The Toxicity of Talk in Thailand – A Break With O. Meekhun Gym
The Land of Gossip
Thailand’s moniker, the Land of Smiles, is an earned one. But part of that is because smiling is the only “saving face” response to a myriad of situations taking place publicly: someone nearly caused an accident by cutting you off in traffic? Smile. You’re being criticized in front of people you admire and respect? Smile. Someone is speaking to you in a language you can’t understand and you have no idea what’s going on at all: Smile. It’s the catch-all, regardless of how you really feel.
Given the importance of “Face” and surface appearances in Thai culture, it might come as a surprise (or, alternatively a statement of the obvious) that gossip and shit-talking is ubiquitous. This is true in every culture that I can think of and I don’t know that it’s any worse here, other than that because of social hierarchies a great deal of it might not happen behind your back but rather right in front of your face, if not to your face. I’m a falang, which is a blanket term for westerners but in reality means not-Thai, so there is a degree to which an assumption that I cannot understand what’s being said allows for open shit-talking in my presence that – at my age as a Thai – might not happen otherwise. But you’ll see kids getting ripped apart verbally, in their presence due to their low status, without an eyelid flitting. So it’s not just the falang and assumption we can’t understand; when shit-talking about kid fighters understanding is part of the point.
But it doesn’t only go top-down. Everyone talks about everyone else, inside and outside of their circles, and you can identify where you stand based on who they’re talking about in front of you. This isn’t an exalted past-time by any means – gossiping is not esteemed as a good quality and men who talk a lot are criticized as being “like women,” who I guess are expected to gossip – but it passes a lot of time nonetheless.
I’ve tolerated a lot of this shit-talking, which only has been something I have to emotionally withstand since I’ve been able to understand spoken Thai, for a few years now. Prior to that you get a feeling that something is being said and it’s probably not complimentary, but not knowing is a particular kind of bliss. And I’ve withstood it in as close to a Thai way as I can muster, which is taking a stoic, non-response approach and waiting out the words. The few times I’ve countered what was said didn’t go well. You’re just meant to take your lashings quietly, I guess. Shame is a strong social tool in many cultures and using it to form younger persons makes some sense, whereas when you get older it piques more anger and resentment than it does in the kids who bottle that shit up, deep down for later.
It’s a very painful thing, really. Especially as a student in a gym, you want to please your trainers. You want to give face and honor the name of the gym. It’s very much like a family and wanting your trainers and the nakmuay “siblings” to be proud of you is a sincere drive. And so, it cuts the same way when your trainer/parent is disappointed because you let them down. It’s even more so when they are cutting you up over something that isn’t that big a deal. Of course, in the west we love to say that it’s your own choice whether you let things get to you, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” kind of deal. And that’s true in a really self-help kind of way, but it’s also unrealistic in that who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be is largely influenced by our social circles. If people whose opinions you give weight to think badly of you and say so, it hurts. It may be the polite thing to do to appear as though it rolls off you like water off a duck’s back, but polite and unaffected are not actually the same internal experience.
The Shit Talking at O. Meekhun
I have suffered quite a bit at O. Meekhun lately. O. Meekhun has been my second gym, where I trained every evening after my afternoon training at Petchrungruang here in Pattaya. I went for additional clinch work, sparring and padwork, a full session, work that really accelerated my growth as a fighter. When things are good, it’s really good. Phetjee Jaa, who is my hero and probably the best female fighter in the world, is a tall, dark shadow to live under, despite being only 13. And the entire camp is in that shadow, her older brother Mawin included. And Jee Jaa almost never loses, she’s the Golden Child; the two times she’s lost in the past year and a half I’ve been at the camp were brushed off as “not her fault” and “cheating,” so she didn’t even have to touch the realm of shame. It was hard for her – people talk and it’s not nice for a 13-year-old to hear – but her parents never even pointed in the direction of shame. For anyone else at the gym, it’s a different story. I’m not saying that she should be shamed, only noting that others are, quite strongly. For me in particular, it’s been a disastrous descent from being called “Phet Jee Jee,” a play name to indicate my proximity to Jee Jaa and her glory, 8 months ago, to being told I can’t fight anymore because I only lose.
That’s my fault, I did lose three fights in a row. But only one was with this gym, the only one they actually saw, and the only one was under their gym name. But that’s enough to be “finished” and crushed under nearly constant criticisms. And without the ticket of a win to drag me out of it – a ticket I can’t really purchase because Sangwean won’t find me fights – it was going stay that way. And to be very direct, a great deal of the terrible verbal abuse taking place at that gym isn’t earned.
