I got the gym a little after 4:00 this afternoon. It had rained heavily for almost an hour and the air was only recently cleared of the heaving movement of wind. Nook was directing two young western men in wrapping their hands and we chatted in broken Thai through different sides of the ring, asking each other whether or not another female fighter from the gym had won her bout the night before. Neither of us had attended the fight and, from what I could understand of Nook’s account of a 20 lbs chicken, he’d probably gone to a cock fight instead of the Muay Thai stadium.
I grabbed a broom with twigs instead of bristles from behind the gate to the house and started sweeping water from the area under some hanging bags into the gutter that runs the long side of the gym. Nook took the men over to the bags deeper in the gym and told them to start working. They weren’t completely lost, but seemed uncomfortable working on their own while Nook geared himself up on the side of the ring.
After putting the broom away I started doing joint rotations. My shoulders are sore from the fight and my shins feel tender in a few spots. I knew I probably shouldn’t kick on them yet, so I spent about 20 minutes warming up (to the point of fatigue) all the joints in my body. As I was rotating my shoulders a father appeared with his two young daughters, aged maybe 6 and 4 – all Thai. He looked at me as he passed and I nodded my head to him in a kind of informal show of respect. He handed the older daughter a pink jump rope and assisted his younger daughter to the bathroom.
The 6-year-old looked at me shyly and jiggled the handles of her jump rope so that the pink plastic snaked along the ground, but she didn’t jump. She was wearing long leggings and a T-shirt with a pink bandanna over her pigtails and a pink headband over the top of it all. She was maybe 4 feet tall and pretty overweight with a beautiful and expressive round face. Her dad and sister returned to her and the father started adjusting the length of her rope, talking to her in Thai and pointing to me while he made a gesture similar to how I had just been warming my shoulders. He seemed to be telling his daughter to do what I was doing. I think he was delighted to have a woman in the gym who his girls could look to.
The knuckles of my right hand were wrapped when I noticed that the dad was having a hard time getting his older daughter to jump rope. She clearly had never done it before and the mechanics can be tricky, plus she probably felt self-conscious with other people (the two men, Nook, me, et al) in the gym. So I took my wraps off and walked over to grab a jump rope before setting myself up next to the two girls in front of the mirror. I smiled at the older girl in the mirror and started jumping very slowly, showing the turn of the rope one rotation at a time. She grinned and her face split open, revealing a strong underbite. Her cheeks rounded out at the sides of her face but the corners of her mouth didn’t turn up, so it almost looked like a grimace or how alien creatures would imitate a smile in an animated film – in short, it was unbelievably endearing.
Her father told her to imitate me and she started trying to jump over the rope. She crossed her arms in front of herself, tangling the rope each time she came over her head, but she seemed happy to try. The father came over and fixed her grip and then looked at me and in English asked, “where you from?” I said America (nobody in Thailand seems to know what I mean when I say the US) and he pulled his younger daughter over to him as well, spoke quietly to both girls and then the older stepped toward me with her big smile and said, slowly but deliberately in English, “My name is Naam.” I smiled and said, in Thai, “My name is Sylvie.” All three started trying out the name Sylvie to varying degrees of success. It’s tricky in Thai – “l” is not a consonant sound that ends syllables and “v” is pronounced as a “w”, so even making the sound of a “v” (especially after the “l”) is difficult. To get even, however, try pronouncing the Thai “ng” as a single sound at the start of a syllable.
The younger girl refused to try out her English (too shy), but she did start following me around a little bit. Naam’s rope kept getting stuck on a bar of weights on the floor in front of her, so I moved it. The littler sister was so amazed that I could pick up that bar and move it – like it was magic – and when I moved back over to my wraps to start putting them on again I saw her scramble over to the bar and try to lift it. She squatted down and put both hands on the bar, right where I had, and pulled and pulled to no avail. She then looked over to her left and saw a 5 lbs dumbbell, which she quickly grabbed and started carrying around.
She seemed a little bored. They were clearly at the gym to help her older sister get some exercise and so their father’s attention was focused on getting Naam to jump rope, which was still proving difficult. Finally I walked back over and asked if she’d like to see how we jump rope in America. The father excitedly translated and Naam smiled her underbitten grin again. I handed one handle to her father and kept the other for myself and we slowly began turning the rope so that Naam could stand in the middle and just jump. She couldn’t quite jump in one place, so we kind of had to shuffle sideways to catch up to her, but it was the first time she jumped over the rope 5 consecutive times. She seemed really happy.
I started doing my own workout and the girls got in the ring as the two western men exited. They had their own little gloves – tiny little 4 oz gloves – in red and blue. Nook ducked out of the ring to do something and their father told them to spar a little. They excitedly swatted at each other and he started calling “Bao! Bao!” which means “light” or “gentle” and the girls giggled. When Nook came back into the ring he was beautiful in teaching them – one at a time – to stand at 3/4 stance and punch left and right. Eventually he took off his mitts and put on gloves and started “sparring” with Naam. He laughed his crazy laugh and backed himself into the ropes where Naam would throw a few punches at him, always trying to get his head, which was always safely behind his elbows.
I was starting my deadlifts and the younger sister pointed and started at me openly, telling her father to look. She seemed to think it was just amazing that I was picking these weights up – bigger than what I’d moved from the floor before – and I thought to myself that I could probably have her lift just the bar if she wanted to try it with me. But she stayed in the ring and started fiddling with the pink mitts. She wanted to hold for her dad, but he switched and wanted her to punch, which she didn’t seem into.
When I finished my lifts I went over to the side of the ring and started offering pronounced Oi! exclamations to each of the punches Naam landed on Nook. She chased him, grinning and laughing, her beautiful and bizarre grimace-smile looking wild as she tracked him into the ropes and started kicking his shin when he covered up. She smelled blood, that little one and she loved it. I tried to film her but my camera’s battery was dead, so I just watched. After about 10 minutes in total she was starting to get out of breath. She was still grinning, her teeth all bared as she gasped and made little grunts of exhaustion, throwing a single punch or pawing at Nook as he got near her. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so taken by a little kid. Nook released her and she went over to the corner to get some water from her dad. I looked at Nook and raised my hand toward the blue corner (the color of her gloves) as a ref does to indicate the winner and Nook raised his eyebrows. Even in play he does not like to lose and he put his arms up to protest the decision.
After packing up my bag and slinging it over my shoulders I walked over to the father and wai-ed to him to say goodbye and he said, in English “very happy to meet you.” Then I waved at Naam who was standing in the middle of the ring with one glove on and she waved wildly, her face as open as her palm and she said, “bye bye!” which I repeated and she laughed. My last image of her was as she stood there, both arms limply at her sides with one blue glove and that uninhibited, unprotected underbite smile.