The Mitt and the Joke: Illusions and Pitfalls of Equality in a Muay Thai Gym
Being treated equally isn’t always what it seems. I’ll just come right out and say that I balk when I hear women claim they are treated completely the same as men are at their gyms in Thailand. I find it so hard to believe that I quite frankly don’t believe it. On the one hand, even if treated with kindness and respect on both sides of gender, men and women are rarely treated exactly equal anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t claim this about how I’m treated in my own family or among my friends; and while I do feel that I am respected and appreciated no less than any of my brothers within my family dynamics, I wouldn’t claim that we’re treated as equals, or that I’ve ever been treated as an equal with men in any job I’ve ever had, at school, in the world, etc. But I do also understand that one might feel that they are treated equally in their gyms in Thailand (or the west) and that’s a pretty good feeling; I’m happy that women have that feeling, but I do suspect that they might be missing, to some degree, the nuances in differential treatment that both connotes and denotes the different “place” women have in a gym setting, in Thailand and Thai cultures.
I came up with two examples to illustrate my thoughts on this. The focus mitt and the joke. I’ll start with the former: most rings are a few feet up from the ground and are permanently lined with equipment around the edges. It starts out in rows and as training goes on becomes layers, creeping inward, of haphazardly discarded gloves, mitts, pads, and water bottles. Every now and again a glove or a pad will get kicked off the ring during sparring or padwork, flying out of the ring and onto the floor below. I’m a polite person and I was raised to be considerate and helpful when able. So my inclination is to pick the mitt up off the floor and put it on the ring. I don’t think about it, really, it’s pretty much automatic. But I’ve become keen on how this is sending a message in Thai culture and social structures. If the mitt is kicked off the ring everybody will ignore it until a kid of the lowest standing (usually by age) is ordered to pick it up. Kids are ordered to go fetch things for older kids or adults; they’re ordered to complete tasks and chores at any moment, to go get water for someone, to run and relay a message, etc. The kids jump to it without protest. Without pause. They know their place. When I pick up the mitt off the ground – even though I’m not told to – I’m basically putting myself in the place of a lowly kid. Sure, I’m just trying to be helpful, but that’s not how it reads even if that’s how I intend it. Imagine for a moment in western culture a 6-year-old kid telling his father to clean up after him. Parents clean up after kids all the time in the west, but a kid ordering his father to do so, or commanding his father to “go to your room,” and the father goes… well, it would be pretty shocking for the father to obey, right?
So there are times I have to pay attention to this inclination and not pick up the mitt. At Lanna Muay Thai I noticed that the boys (all late-teens) were ordered to get water for the trainers, regardless of what they were doing at the time, and the boys would do it. One time, one of the boys asked me to get him water. Well, he told me to get him water but in a kind of semi-asking way. I paused. I was older than this guy and while I liked him and would have had no problem getting him water in my culture, I could tell at that moment – before I really had a strong understanding of the significance – that he was pulling rank in a way. I could feel that in doing so I would be accepting a place that was not my place. Westerners who don’t quite understand the Thai wai will offer the salutation to baristas, waiters, and even children. It’s harmless, mostly, but it usually warrants a giggle. This would be like shaking hands with and calling your barista, waiter or a kid, “sir.” Getting water for this guy wouldn’t hurt me; it’s not a big deal, but it’s one small step in accepting a lower status – even mindlessly – that isn’t going to do me any favors down the road. Like, letting your boss’ racist joke slip by the first time he tells it, or allowing someone to cross a line and touch you isn’t going to help you avoid inappropriate situations exactly like this later on down the road.
The mitt obviously isn’t a big deal. It’s a very small, easily invisible habit or inclination that can work against you without you ever realizing it. I pointed this exact tendency out to Kevin and his eyes widened, remembering that he’d done exactly this only a few days before. He said the kids looked at him funny but he didn’t think anything of it. It’s something any of us could do without ever realizing it is sending a message we don’t intend, even if that message just makes us look silly.