Saya Ito, the Current World Champion
Take for example Saya Ito, the Japanese phenom who visits O. Meekhun in month-long training camps and has just beaten the sitting WPMF champion to take that belt. She’s a 16-year-old girl who flies to Thailand to train with this camp to improve her clinch; she does this alone, pretty much, with no traveling support, or much knowledge of Thai. The first time she came it was all banners and “we have this champ,” and all that. They even worked patiently with her on her clinch, which has improved in strides. But this last time, when Saya was gearing up to fight for the title, it was not so rosy. Sangwean complained to me on multiple occasions how Saya wasn’t in shape, couldn’t train because everything hurt. She’s gotten better in the clinch, but it’s fucking hard to hang with the O. Meekhun kids in the clinch and when she wasn’t competitive at their level, she was basically sidelined – that is, left out of training. They literally had her get out of the ring (I clinched with her twice). If you’re not already good, no use in throwing you in to get better, right? I’ve seen Sangwean do this before, basically snub his nose at willing students, in a very unkind way. Then Saya, again who was gearing up for the possible title fight, wanted to fight one of the girls who beat Jee Jaa, the one who the family believes cheated. Saya wanted to fight her because she’d also beat Little Tiger, the WPMF title holder who Saya would be facing the next month, in fact there was some sense in which she had to face this opponent, Peung Siam, to get the title shot. Instead of arranging the fight, it was a long list of why Saya couldn’t fight her and how she was so shitty this time around, on this visit (her 2nd). Saya is a sweet girl. She trains hard, she is disciplined and deferential; I can critique her techniques and level of aptitude in order to assess how we’d match up or where she needs to grow, but I’d have a hard time finding motivation to talk badly about her. For what? I feel quite badly for whatever she must have sensed across languages in her second visit. But she is strong. She overcame whatever she experienced at O. Meekhun and went out and beat the champion Little Tiger.
A Western Girl
Another young woman came to train at the gym, a westerner I’ll call “M.” M threw herself into the O. Meekhun world with a flying leap, arriving at the gym site unseen and not speaking much Thai, but determined to learn – she was in it for the long haul. She was also deferential and spent the first few weeks actually living at the gym, which doesn’t have dorms, so she was just sleeping in the little two-room house with the family. TWO ROOMS, not “two bedrooms.” She swept the gym, cleaned, was too nervous to drive herself to her language school and so depended on Sangwean and some of his associates to drive her for the first few weeks. She bought a motorbike, through the name and help of Sangwean, and it almost immediately became “the gym bike,” something Kevin and I saw coming a mile away but M was new and unfamiliar with the family’s particulars and standing at a very different vantage point from under their wing than we were from outside. M even paid for a whole year of training up front (and investment of trust, lost). Unfortunately, it all soured too quickly. Perhaps more quickly than M even realized as Kevin and I stood, mouths agape, at some of the treatments we saw and talking I heard, before M really started to feel it. It’s hard to come to Thailand and hit the ground running. It’s not impossible, but getting off the plane from not training like you do in Thailand and suddenly running 10k in the morning and training twice per day without any limiting fatigue, soreness, and injury is a hard ask. When M wasn’t shredding it on pads after the 2 week acclimation period that Sangwean had prescribed, she started being left out systematically. She couldn’t clinch as strongly as the top dog kids, so of course she was just left out of clinching practice. Same as Saya. She took a fight – her first – and lost, which isn’t unusual by any stretch of anything, but there was a sneering disappointment from Sangwean that stretched into dismissal. When M lost her second fight – ever – a few weeks later (so, you know not a lot of time to make changes), that was it.
“M” didn’t have cultural perspective to see that this treatment from Sangwean wasn’t acceptable – its not. Or rather, had no standing point from which to decide not to accept it. I’d try to defend her every time I heard a bullshit comment about how she can’t train, and I tried to advise her on how to deal with the injuries that she was actually dealing with to be able to keep increasing in her training – but mine was a voice in the chasm between two cultures. There’s no bridge, just tolerance and breaking points. Finally, M ended up leaving O. Meekhun under far more complex circumstances than are necessary to talk about, but her absence and those circumstances just made the gossip become insane. It’s partly a way to save face, because certainly there was some understanding on Sangwean’s part in how he failed her, but it’s also just as plain and simple as this: if you’re there, they’ll talk about you; if you’re gone, they’ll talk more. The rumors Sangwean spread were very unpleasant and completely uncalled for.
