Nong Bai – A Girl Growing Up in Gyms
The two front seats in the main part of the van are usually full beyond capacity. On most mornings, Angie and I share one seat, while Pi Nu’s wife and sister-in-law share the other. All the boys are just a mess in the remaining seats behind us, so I don’t know how many are crammed into each one. I consider it “not my business,” what goes on back there in the boy world of endless jokes and jostling. But this morning the usual seating is rearranged, and the van is loading up. My brother Shane, visiting from America, is with us so Angie is already in the front seat that we usually share and Nong Bai, a Thai girl who is maybe 12 or 13 years old, is sitting where Pi Nu’s wife will eventually go. Shane and I are behind those seats, kind in the middle, and the rest of the boys have piled into the back. It’s still dark in the early AM and you can only see silhouettes of people, or the half-moon of someone’s face as they turn toward the street lamp for a moment.
Pi Nu’s father and patriarch of the gym, Bamrung, appears in the open sliding-door of the van. He has a slight slope to his shoulders and a handsomeness in his face that peeks out from behind his thick glasses; those kind of glimmer in the dim light as he turns. His voice is slow and sweet as he tells Nong Bai she has to move deeper into the van, as Pi Nu’s wife and now his 3-year-old son Nat are going to be entering in a minute. Nong Bai turns to peer behind the shoulder of her seat into the darkness of the van. Her unbrushed hair sticks out like a halo around her head in different directions and her bangs, almost as long as the rest of her bob haircut, are always in her eyes. She kind of shakes her head to whip them out of the way every now and again, but more often than not she’s perfectly happy to have this curtain of hair in her face. She can’t see the back of the van, I’m sure, but she knows it’s full of the boys – all older than she is, although she knows all of them. Nong Bai grew up at the gym, her father Gok is an itinerant trainer. He was at Petchrungruang when I got there more than 3 years ago, as was Nong Bai, and then he went to be a trainer in Malaysia for a while before returning to hold pads at Fairtex. He was there, on the opposite end of town, for almost a year before something never explained happened and suddenly Pi Gok and Nong Bai were back at our gym, moving with just a single bag full of possessions into a small apartment at the corner of the ring. So, she knows everyone in the van but it’s been a while and most of the boys have grown a lot in this past year. Nong Bai has grown a lot, too. She has this gangliness to her long limbs right now that might eventually be called “willowy,” but right now she’s just a skinny girl with her head always bent forward as if she thinks she’s too tall. When she smiles you see this huge set of teeth, which she gets from her mom, and it’s very endearing. She doesn’t want to venture into the darkness of the van, so she just sits still. This is illustrating her shyness, but it’s also a little surprising to see a kid her age not immediately obey the command of an elder like Bamrung. Her shyness is winning. It’s kind of amazing. But then Angie just flips the armrest up and scoots over on her seat, allowing Nong Bai to just hop over and share her chair; where I would be, normally.
Nong Bai has already been asked by two different people where he father is. She’s only run with us twice now, but normally Pi Gok is in the van the whole time, sharing the seat my brother is in right now with Nong Bai. Pi Gok stays in the van while Nong Bai gets in and out to run for stretches with the other women: Pi Nu’s wife and sister-in-law. Running with us is 100% her dad’s idea and most certainly having him with her is part of the deal in her agreeing to come with us. So when people are asking Nong Bai where her dad is, she just smiles and looks down. Thai style – smile at everything. He didn’t wake up for the run, likely because he had a late night, but he must have insisted that she still go. Nong Bai is a fighter, albeit not frequently entering the ring at this point. But she trains with her father on pads and clinches everyday. Her shyness is again betrayed by her response to this question, asking where her father is. When Bank climbs over the center console to the passenger seat and Pi Nu gets into the van behind the wheel, he turns back and I can see the profile of his face, lighted by the blue of the dashboard. “Hey, where’s your dad?” he asks. Nong Bai just looks down and says something I can’t understand; not sure whether it was actually inaudible or a word I don’t know. Pi Nu looks at her steadily and in a voice he sometimes uses with me as a joke, as it’s a sweet voice used for children, he says very kindly, “if you don’t run this morning, your dad doesn’t have to know.” Nong Bai smiles and leans into Angie. Pi Nu faces front, the sliding doors roll shut and we’re off.
In the palm-full of years I’ve been at Petchrungruang, I’ve seen maybe a dozen fighters who are somewhat peripheral to the gym come and go. There’s this kind of revolving or re-shuffling of fighters who aren’t “official” members. Often it’s their parents doing the shuffling. They think their kid has better opportunities somewhere else and they go over there, but then a few months or a year later they’re back because the opportunity wasn’t what it seemed to be. Or there’s an argument between the parents and some other side player at the gym – usually over gambling or during a night of drinking – and they take their kid out of the gym in protest. Pi Nu just kind of lets the musical chairs play out in front of him. He has his contracted fighters, who he worries about and is directly responsible for, and then there’s everyone else, who he just does what he can and hopes the best for. Apart from the cycling through Thai boys and their fathers, which are their own stories, one kid is a really good kid, about 13 years old and his dad is interested in building him as this kind of undefeated fighter. He’s half-Thai, speaks 3 languages, smart, polite, and a brown belt in Karate before ever starting Muay Thai. He’s not contracted with the gym, but Pi Nu works with him every day and gets him fights at Lumpinee or at other shows when our boys are also on the card. But the father of this kid wants to control everything, he wants to have every advantage all the time. This presents difficulties in booking fights and I’ll have talks with Pi Nu where he just shakes his head and says, “If he were my fighter, he’d have 50 fights by now. Sometimes win, sometimes lose, but more experience. But like this, I cannot control.”
