It’s been important to me to learn the Thai language. I started my lessons on my first trip out to Thailand in 2010 by a kind of accident. While trying to contact a woman who had flyers up around town announcing that she taught English, I stumbled into an elementary school near the gym in Chiang Mai to try to ask them if they knew where the map on the fliers was pointing to and instead of helping me find the private lessons the ladies in the office of the school offered to teach me Thai every day for free. It was pretty incredible. So, a very sweet and soft (in personality and in body) woman named May was my first teacher. When I returned to the US I took up Skype lessons with a great teacher in NY named Titcha, who started me out in my goal to learn how to read and write. Once we moved back to Thailand in 2012 for our extended stay I took lessons weekly from Kru Simon in Chiang Mai in person (he’s also available for Skype lessons to anywhere in the world) and I reached a growing literacy through those lessons.
Thai in Stages – Experiences
The first thing that happens in Thailand when you start speaking Thai to those you come across on a daily basis – in stores, in restaurants, taxis and share trucks, some of your trainers – is that Thais are incredibly happy to see you try to speak Thai. Even when you’re total shit at it, they’ll tell you how good your Thai is and they’re always keen to try to figure out what you’re saying even if it’s unintelligible. In Chiang Mai, for sure. When I moved to Pattaya and my Thai was already much better, the response from the merchants and various folks I was interacting with was overwhelmingly one of surprise. There are a lot of western tourists and expats in Pattaya, same as Chiang Mai, but they’re entirely different sets. In Chiang Mai it’s Brits, Canadians and maybe some Americans of the backpacker and hippie variety. In Pattaya it’s Russians, Germans and Americans of the gross old man variety – many of the tourist-oriented signs are in Cyrillic rather than English – and apparently the effort toward speaking any Thai is pretty low here in Pattaya. When I ordered hot ginger tea from a street vendor on our second night in Pattaya, his mouth dropped open when I spoke Thai – which was literally just “I’d like one hot ginger tea, please” – and he asked me why I speak Thai. It’s become a conversation I have fairly regularly when interacting with people for the first time in Pattaya. They’re always incredibly positive about it, which is nice because the separation between the western and tourist surface of Pattaya and the depth of Thai culture that rests just underneath it is one that I actually like.
That’s speaking Thai. When you first start to be able to understand Thai, it’s another thing entirely. The first thing I noted when I started to be able to pick up on conversations around me was how funny Thais are. They talk an incredible amount of shit about everyone and make jokes about everything. The humor is full of sarcasm and is always a little sexual to a degree that’s cheeky and generally at the expense of another, younger male. (Keep in mind I spend 90% of my time around only men in gyms, so I’m talking about being in the virtual locker room of a Thai gym rather than at a school or wherever else folks might find themselves in non Muay Thai situations.)
And that brings me to the current stage of comprehension. Now that I can both speak and understand Thai (with a moderate vocabulary), I am privy to conversations going on about me, right in front of me. Sometimes these are very positive with guys seeing me hitting pads for the first time and geeking out about how they want me to come fight somewhere; and sometimes it’s super negative, like when I dare to wear a sleeveless shirt out and the clerks at 7-11 ask each other whether I’m a boy or a girl – that’s one I usually respond to, in Thai, and let us all sit in the awkwardness of confrontation that Thai culture hates so much…or the pitiful experience I had over the past two days while hitting pads at O. Meekhun Gym.
I have a fight coming up on Monday and it’s a rematch against a woman I fought maybe 6 months ago. I lost the previous fight on points but it was very close; we’re both clinch fighters and the last time we fought I didn’t know really how to clinch, whereas my technique has gotten much better since then. But she’s also gotten much bigger. Before we fought at about 48 kg (the card said 46 kg) and now I’m still 47 kg without a weight cut and she’s going to be coming in at about 52 kg. When arranging the fight Sangwean – Phetjee Jaa’s father and my padholder at O. Meekhun gym – had asked for her to weigh in at 50 kg and the promoter called the next day to say this chick has finals at school and can’t cut weight. I said that was fine. But without a weigh in there can be no “side bet,” which is an agreed upon sum of money put up by both camps or by promoters or whomever, usually in the thousands or tens of thousands of Baht. It’s how fighters’ gyms can make a lot of money. So, without the side bet there’s only betting with odds, which is what gamblers in the crowd are playing.