Sangwean, Phetjee Jaa’s father, is in a delicate situation. His daughter is perhaps already the best female fighter in the world. But he himself does not have fight experience, and is not a very knowledgeable trainer. He feels very insecure about the fact that Jee Jaa is extraordinary, but no other fighter than her that he has come in contact with is special, including his own (I think amazing) son, Mawin. Jee Jaa in fact is a prodigy, and probably developed that way through her contact with many trainers through her early years, 2 years of which were at Petchrungruang. In fact already now both she (13) and her brother (15) definitely understand Muay Thai at a higher level than their father, who they awkwardly have to correct at times – mostly though just deferring to his constant instruction. So the father is at pains to attack and distance himself from any sign that he might be not producing greatness, including the way he rides his own son. For this reason, of course, other fighters go through the gym very quickly. A few losses, which is incredibly common in the Muay Thai of youth, and Sangwean turns his tongue, and his back on them. He’s a very insecure man, and it produces a painful harshness on some days. As I said, Jee Jaa is largely immune from this, but she has had to train and live with it all around her, including watching it visited upon her brother who lost frequently, a brother she is incredibly close to. I would like to write about their relationship one day, it’s beautiful.
Toxicity and Talk
It’s enough to say, I already knew what a toxic environment I was in. The shit-talking at this gym is particular; it’s far more frequent and open and worthless than what I’ve experienced elsewhere. It is cultural, but not to this degree. But there are reasons for that, too. It’s been a somewhat nomadic family that has kind of fallen out of every relationship other than their blood ties. So, their gym has become a temporary haven for others who have fallen out of favor with the same groups, which for O. Meekhun is everyone else, so they’ve got a wide sampling of rescue boats arriving at their door. It’s all there, but they don’t stay long. When I first started training at the gym they had this incredible little kid, maybe 8 years old, who Jee Jaa was teaching and he was just ripping it up. He was undefeated for 12 fights or so, winning against boys with much more experience. Then he lost, twice, and the ridicule he faced was too much for a kid. He didn’t want to come to training. I feel for him. There are days I don’t want to face it either. But, because he didn’t want to train he was labeled as “lazy” by Sangwean, which Jee Jaa whispered to me in hushed tones like it was the most shameful thing to call someone, and the kid doesn’t train or fight anymore. “Jai noi” they said, “little heart”. He lives next door.
And to some degree I’ve grown more tolerant of the toxicity than I even realized. My mood was affected, for sure, and there were many days I would rather have just not been there. But the opportunity to train with Jee Jaa and Mawin was worth it. They’re that good; they had that much to offer to my improvement. But here’s the thing: the saying is “a confident fighter is a dangerous fighter,” and Sangwean’s tendency to break every relationship he can was destroying my confidence. I knew it; but I thought I didn’t have enough reason to leave. Just be tougher, right?
Today was a breaking point. I lost my most recent fight to an opponent I’ve beat twice before and had a very bad showing against one month ago also. So, two wins, two losses. That fight a month ago was the only fight I’ve had with O. Meekhun since April, which was actually against this girl also, where I beat her. Since that last fight with them I’ve had 15 fights, 7 losses; 4 of those losses are against very good fighters who outweigh me by more than 3 weight classes and within the 15 fights I have 6 wins against fighters also 3 or more weight classes above mine. And I’ve had a broken hand for the last 6 fights, which has made my punching pretty limited and the clinch quite painful. I’m not suddenly “losing all the time.” I will admit that my fight on the Queen’s Birthday was terrible – Sangwean was also awful as my corner in that fight, utterly unsportive before and during the bout. The loss must have been embarrassing for the gym name, while at the same time Jee Jaa fought on that card and looked spectacular as always, so certainly everybody forgot me immediately.
Here’s the thing: O. Meekhun wasn’t at my last fight. They didn’t see it. Sangwean does know that I lost the fight because of the Wall of China, which has been a difficulty for me for a long time, but he’s never worked on it with me – he’s never, as a trainer, tried to help me solve it. But yes, sure, criticizing me for this repeated mistake is acceptable – expecting that shame will be what solves it, isn’t. Yesterday in clinching I was a bit tired and it must have showed – that part is my fault – but Sangwean decided to make fun of me for it. I shot him a look and said, in Thai, that of course I was tired because I’d fought two days before. I pointed out to him that his kids are never training two days after a fight. (They sometimes take weeks off.) He didn’t respond. Today, however, one day later, was a breaking point. I got to the gym at 6:00, after training 2 full hours at Petchrungruang as usual, and they were starting late. I was rolling my wraps, waiting for Sangwean to hold pads for me, and a promoter from a local stadium rolled up. The stadium where I just fought, but a different promoter. He said something not nice to me about my loss the other day and I just smiled and looked down, Thai style. But Sangwean jumped in and started offering all kinds of shit about how awful I am: that I lost to two opponents Jee Jaa beat (one of whom dropped an incredible amount of weight to fight Jee Jaa and gassed in round 2) and how both cut me (one was a headbutt, and I won the other fight), etc. What set me off was that he was talking shit about me with glee to a promoter who is considering whether he’ll put me on his card in three weeks. What the fuck kind of trainer sells his student as someone you shouldn’t book?