The second example is the joke. Thais are very funny – the Thai humor is cheeky, sarcastic and often sexual. I was in the weight room at Petchrungruang when Kru Nu gathered a group of boys, teens and men around him and showed them something on his phone. He was very excited about it, the mischievous flash in his eyes when he’s joking going full force. But he didn’t invite me over to see the joke, which was clearly in the form of a photo on his phone. I assumed it was sexual and that’s the reason he didn’t let me in on the joke. It felt a little weird, actually; not only because Kru Nu isn’t really one to make these kinds of jokes – he mainly has a very clean, very wry sense of humor – and he has never excluded me from his humor before. He jokes with me every morning when we’re training alone in the gym and he’s absolutely what I’d call a “gentleman” in his manners. A large part of the weirdness was being left out. I went and started shadowboxing in the ring by myself, kind of removing myself from the situation. While I moved around I thought to myself that this exclusion, shitty as it felt, was actually the right thing – at my gym in Chiang Mai I would have been included in on the joke, maybe even pointedly so. Several times Thais would “treat me like the boys” around by showing me a photo or asking me a question in good humor, but by being included I was – as a woman – clearly being singled out for my response to the vulgar joke. In situations like this there is no “equal”. I love me some dirty humor and I grew up with brothers, whose friends eventually became my verbal sparring partners and that was almost always sexual humor. I enjoy it. But being included or even targeted in these jokes in the context of Thailand was actually transgressive in a way that wasn’t “right.” Including a woman in on the joke is in a way exploiting her for it. In this scenario I don’t want to be treated like the guys because even if I’m outwardly treated the same the meaning behind it isn’t equal – as archaic and sexist as it is to be excluded from the kind of jokes that aren’t appropriate for “mixed company,” by being excluded I am being respected… in a way. It’s a situation in which I don’t want to be “one of the guys,” because I’m not one of the guys and my participation puts me in a place I don’t want to be. (Turns out the joke wasn’t sexual, but my response and thoughts led to this realization so the example holds meaning anyway.)
These two examples illustrate the way in which the invisible can have great affect on one’s standing – especially as a woman. By picking up the mitt I am putting myself lower than I actually stand, as a 31-year-old at the gym. By being polite or helpful and thoughtlessly obeying the request/demands of lower-ranking males, we might inadvertently place ourselves in a position that is disrespected, unworthy, or even pernicious. I don’t want to be a dick and refuse to pick up a water bottle that falls on the floor, but sometimes I have to make that call – for the sake of my standing. It seems so meaningless, but it’s not. And being treated just like the guys, being included in on jokes like you’re “one of the guys,” may feel good and inclusive but it might not carry that meaning, despite the perceived positivity. Which sucks because really feeling good about your inclusion is a positive thing – not feeling singled out and feeling good about that should only feel good; but it might not be as it seems. The answer is awareness. Being aware of where those lines lay and whether and when to cross them, tolerate them, or stay the hell away from them is tricky business. I’ve seen a number of women dismiss the issue of women having to go under the bottom ropes in Thailand as being something they don’t really care about, “it doesn’t bother me,” they say and so it’s considered a non-issue that others are maybe being sensitive about. I see this as similar to the mitt. It doesn’t bother me to pick up a glove off the floor. It doesn’t bother me to get a cup of water for someone younger than I am. In fact, in my culture we see doing things for those younger than yourself as kind of taking care of them; as women we’re given value for anticipating the needs of others. But even if it doesn’t bother me, even if I don’t mind doing it, it’s putting me in a place that is low-rung. By mindlessly picking up the mitt, by being what I think is helpful or agreeable, I’m participating in my own demotion. And it’s the same to go under the ropes – it’s accepting that my standing and my place is low. And at times being treated equally is not actually an expression of equality, when being included in on the joke actually means being included in the joke.
If you enjoyed this post, you may like this article I wrote on women in Muay Thai gyms in Thailand a year ago:
Or this collection of Gendered Experience Articles