Ruminations on Gender, the Name “Nong” and Diminution in Muay Thai
Below are some ruminations on things I’ve picked up on in Thai culture These are suspicions I’ve arrived at through my various experiences and observations of Thai culture and should be taken as that, rather than claims of unarguable fact. I’m not fluent in Thai, neither the language nor the culture, but these are opinions I’ve formed through my experiences, observations and some academic research thus far. If anyone has further insight into or perspective on the language, gender and subculture I’d be glad to hear it.
Thai Fighter Names and Gender Bias
You can almost immediately spot female fighters on cards because their names often begin with “Nong.” Or, perhaps more systematically, you can assume that the “Nong” on a card is a female fighter or a very young boy and the weight listed at the far right column will give you more complete information on the matter. This isn’t only something I’ve noticed. A fellow who trains and fights down on Phuket asked me, “why do female fighters all have ‘nong’ in their names?” a while back and my answer to him was basically what I’m writing here.
Some background on language is that Nong (น็อง) is a commonly used title or prefix-address to a name, so someone named Em would be Nong Em. Nong means “little brother/sister,” but can be used to address strangers and acquaintances, informally, who are younger than you are. The address for someone your own age or older (within reason) in the same informal manner is Pee (พี่). You’ll see this a lot in gyms and the whole discussion of whether or not “Kru” is used in Thai gyms can be generally settled that the use of Pee is far more universally used and preferred for trainers. It’s like “big brother/sister.”
Unlike Pee, which is for equal age or older and equal status, the use of Nong can be used for strangers whose status is below yours, somewhat regardless of age. A waitress who isn’t younger than I am could be addressed, by me, as Nong. Kinda like “Miss” in America. But a merchant (low status) who is significantly older would probably be called “Auntie,” rather than the little sister moniker.
This status difference is important. The diminutive and low-ranking use of Nong flavors its common usage in the fight names for female nakmuay. This is why you might see it on very young boys, but female fighters keep the Nong well into their young adult years. It’s like being named “Little Em.” It’s cute, it’s sweet, and it’s diminutive. Boys of 8 years or older (generally speaking) will have proper fight names that are quite auspicious: Superball, Superbank, Phet is common (meaning “diamond”), thong is also (depending on spelling is either “gold” or “flag”) and you’ll see a lot of chai (“victory”). Girls and women are more likely to be a variation on Yodying (“supergirl”) or maybe a Phet here and there (Phetjee Jaa, Phet Nam Gnaam (“beautiful diamond”), and a whole lot of Nong.
Not all female fighters have Nong as part of their name and not only women and girls have it, but it’s just far more likely for female fighters. And I wonder, but don’t know for sure, what the association is when boys older than maybe 8-9 years old have Nong in their name, like in the west having a “junior” or “lil- something”. Women in the west will often have a moniker that has “little” or something diminutive, or cute, or a nod to being attractive: “Pretty” or “beautiful” or “hot” (“Karate Hottie”; “Pretty Killer”; “Beautiful Killer”; are common in women fighter’s names, as well as names you’d probably never see on a male, like “Cupcake” or “Cookie Monster” or “Tiny Tornado.” There are men with names like “Lil Evil” (Jens Pulver) or “Mighty Mouse” (Demetrious Johnson), but examples are far fewer.
There are many examples where male and female names are of similar auspice, but there is a “tendency” in the Nong usage. Two examples that I want to raise and have nothing to do with each other are Luk Grok Dam (ลูกกรอกดำ) who fought my friend Emma. I love this fighter’s name, as she’s called for a kind of spirit warrior that comes from a Thai Epic, “Khun Paen.” Khun Paen is the quintessential warrior and black magic master, plus Cassanova type lover with numerous wives, etc. He made a magical warrior out of his unborn son through magic after his (one of many) wife died before childbirth. The unborn son became this spirit warrior. That’s what Luk Grok Dam is, so that’s what her fight name is. It’s epic.