So here I am hitting pads a few days before my fight, the final sessions before my rest day. There’s an old man at the gym who I call “Grandpa” and a middle-aged man who is probably his son or nephew and the father or uncle of this 10-year-old fighter at the O. Meekhun gym named Ooh. Ooh is a good little fighter, but he’s brand new. He has maybe 5 fights and just lost his first bout to a kid from the same camp that I’m fighting against, a kid that has maybe 15-20 fights already. It’s not astonishing that he lost, but everyone lost money on it. So they had a rematch with a huge side bet and Ooh lost again, this time more decisively. So I understand the context of this conversation being had around me. But Grandpa and this other guy are telling Sangwean that they think my opponent is too big and this fight is no good. This is while I’m hitting pads, they’re talking about how they think I’ll lose this fight. This is actually the second day I’ve listened to this. Two days prior the father of a teen who fights out of the gym was babbling about how big my opponent is. Both times Sangwean defended me, both times noting that I’d KO’d my opponent in Korat and the one before that in Buriram, both of whom are much bigger than I am. He said to them repeatedly, lek prikkinu, which is the smallest and spiciest Thai chili and a term used to refer to a fighter that is small in body but very strong in attack. I like that he’s defending me and I love that he believes in me, especially when he compares me to Phetjee Jaa, who knocks out girls with 10 kilos on her. But it still sucks to be comprehending the shit-talking of the peanut gallery while I’m hitting the pads. It’s very Thai – they talk about how horrible a kid did in a fight right in front of him and sometimes say directly to a fighter how bad they’re doing on pads or in training or just generally. They keep bringing up my crap performance against Cherry Sityodtong in my last fight that I had in Pattaya, one in which Grandpa and Sangwean helped corner for me. Sangwean understands that it was a bad performance, but it’s clearly one that is going to keep haunting me until I record over it.
If I didn’t speak Thai I would probably miss this altogether. If you don’t speak Thai you don’t get a “feeling” for what folks are talking about, but you can tell when they’re talking about you. It comes from from the repeated use of the word falang (“foreigner”), or because everyone is looking at you. From the way it would sound you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was good or bad really, but actually hearing and understanding the details of each argument is quite another thing. It’s great to hear people geeking out over me or being complimentary, and I guess the price that comes with that is being able to understand when they’re talking shit about me also. It’s part and parcel of reaching toward a culture that when you touch it, you can’t decide to only get the part that’s comfortable. Thai kids are talked about like this and regular shaming is definitely part of raising fighters. And as much as it sucks to get the shaming parts, I reckon it makes a difference for both sides that I can nod my head and say I understand. And then rub it in when I prove them wrong.
The fact is that while I wouldn’t understand these guys fretting about their gambling odds, I also wouldn’t understand Sangwean defending me. I wouldn’t understand the guy taking photos of me on his phone and asking dozens of questions about me, nor would I be able to tell him, in Thai, that I’ve read about his daughter already, who he wants me to come out to western Thailand to fight. The interchange is a beautiful thing. Just yesterday I rolled up to Petchrungruang gym and was filling up my water bottle outside the front of the shop; the patriarch of the gym, Bamrung, who is an absolutely wonderful man and likes me a lot, was sitting at a table with an other Thai man. Bamrung, who speaks zero English, immediately started giving me a rundown of what had happened in Lotus’ fight, which had been cut short by the TV broadcast running out of time – so I saw round 3 but then the time slot ended, turns out Lotus had knocked his opponent out in the fifth round. We had a back and forth about the details before I headed into the gym. Knowing Bamrung, he tries to talk to people whether they understand Thai or not, but when there’s an exchange there’s added delight in being able to know what he’s talking about and he’s quite keen to keep chatting. I adore him, really. And I can talk to the kids at the gym, many of whom are too young to have functional levels of English from school yet. The little kid I call “Kitten Face” loves to ask me dozens of questions at a time, all in a single string of interrogation. If I could only nod and think how cute he was, I’d be outside of it. I wouldn’t be able to talk to Mawin and Phetjee Jaa, or their parents, and probably the English lessons I offer to those kids on the weekends would be far more difficult if I could only throw English at them without Thai equivalent or explanation. As an “outsider” in many ways at these gyms, as a westerner, a woman, an odd-ball fighter, having an “in” with communication has made an incredible difference, including in being able to understand the criticisms my trainers have and being able to put them in the context of the criticisms they have about the other fighters.