There is also an entire separate “gym” that trains within the walls of our gym, sparring and clinching with our fighters all together like a single team, but they have a different manager and a main padholder/trainer, between 3-7 boys. Often their boys will fight on the same cards as ours, so they all go together as a team and corner for each other, but it’s like they are step-siblings to the gym family. Nong Bai is kind of like this. Her father holds pads for her but any clinching or sparring is going to be with the “general population” of the gym, so she clinches with the little boys. When she fights, she fights with whatever gym her father is working for (Fairtex, Petchrungruang, etc), but she’s his student. When I first came to Petchrungruang, my jaw hit the floor when Pi Nu told me that Phetjee Jaa lived and trained at the gym for over a year. She actually had lived with her brother and parents in the same corner room that Nong Bai and her father are in now. My husband asked Pi Nu if he’d taught Phetjee Jaa and Pi Nu immediately shook his head and said, “no, no, she just clinched with my boys.” It didn’t make sense to us at that point, from what we knew of gyms. But in reflecting on it I then remembered that at Lanna there had been a team that would come by to clinch with our boys because they didn’t have enough people in their gym – or even a physical gym, as far as I knew – to get the experience they needed. And sometimes in my current set up I’ll go clinch at another gym when I don’t have proper partners to train with and recently there’s this guy coming and clinching with my regular partner every day because they’re similarly sized and this guy is getting ready for a fight. Gyms help each other out. You call up the gym and say, “hey, do you have a clinch partner for my 50 kg fighter? He has a fight coming up.” You see this a lot. We thought it was crazy that Phetjee Jaa lived and trained at this gym and Pi Nu adamantly refused credit for training her. But now I’ve seen dozens of examples like this. Gyms in Thailand are shared spaces, at once integrated and also very separate, even under the same roof and within the same ropes. We sweat together, even on each other, but when it comes to responsibilities and management, there are strong lines drawn.
In the dimming light of evening, the fluorescent bulbs above the ring become more harsh. My eyes strain against them and my shirt, wet from training, is sticking to me in an uncomfortable way. Between pushups and situps in the ring, I turn my back to the ropes and lean into them, draping my arms over the top of the lower one so I’m positioned like a scarecrow. Nong Bai and Fah – the little girl who lives next door – are tasked with clinching a much bigger woman from Belarus. She’s “in the middle” and Nong Bai and Fah alternate as her opposition anytime one of the girls is thrown to the floor. There’s a lot of giggling and anytime it’s Nong Bai’s turn to clinch, she locks arms with the Belarusian woman and Fah immediately pulls Nong Bai’s shorts down. Nong Bai’s shirt is long enough that she’s never exposed, but the laughter of Fah as she darts away from Nong Bai, who tries to kick at Fah while pulling up her shorts, sounds as though she’s done the pantsing of all pantsings. I can’t help but laugh every time. I’ve never seen little girls play this game, although I’ve seen the exact same thing among boys too many times to count. Fah is also one of these peripheral-yet-integrated parts of the gym. Her older brother, Sun, is a fighter. He’s maybe 14 or 15 and fairly new, but his family lives next door and you’ll see his parents and two younger siblings – Mek (brother) and Fah (sister) – hanging out or jumping in for some training. It’s the kids who create the community, all playing together like this, but it’s the parents who determine whether they remain in the space or not.
above, Nong Bai sparring with a young Italian boy who has been training at the gym for over a year.
In the afternoons, I arrive at the gym after 4:00, when the hustle and rhythmic thuds and cries from fighters hitting pads is already in full swing. I’m already sweaty from the work I did at the gym I start at in the afternoons, WKO, and I usually walk in somewhat disheveled as I try to tidy my hair from the combined disturbances of sparring and then wearing a helmet. As I plop my gym bag on a chair and orient myself in front of a bag to start my next segment of training, I often see the progression of kids arriving to the gym after school. The boys always take the same route, between the kids’ ring and the big ring – which is a good 4 feet up from the ground – and greeting the trainers and older fighters as they move through the space. When Nong Bai enters from school it is usually just after her father who usually has just arrived with her up on his motorbike. So, most often it’s her father, Pi Gok, who is greeted as they move into the space of the gym together. Nong Bai follows closely behind him, like a little shadow, stopping to wai only to Kru Nu, the head of the gym. The few times I’ve seen her enter alone she doesn’t greet anyone, again her shyness overriding her manners in the space. She walks quickly along the back side of the gym, past the narrow channel between the rings that the boys prefer, and disappears into the small room she shares with her father until he calls her out to come train. She wears Muay Thai shorts with a beautifully embroidered rose on the bottom corner in the front. They’re a faded pink and much too big for her, but they have her name on them so they must have been purchased with the intention of her being able to grow into them – possibly forever, given how much bigger they are than her very thin frame. Her legs are just these little twigs sticking out the bottom of the shorts and every time she kicks the pads the black curtain of hair swats at the sides of her face. Between the pieces of hair sticking to her forehead and cheeks is her smile, which is sweet and impulsive. After every strike on the pads she looks into her father’s face for approval, and any time he calls for multiples she kind of lets her arms go limp in a very, very light protest and demonstration of her fatigue, but then she always smiles and checks his face after the strike. I check his face, too, and always I can detect how much he is proud of her. She follows him and hides under him in the space, but she has a position in the gym all her own – one that supersedes him in many ways. Pi Gok as a man is a flawed character on the stage of the camp ring – itinerant, gambling – but Nong Bai quietly holds an audiences’ gaze anytime she appears. Her presence is larger than she realizes, but like her toothy smile and her baggy shorts, she’ll grow into it.