The other example is “The Beautiful Boxer,” Nong Toom. She’s about 34 years old now and doesn’t fight much anymore, but she’s very famous for being the transsexual fighter who began her career as a boy and paid for her sex change through fight purses. Her fight name was Pariyna, but now she’s mostly known only as Nong Toom, which is what she would have been called as a little boy (or girl, as Toom is a nickname for both sexes). She’s a great example of the gendered usage of Nong because she’s in her 30’s and is not significantly younger than anyone who calls her that. So the Nong is kept as a kind of “feminizing” effect.
And Nong Toom actually segues into the second part of my ruminations, on the subject of Kathoey or the “third gender”:
Acceptance and Tolerance is One-Directional
Thailand is much less tolerant of Kathoey or “lady boys” as the west seems to think it is, but it’s still far more tolerant of lady boys than it is of the female equivalent: sometimes also called Kathoey in some instances, but far more often referred to as Tom are female-to-male gender leanings. A lot of female Thai Muay Thai fighters identify as Toms. The name comes from the English “Tom Boy” and loosely groups any woman who dresses toward masculine markers (short hair, bound breasts, “male” clothing and sometimes male personal pronouns). I won’t go deeply into Toms here, but you can read more in my blog post of reading notes from a book on the subject.
Again, the west has this perception that Thais are very embracing of lady boys and “third gender” identities, which isn’t the case. “Tolerant” is a better word for it, but that’s still too generous a concept. What I’m pointing at here though is that the male-to-female gender leanings, whether transgender or transsexual, are far more accepted and tolerated than the female-to-male trans. And my suspicion as for why is because of the change in status.
Thailand is still a strongly sexist culture, both politically and socially. There are certain practices that can be considered more equal than other parts of the world, including the US, but there is deeply rooted stratification between the genders that put women below men. So a Kathoey is a man (anatomically and socially) lowering himself to the status of being a woman; it’s literally “downward mobility.” And that’s acceptable. But a Tom is a woman (anatomically, socially) attempting to raise herself to the status of being a man, which is unacceptable. These are of course incredibly simplified expressions of what actual trans identity is, but what I’m arguing here is that the greater tolerance of male-to-female is because of the step down in rank whereas the broad intolerance of female-to-male is because it’s an attempt to step up.
Women aren’t allowed in some rings at all and certain areas of temples, near relics, etc. When we are allowed to enter rings, in most cases we must enter under the bottom rope. (I write more about why this is in this post, “Can Bleed Like a Man – Lumpinee, Muay Thai, Sexism, and Meme.”) In short, this is because women menstruate – and that’s the most simplified way of explaining it – thought it applies to even female infants. Nong Toom, who I mentioned in the name section above, doesn’t menstruate and never has. She is “post-op” and has a woman’s body, a woman’s identity, a woman’s life and she fights women, but she goes over the top rope, just as she did as a man. It’s one thing that this is acceptable by the guardians of the “tradition” that keeps women under the bottom rope, but it’s another thing that Nong Toom chooses to go over and not under. Toms, even if they identify as male (which not all do, but many do), still have to go under the bottom rope. They don’t get to choose. Nong Toom is not permitted anymore in the rings of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern, but I believe that’s because she has breasts and would have to take her shirt off to fight, as per the dress code. There is a transgender fighter named Rot Duan who I believe could fight at those rings but refuses because she would have to remove her shirt.
But I find it interesting that Nong Toom doesn’t go under the rope, given the arguments that some make that this is the female tradition and there’s nothing degrading about it. I don’t believe there are any female-t0-male transsexuals, who have undergone sex change operations, who are fighters. So there are no examples to offer, whether they would be permitted to fight with cis men (I’d wager not) or whether they’d be permitted to go over the top rope (again, I’d bet not). Which is the inescapable “fact” of your birth-body’s status. Going from high to low (male to female) is more tolerated than the low to high (female to male), in a culture where “upward mobility” isn’t so much a thing. You are born to a class and you largely stay in it.
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