I’m standing in the ring just a few feet away from my trainer, Sangwean. He’s father to the best female fighter in the world, 12-year-old Phetjee Jaa O. Meekhun, and she’s kind of puttering around in the periphery while our padwork rounds are on the 1-minute break. A little kid whose name I never learned is in charge of the clock, so his actual job for the 20 minute duration of padwork is to sit there holding an analogue clock and watching the seconds hand circle around the face, yelling out lem dtua! (“Get ready!”) as a 5-second warning and then an extended leeeeeerrrrm! (“Begin!”) as the minute hand starts a new 5-minute round.
I’m not feeling good about this padwork. It’s not a matter of anything physical, in fact, my kicks and punches are strong and my balance is great. It’s all mental and it’s all external. Sangwean calls out for three kicks on one side, then he holds for a combination, and then he stops for a moment, his hands down at his sides with the Thai pads dangling in front of his thighs while he looks me square in the face and tells me in laundry-list form all the things I did wrong in my last fight. Mawin, Sangwean’s son and Jee Jaa’s 14-year-old brother, takes a moment to add to the list, saying that I “didn’t really block” so well in the fight either. Thanks for the input, Mawin. It’s annoying to have him egging Sangwean on like this, but I also acknowledge that Mawin gets it way worse than I do and to have this kind of attention focused on anyone else probably is a real treat for him. I’m lucky, actually, in that Sangwean is almost always making fun of me when he criticizes me like this, whereas with Mawin there aren’t many laughs involved. I learned as a bartender that you can say practically anything to someone and as long as you say it with a smile, you’ll likely get your point across without a big incident. Thais use this same tactic when criticizing each other (so long as it’s rolling downhill; criticizing someone of higher social standing is never done with a laugh, but always a whisper).
My other trainer, Kru Nu at Petchrungruang, uses physical impersonation to disassemble his fighters. All my trainers have been ruthless in their imitation of fault in westerner’s style, choosing a foible and exaggerating it to the point of comedy. It is funny – I’ve always laughed – but it’s also true enough and humiliating enough that it hurts a bit. Kru Nu does this incredible imitation of the way one of his fighters, an Italian boy named Alex, keeps his butt back during fights and this results in his knees not having power in the clinch. I do it, too, although much less so. I think it’s a western thing in that we are far less comfortable pressing our pelvises toward or into another person due to cultural taboos; Thai men don’t have this cultural restriction toward one another, so the ass-back posture isn’t something they default to. Kru Nu makes his feet even, then he bends his knees slightly, sticks his butt way back and waddles forward and back, looking a lot like a baby falling over an imaginary yoga ball. He makes his face into a surprised, dopy expression to really sell the point. It’s very funny, but because it’s also true and simply an exaggerated version of what is actually happening in Alex’s posture, it’s quite embarrassing as well. He’ll defend his fighters tooth and nail against anyone who says something negative, but to the face of his young fighters the tool of shame and disappointment is used with a surgeon’s focus to reshape his fighters.
That’s what I’m experiencing here in the ring with Sangwean, during evening padwork. It’s not because I did poorly in the fight. I won, as a point of fact, and even dominated but I’m doing much better in fights now than I had been before. It’s because I’m getting better that I’m now being subjected to Sangwean’s in-my-face criticisms. He’s investing more in me and so he’s expecting more of me, he’s even tried to rename me after his daughter…Phetjee jee, something that even though its a compliment I refuse. It’s a double-edged sword because I’m being integrated more into the camp and the family, but a sign of that – or a symptom of that – is being “treated like a Thai.”
There are numerous ways in which I’m not a traditional nakmuay: I’m western, I’m not young, I’m female, the way I train and fight, etc. Many of these things make me an outsider upon outsider and trainers don’t always know what to do with me. Kru Nu doesn’t want me to fight because I’m a woman, Sangwean can’t talk to me like he does his kids because I’m not a child, westerners bring money to the gym without it being our bodies that earn the cash-flow the way young Thai fighters do. I’m often keenly aware of how not Thai I am and for the years that I’ve been in Thailand it has pretty consistently been an obstacle for me. I’m treated differently because I am different. In a lot of ways, it’s to my deficit. But for all the times I’ve wished I could just be accepted the way that males are, regardless of their skill or dedication level, it turns out that “being treated like a Thai” isn’t all positive. In some ways, like in this example of being made fun of, criticized, and quite frankly torn down even when you win, being treated like a Thai sucks.
There is a phrase, “A confident fighter is a dangerous fighter.” I reckon this is doubly true in Thailand, where there is a cultural hierarchy that employs shame and harsh criticism to correct behavior. If you can be a confident fighter while all that’s going on, you have an iron will and your confidence is fucking real. And I do believe that the fighters who thrive have come out of this. There’s a fighter at Petchrungruang who is one of the top ranked fighters in Thailand. He’s only 17 years old and Kru Nu often tells me about how horrible PTT (that’s the fighter’s name) was only a few years ago. He had a pbum pbui body, which just means he hadn’t lost his baby fat, and he lost all the time. Gamblers hated him, promoters used him as a stepping-stone for other fighters, he just wasn’t good. Then his body changed and all those years he’d kept fighting despite losing, despite all the criticism and disappointment, all that was in the bank and suddenly he was good; he was great.
In a lot of ways the criticism and mockery of young fighters is something that molds kids; there’s not so much of this going on by the time a fighter is in his late-teens or early 20’s. There’s probably a lot of self-shaming by that point. I’m lucky in that the shit-talking to my face is still presented in the package of a joke. I’m not laughing here in the ring while Sangwean is tearing me apart; I’m actually pretty pissed and it’s showing. In this scenario, my attitude is the one that’s out of line. Sangwean and Mawin digging into me is perfectly normal. I’ve actually seen it with other little kids, getting their hard-knocks after fights for a few days before the shaming tails off and it’s just back to work. I’m being treated like a little kid, but a little bit more smiling involved because I’m not quite that deep in there yet. And ultimately it’s a good thing, even if it feels like shit.
Here is a the last round of padwork on one such night, after the criticism had gone on for many rounds, where you can see how really pissed I am