Women’s Power in Muay Thai Families
Last week Kevin and I arrived at the gym at 8:00 PM, after evening training, in order to hitch a ride down to Wung’s fight at Kalare Stadium. It was as it always is at that time: relaxed disorganization floating through a quiet, darkened gym. After a long while of waiting it became clear that nobody else was coming to the fight and Wung even laughed and asked us why we wanted to come see. “Because we love to watch you fight,” was the most direct and honest answer.
With only Den, Wung, a student of Wung’s from Hill Camp and Kevin and me squished into Pom’s little four-door we headed down to the Night Bazaar. We looked at the program and saw that Wung was the 3rd fight, allowing us a little time to go get some dinner beforehand. I folded the program and tucked it in my back pocket, made sure to acknowledge the two doormen on our way out and told Den that we would be back shortly and we were off, weaving our way through the tangled stalls that choke the sidewalk of the night market.
When we returned from dinner the first fight had just begun. As we approached the metal facade of the stadium the drums and pipe-wails that make up Muay Thai music snaked out of the speakers and filled the street outside. We made our way inside and over to the bamboo mats, spread along the back fence that always glows green.
Wung was getting his oil massage from Neung, who must have arrived to help corner while Kevin and I were at dinner. Sitting beside Wung’s inert, supine body were Boy’s girlfriend – a forever smiling little girl who shrinks at every acknowledgment of her – and Neung’s wife, who rules an apartment full of boys without uttering a word. I stood there for a moment before Neung’s wife called out to me, “Sin-via,” before being corrected very quietly by Neung, “Syl-vie.” She smiled and tried out the new sounds a few times. After a missed meeting a few days before I’d written my name (in Thai) and our cell phone number on a piece of paper for Neung in case he ever had to contact us. He’d made an impressed “ah” sound when I wrote my name in Thai and from my spelling is one of the only trainers who correctly pronounces it now. I laughed and said to Neung’s wife, in Thai, Sin-via bpen maa, meaning “Sinvia is a dog.” This made her laugh out loud, as the pitbull puppy that had lived with her at the gym for a short time was indeed named Sinvia as a mispronunciation (perhaps purposefully) of my name. She laughed again, said both names, the proper pronunciation twice and then beckoned for me to sit next to her.
I sat down and fretted about how to position my feet – something that westerners who are new to Thai customs and also hyper-aware of making social gaffes on the regular tend to do – and decided to imitate what Boy’s girlfriend was doing by tucking them slightly under me like a mermaid. I watched Wung stand up and begin moving around, his skin glistening from the oil under the harsh and distant lights provided by bare bulbs strung about the lot. I’ve seen Wung’s tattoos countless times and yet, now with the oil, as if for the first time. He has a dragon outline that covers most of his back and a number of protection tattoos surrounding it. On his chest is a tiger that reminds me of a Blake sketch. His posture is at once a competent man and a little boy. (The little boy aspect is jarring, as Wung is a strong bodied man with hundreds – literally countless as he’s forgotten- fights.)
Boy’s girlfriend and Neung’s wife have been chatting for a while now and my ears pick up single words in comprehension. Neung’s wife has found something on her phone and touches my knee to get my attention. It’s one of those small gestures of same-sex intimacy that vanishes as one ages in the West and it both startles me and reminds me of being a pre-teen with my circle of girlfriends. She faces the screen toward me and I see a picture of Neung, probably 5 years younger, posed with his two green WBC belts. I smile and nod as she begins telling me where he got them, showing me images of his old gym and trainers. I look over at Neung a few times as she continues flipping through images and he is attentively disinterested. I make minor comments, like remarking that his gym was big or that he’s very skinny in some pictures, the limits of my Thai vocabulary in this context. Slowly the images transition to those of the family dog – a ridiculously tiny poodle-like thing that is endlessly being groomed at the camp and then tucked away in the apartment so that Wandee (Andy’s only female dog and the matriarch of the camp dogs) can’t attack it. There are pictures of their daughter, Eet, who must live with relatives during most of the school year as I only see her in short stretches at the gym.
Finally we arrive at a candid shot in which Neung and his daughter are sitting on a motorbike, her tiny 6-year-old body clinging to his back and a huge, sweet smile clefting her face. Neung’s head is turned the other direction, but Eet is so advertisement-adorable in her pose and demeanor that his misdirection only draws more attention to her. Neung’s wife pinches her fingers at the center of the picture and then draws them out, expanding the image and then pulling it down to zoom in on one portion of the picture. She zeroes in so that it’s just Neung’s head and some background, then pulls it down a little lower and says, in Thai, “and here’s one of Neung looking at a lady.”
Sure enough, Neung’s head is turned away from the camera in order to check out a young Thai woman wearing a short, tight black dress in the background, maybe 30 feet away. I laugh out loud and Neung’s wife brings the picture back to regular size, then points out Neung’s indiscretion again before zooming back in. I look over and Neung is half-smiling now, but turning his head slightly away and squinting as if paying close attention to something going on in the ring. He’s definitely gotten shit for this before, this picture that his wife keeps on her phone as evidence. She’s smiling – she has all the power in this situation – and she shows the picture to Boy’s girlfriend once before flipping to another image of her daughter and then getting lost in a text message, her soft young face washed in the pale glow of cellular light.
Wung sits down for a moment on the mat, looking tiny as he pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his bulbous red gloves around his shins. The three of us women probably weigh a combined 300 lbs and are all curled into ourselves in posture and yet I can feel how much our bodies, our energy and presence consumes the small space of the bamboo mat. In place of no other place, this place is ours.