellectually, but emotionally, by what it means to be a woman in society. It’s curious that despite my rich academic background it was not until I took on this martial art, which embodies masculinity in another culture and experienced my surrogate father’s deep devotion to it, that I’ve come closest to these questions. I see before me the opportunity to study this art form in all its details and contours with the powers of my academic mind. To bring together the culture in which it lives – in myself and in my kru and “father” – and the gendered body to which it traditionally does not belong, in order to understand the hearts it binds.