Learning to Read Affection in Thai Muay Thai – Lessons from my Father

My dad is not a complicated guy. The things he needs to be comfortable and happy are very simple and have largely been the same for the 32 years...

My dad is not a complicated guy. The things he needs to be comfortable and happy are very simple and have largely been the same for the 32 years I’ve known him. The difficulty is in learning how to discern his love, because he’s not an affectionate guy. He didn’t come from an affectionate family. And my mother is the opposite. You know she loves you because she tells you all the time, showers you with praise and is physically affectionate, makes time to come to your endless violin recitals and soccer games and all that. As I got older and I learned to see where my dad was coming from, what his motivations were and kind of interpret his demonstrations of love, I found that he was a very loving man after all. My mom’s love is the tear-jerker love story, my dad is the art-house film that requires a lot of interpretation. But I love them both, and feel loved by both, equally.

This post isn’t about my dad. I use his example to show how things are not always as they seem. About a year ago my parents were visiting and we went to a temple that Kevin and I really love, where there’s a huge Phra Rahu shrine. As we were walking back to our car we spotted a small statue of a vibrant, silver rooster. Written in gold under is feet are the words “Rung Ruang” (รุ่งเรือง) which means flourish, be prosperous, but is also the last name of my trainer’s family. The gym name “Petchrungruang” just adds the word diamond to their name. So we very excitedly bought this beautiful silver statue, totally giddy by the fact that it said the family name on it, and the next day I gave it to the Patriarch of the gym, Bamrung – my trainer’s father and the founder of the gym. He was very sweet about it and asked me where we’d bought it. Those things are important in Thailand, what temple something comes from means a whole lot. I didn’t know the name of the temple at the time and just told him it’s the one with the giant reclining Ganesha and the Rahu. That probably didn’t sound great, but I never saw the rooster again.

Here’s the thing, and I learned this from Master K at first: when you give a gift to an old-school Thai person, they thank you and then just kind of put it aside. If it’s wrapped, they won’t even open it in front of you. Culturally, it’s just a, “thanks, I’ll deal with this later,” kind of response. It’s so weird to the American cultural palate to not watch someone tear the wrapping apart, act like it’s the best thing they’ve ever received, and then display it prominently for a while so the giver feels all grand about the gesture. That’s not the Thai way. So, I knew this part, but there’s this huge shrine outside the family house that has lots of bird statues next to lots of real-bird cages. Bamrung loves birds. But I never saw the rooster appear and that’s where I expected it to go. My inference was that maybe it was an inappropriate gift in some way. Like, maybe if your name is “Johnny Cash,” it’s not that awesome if someone hands you a sign that happens to have the word “cash” on it in the context of the everyday word. Or if your name is Shoemacher, it’s not awesome to have someone give you a shoe. Maybe it’s like that for the Rungruang name.

That was a year ago. Just the other day Pi Nu pulled me into his house, attached to the gym, to show off the trophy that his son Bank had won by coming in second place at a semi-local 10k race. Only the first three finishers got trophies and Bank was at the young end of the age group, so Pi Nu was really proud. I go in their house all the time – it adjoins the gym –  as it doubles as both their livingroom and also a small convenience store, where I buy water for training, or where Pi Nu makes me come help him understand how to use whatever vitamins or protein powder he just bought. But there’s this room to the side that’s all enclosed by glass walls and a sliding door. It’s the TV room and I’ve only been in there once when I used Pi Nu’s computer to type up a fighter contract that I’d translated into English. So, I pass by this room every day but have only gone into it once. Now, Pi Nu slides open the door to point at the truly lovely trophy that Bank won in his race; it’s in the form of a statue.

bank trophy

this is the trophy Bank, Pi Nu’s son, won – it is now on a table of family keepsakes.

The trophy was on a table, next to two other statues and behind them were some framed photos of very old monks. This is also common in Thai households, to have a kind of “lineage” of monks from local temples, or even nationally famous monks. To my utter astonishment, at the center of the table, right in front of Bank’s new prize, was the silver rooster I’d given Bamrung a year ago. There it was, and there it had been all this time. It wasn’t tucked away somewhere in a box or attic, some inappropriate gift that had been accepted and stashed… it was presented in an important part of the house. I’d expected it to go on the spirit house shrine outside because I don’t know anything and that’s where I thought to put it – when it didn’t go there, I stupidly assumed it hadn’t gone anywhere.  Imagine thinking that someone didn’t care at all about the card you sent them and then a year later you see that’s it’s been displayed on their fireplace mantel this whole time. My response to this, the feeling that it evoked in me at seeing it after all this time with all this context flooding in, was, “holy shit… my father does love me!”

Petchrungruang Rooster Gift - Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu-w1400

the rooster I gave Bamrung

And there are other moments like this. I can feel totally ignored at times and, quite frankly, I understand that I do not pose the kind of possibility to the gym that a Thai boy does. I’ll never grow into a Lumpinee Champion; I can’t even fight on the opener shows that the 12-year-old kids do, the kind of “gateway” to Lumpinee. I get that and, while it’s a tough pill to swallow, I accept it. It never feels good to feel unappreciated. But then there’s some sudden revelation, something less tangible than seeing the rooster on the indoor shrine, but maybe a bit more like when after a year and a half of finding fights for myself outside of Pattaya because Pi Nu never bothered to look for me locally, suddenly he’s booking me fights every couple of weeks. He’s sharing photos of me on the gym facebook page. This isn’t him taking interest out of nowhere; the recognition of me has always been there but I didn’t know how to see it – because I expected it to be expressed in a way that it just isn’t. And now I see it everywhere. It’s in the way Pi Nu pushes me on the pads, the way he defends me and boasts about me to the elders of the gym (his uncles) or promoters who come through; it’s in the fact that he never cheers for me when I’m dominating the boys in clinch, because he expects me to. That’s not a small thing. That’s not even “reading into it”; that’s just learning that just because someone doesn’t love you the way you expect, doesn’t mean they don’t love you better than you could have imagined.

petchrungruang group

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Fight FamilyMuay ThaiPetchrungruang Gym

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay


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