A couple of years ago, I was on one of my annual trips home to the UK. My parents organized a family BBQ for the occasion, as they always do. When my aunt turned up to join the gathering, the first thing she said to me was “are you still doing Thai boxing, then?”
Her tone and facial expression made it clear that she wasn’t asking out of interest. She was asking out of judgment. When I told her that I was, she could barely feign interest. The best follow-up question she could think of to ask me was “do you ever win?”
Wow. Not only did she think the sport I chose to invest my time in was totally illegitimate, she also assumed I was shit at it. “As a matter of fact, sometimes I do”, I told her. I say she ‘assumed’ because if she’d ever taken an interest, she would have known that already.
She shot back with “how much longer are you going to keep doing that?” This one stumped me. As long as I feel like it, I guess? I hadn’t realised that it was a phase I was expected to grow out of.
Why does my commitment to Muay Thai have to have an expiry date? Why is it that I’m expected to eventually give it up and replace it with something more ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’? Something that makes people feel a little less uncomfortable?
If I’d chosen a sport like soccer or tennis, I don’t think I’d have to deal with these questions. For most of my family and friends back home, Muay Thai isn’t something that they can understand or connect to. It’s not a sport that they’ve ever seen before, so it’s even harder for them to imagine why I do it. The fact that it’s a combat sport that some people like to call ‘brutal’ doesn’t help, either. On top of that, I also wonder if it’s a gendered thing. If I were a man, people might not find it so hard to wrap their heads around the fact that I love fighting.
People in Thailand have also questioned me, but the underlying intent has always been very different. They usually ask questions like “why do you love Muay Thai?” out of curiosity, appreciation, or a desire for understanding, whereas the message from people in the UK is usually something along the lines of “what’s the point of doing that?”
This attitude isn’t just limited to my involvement in Muay Thai. It’s also applied to my time in Thailand in general. On my most recent trip back home, that same aunt walked into my parents’ house on Christmas day and greeted me with “so what’s the attraction out there, then?” Of course, she meant Thailand. Despite the fact that I’ve been living here for over 8 years, she still can’t understand why on Earth I went in the first place, let alone what keeps me here. At this stage, the ‘attraction’ is pretty much my entire life, so I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that one, either.
My mother’s best friend is another serial offender. When introducing me to a group of people at a party, she said “Emma was supposed to be an engineer, that’s what she studied to be. Instead, she packed it all in to go and teach slant-eyed kids in Thailand”. The added racism gave it an extra sting. She was letting me know in a very public way that she viewed me as a failure, and the people I chose to live amongst as ‘less than’. Now, that was brutal.
In previous years, she’s also asked me when I’m going to ‘make use’ of my Bachelor’s degree, and she’s not the only one. This is a common theme every time I go back home. At some point, I always have to deal with people who make me feel as though I’m completely wasting my life in Thailand. It’s irritating having to constantly justify your life choices because others don’t see them as meaningful or valid. That’s partly why living away from home makes it easier. I get to do what I love and just get on with things on my own, without the constant judgment or questioning from the people I would usually have around me.
Complaining is quintessentially British. We just love it. If you’ve ever spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that complaining is just something people do to pass the time. That, and talking about the weather. When I go home, it irks me to no end because everyone seems to be so negative. Then, I feel like a hypocrite because I find myself complaining about other people’s complaining. It’s a cycle of negativity that I’m always happy to break out of when I fly back to Bangkok. I was once told by a family friend I’d put on weight, even though I’d lost a dramatic 10 kg since the last time he’d seen me. It just goes to show that people sometimes just look for something negative to pick at for the sake of it.
These comments only make me feel more disconnected from home. With each visit, my life in Thailand feels more and more permanent, and I wonder how I would ever integrate into life back home if I made the move people so often urge me to make. To them, this transition would mean a return to the ‘real world’, because over here, nothing I do really means anything.
“Why Don’t You Start Teaching Muay Thai?”
When I was fighting regularly, people would also ask me when I was going to stop doing that and start teaching Muay Thai instead. While this almost always came from well-meaning people, it was another comment that was tiresome to hear.
Once, after a particularly disappointing performance in a fight, this question came from a trainer. The day after the show, he told me that I should give up fighting and take up a position teaching women’s classes at his gym. I think he saw it as offering me an opportunity and a way out, but I received it as an insult and a statement that my ambitions as a fighter were completely invalid. I was in tears for quite some time that conversation.
Perhaps teaching Muay Thai seems more valid because it would bring a more stable source of income, or because it would serve others rather than only myself. I’ve never had an answer for that one, either. That’s because becoming a trainer was never part of my plan. For me, fighting has only ever been about growing and improving myself. There’s no end goal. I’ve heard a select few fighters say they’d hang up their gloves after winning a certain title or reaching a specific number of fights, but in general, most of the ones I’ve spoken to have shared my sentiments. We fight for as long as it feels good, for as long as we have the passion for it, or for as long as our bodies will allow us to. Of course, if your fight career is relied upon for an income, you might do it simply for as long as you have to. But I don’t have to. Perhaps that’s another reason why people can’t understand it. To people who would never voluntarily put themselves in such a situation, fighters are crazy to do so. If I can do other things, why wouldn’t I? I can see why that’s confusing for some.
Even Sylvie von Duuglas Ittu, who is achieving incredible things and quite literally changing the game for female fighters, gets asked questions like this frequently. With that in mind, I wonder what hope the rest of us have in justifying our Muay Thai aspirations to the outside world.
“Are you done with Muay Thai yet?”
Do those who ask these questions go around telling other people to give up their hobbies?
Imagine telling a basketball player “you’ve played enough games now, you ought to give it a rest” or a painter “you’ve produced a ton of art already, it’s probably time to stop now”. That’s just not a thing. So, why do people do that to fighters? I’m not entirely convinced that it’s out of concern for my health or safety. There’s more to it than that.
During a period where I hadn’t fought for a while, my dad asked me if I was going to stop fighting for good. “Your mum would be very happy if you did”, he added. It came from a good place, but it didn’t feel good to hear. When I started competing in powerlifting, I could feel my parents breathe a collective sigh of relief from the other side of the world. I can tell that they’re both hoping that it’s replaced Muay Thai and taken the idea of fighting out of my head. It hasn’t, but at least giving them that impression takes the pressure off for now.
Even if training or fighting doesn’t appear to be meaningful to people on the outside, isn’t it enough that it makes me happy? Some might say that this is a ‘millennial’ line of thinking that my parents’ generation is never going to buy into. To my parents, passing up a ‘good job’ with a stable income in favour of something you love is an alien concept. But for me, fighting was never even my career. I’ve always had a steady job while training or fighting in my free time — It’s never been as if Muay Thai is the only thing I’m doing with my life (that would be truly horrific for my parents). So, what’s the problem? Apparently, people just can’t see the value in it. To them, it’s not productive or useful. Meanwhile, they don’t seem to apply that same principle to other sports, pursuits or hobbies. That’s what makes it so frustrating.
I don’t expect or require my relatives or distant friends to take an active interest in what I do. They don’t have to understand it, like it, or relate to it. They don’t even have to approve of it. However, without so much scrutiny, the divide between my life in Thailand and my life back home wouldn’t be so wide.