One of my favorite experiences has been getting to know the people on my “soi” – a residential street – both in Chiang Mai and now in Pattaya. I’m a habitual type of person and I visit the same vegetable stand, the same fruit vendors, buy sticky rice and fried chicken from the same stall, and the lady who sells me Muay Siam on Wednesdays expects me with enough regularity that I don’t even have to get off my bike to buy it. And I talk to all these people. Motorbike taxi drivers love to ask me questions about Muay Thai when they see me in my shorts and one by one all the vendors on my street have seen me running in the mornings and asking me, each in their turn, when I’m going to fight and a few of them saying they want to come watch me. I’ve got support from my grocers and my masseuse! That’s pretty amazing and I know it wouldn’t be possible if we couldn’t communicate verbally. Up in Chiang Mai I had a lovely friendship with my pharmacist and the couple from whom I bought fried chicken, who I would show when my name was printed in Muay Siam or pictures from my fights. I don’t even have this kind of relationship with neighbors in my own culture in the US!
And perhaps one of the greatest relationships that could have been one thing in any situation but became what it is because of the ability to speak Thai is with the man who has done my Sak Yant tattoos and become a spiritual teacher, for lack of a better term, for me. Arjan Pi is a very charismatic guy and you can get a lot out of any kind of exchange with him – my husband can barely say more than “hello” and “thank you” in Thai but has experienced depths with his Sak Yant from Arjan Pi – but they don’t talk to each other. Arjan is not a verbose man by any means – he uses few words and speaks directly, which is notable regardless of comprehension – but I have asked for immense things from him and without being able to express myself in language, in addition to my presence, I don’t think I would have been validated in those requests. When I first asked for my Sangwan Rahu tattoo on my chest his immediate response was a kind of exasperated sigh and telling me how strongly people would react to it. He also tried to talk me out of Rahu a couple times but we talked both – even in a very limited way because my Thai was nowhere near what it is even now six months ago – and he believed in me. He grew to own the tattoo in a powerful way that I know could not have come about without some verbal exchange.
Lastly, communicating with my trainers and even miscommunicating with my trainers is an immeasurably beautiful thing to me. In Chiang Mai my trainers only spoke English to me in the corner. Their English is very good, far better than my Thai, but there was still something missing in it. Often when I was outside the ring and helping to support another western fighter, my trainers would command me to tell the fighter in English what they were yelling… also in English. They felt they weren’t being understood, even though I would be saying literally the exact same thing. I could communicate with Nook and Neung much better as time went on, neither of whom speak English, and I know I got a lot out of those relationships that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. But it wasn’t until training with Sakmongkol in Pattaya that I fully understood how much is lost in translation, even when trainers speak pretty good English. Languages don’t always have equivalents. We understand the word sabai in Thai to be “relax” in English, which it is… and it’s not. It’s more like “take it easy.” My trainers would say in English “don’t scare,” meaning don’t be scared, but then when they said it in Thai they would use two different phrases: 1) mai glua (“don’t be afraid”) and 2) mai dok jai (“don’t be startled”). There’s a difference between those two things. One is a steady state of facing pressure or pain, a kind of acceptance. The other means not reacting with hesitation or being interrupted from your own intentions. I don’t think I understood “don’t scare” in English entirely until I understood both versions in Thai. And my corners now speak to me entirely in Thai during fights, often because they don’t speak English at all, but sometimes because the urgency of their directives don’t translate into the English that they know. I can feel now that my very capable-in-English trainers in Chiang Mai must have experienced this feeling as well and if they had just spoken Thai to me, whether I understood them or not, it would have made a huge difference. Speaking someone else’s language has a somewhat universal message of “I’m accommodating you.” And that can put you further on the outside than you might expect. Especially as Americans, land-locked and isolated as we think we are, our expectation that everyone will speak English is one that is limiting. And largely there is someone who does speak English anywhere in the world you go. It’s a valuable currency on an international level. But I can feel the difference in my relationship to Kru Nu when we can go back and forth between English and Thai, each of us coming up against our limitations in the other language and working around it to expand those lines. There is a friendliness toward westerners at the gym, even when English is a second or third language for both sides (Frenchmen or Italians, Russians, etc). But there’s a small note of pride in my trainers’ voices when they tell another Thai that I can speak the language and pass the questions off to me. Certainly it would be hard to go up to Korat by myself and meet my non-English speaking corner there if I didn’t have Thai – to arrange another fight over the phone with the promoter when I’m back home. And when people from the crowd come up to me after a fight with excitement and want pictures and to ask me questions – or when gamblers interrogate me before a fight to know whether or not to bet on me – being able to respond in Thai and with comprehension is a big “yes” to the social exchange whereas not having a common language can be a very awkward and sad “no” to further exchanges. It doesn’t put me on a deeply inner ring of the social circles by any means – and my Thai is not fluent yet – but there is an appreciation that pulls me toward rather than further pushing away. And perhaps the most Thai benefit of all is that anyone can be the butt of a joke, but with the language you can at least be in on it as well.