This actually has been a building thing, as we’ve come to sense that he was not going to allow me to fight opponents that his daughter might be fighting (and possibly lose to). She is starting to challenge some of the top ranked fighters in my weight class. Instead of embracing the both of us, he’s been pushing me out. He was using this occasion to do the same, to minimize me. Keep in mind I’ve trained at this gym more or less every evening for 15 months. I have taught his kids English (free of charge), been generous with the gym, given them more money when Sangwean demanded it as a measure of respect, and been a huge supporter of theirs every chance I can. I felt bonded to this family, despite the constant tear-down from the father.
I told Kevin what Sangwean was saying. Pi Nu at Petchrungruang is the one trying to set up the fight in a few weeks with this promoter and I told Kevin, “Sangwean is probably shutting down that possibility with what he’s saying.” Kevin is braver than I am, doesn’t stand for bullshit, and stood up. He doesn’t speak Thai, so in English he asked Sangwean if he wanted me to train here anymore. Sangwean half pretended not to understand. He said back, in Thai, “up to you.” When I translated into Thai what Kevin was saying, he said again, “up to you.” That’s a face-saving answer, but it’s also incredibly clear demonstration that he doesn’t care. It escalated from there when Kevin asked why he would talk about me like this. I translated tiny pieces and at one point Sangwean asked me who had said I was bad. When I told him you, just now, to the promoter he blew up – I had been sitting right there a few feet from the shit-talking. Tawan, his wife and the gym manager, came out and tried to figure out what was going on. She heard what was being said and replied that falang don’t understand Thai. That was kind of saying we don’t get that this is how Thais talk, but she also said it with actual language meaning I literally didn’t understand the words. I did. The promoter even jumped in, with pretty good English, that maybe I didn’t understand. I answered him back in Thai, that I can take my trainer criticizing me, to me, but that talking like this about me in general meant he had no interest in me. I told him that as fighters, we both win and lose – the promoter nodded his head emphatically – and that’s okay, that when I lose I come back to training the next day to get better and as a trainer you should help the fighter, not kick them into the trash. The promoter looked like he understood me, but by then Sangwean and Kevin were raising their voices. Kevin was saying that I’m a good person, that to talk about me like this to hurt me publicly is just mean and that I do good things for the gym – that I advocate for them and share Jee Jaa with the world. Sangwean was just yelling, “go!” at that point, and so we left. It was a breaking point that was a long time developing.
And that’s basically the blow up that has ended my relationship with my mia noi, or the mistress gym. It’s heartbreaking in some ways, namely Jee Jaa and Mawin, but it’s also a huge relief to think I won’t be withstanding anymore. It may be nothing very extraordinary in practice, but it’s still abuse. It was poisoning my heart. And when I think about the contrast between the response from Sangwean, whose name wasn’t on the line in my fight and who didn’t even fucking see it, and Pi Nu, whose name was all over my fight and whose reputation was on the line and who stood in my corner… it’s all the more illustrative of how incredible Pi Nu is, despite all the ways I still want more from him. He could have lost face from my fight, but his response was actually to pull me in. He hasn’t gotten me a fight in Pattaya in almost a year and then I lose this fight in his backyard and on his family’s promotion – he sees me fail and his response is to tell me what I did wrong, but then say it’s okay and work with me on fixing it, and then immediately asks for another fight for me. He wants to see me redeem myself.
There’s this westerner who has trained very sporadically in the mornings at Petchrungruang with Pi Nu for maybe 6-8 months. He’s a good guy, but only one foot in the gym. And he’s been absent for almost a month already. Pi Nu saw a photo of him on Facebook, almost purely by coincidence, that showed he’d been hit by a car and was in the hospital. Pi Nu went to the hospital to find him but the bed listed on the picture was empty; he called me to see if there was a way we could find him – he not only dropped everything to go see if this guy he kind of knows is okay, but doesn’t stop looking when the hospital doesn’t have him. Contrast that to Sangwean willingly kicking me out of the gym after I’ve trained there every day for over a year; over an argument as to why he’s telling promoters that I’m no good, right in front of my face.
I believe that you deserve the company you keep. And I don’t deserve to be there anymore.
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