Fight name: Muangchai Tanaimichelle
Home province: Trang, southern Thailand.
Current gym: Singpatong-Sitnumnoi Gym, Phuket, Thailand.
The middle child from a family of rubber tree farmers and fishermen, Meen is known at Singpatong Gym for his independence and self-sufficiency. Shortly after arriving at the gym, he surprised management by taking initiative to register himself at the local school. He does his own laundry and likes to dress nicely whenever he leaves the gym. According to one of the managers, "Even though the boys' room is a mess, Meen always comes out looking sharp."
In his six years training Muay Thai, Meen has stepped into the ring more than 100 times. He loves to fight, and it shows—he listens during training, fights intelligently, and performs well under pressure. Outside of training, he rarely gives management any grief. Unlike many other boys at the gym, if Meen is given a task, he begins it immediately.
During our interview, Meen was patient, polite, and open in relating his story. When I asked him to tell me something he'll never forget, he said, "I'll always remember what my parents told me when I left home for the first time." Typical of young fighters around the country, Meen left his family to live and train full-time at a gym in another province. He was only 11 years old.
Five boys from my gym were chosen to go. I was one of them.
At first I didn't know what it all meant. The owner of my gym in Trang Province told us we were going to start training at a different gym, and that it was far away. Then I heard that someone from Dragon Muay Thai, a gym in Phuket, had seen one of our fighters win a match recently and was impressed with our gym. The owner of Dragon talked to the owner of my gym about bringing over boys who showed talent and had already fought in the ring.
My parents told me to go to Phuket. They said it was a good opportunity and it would keep me away from the drug problems in my hometown. They said it was just for my school break, only two months, so I had to stay focused at the new gym. "Work hard and pay attention to your trainers," they said. "You're growing up and you're going to be on your own now so you have to learn to take care of yourself."
We met the trainers and the owner of Dragon on the first day. The adults asked us questions like how long we would stay and why we wanted to be there. When they asked me, I told them I came here to train Muay Thai. It was the same thing everyone else said. The trainers were nice to us, but I was nervous they wouldn't like me or that I'd say the wrong thing.
We all lived in a building right next to the gym. I was with four other boys I knew from my gym, but I still felt lonely. Every time my parents called to see how I was, I wanted to cry. My mother said, "Don't worry, it's just two months. Then you can come home and go back to school with your friends. Work hard now. We are proud of you."
Everything in Phuket was different than in Trang. There were so many foreigners at Dragon. It was my first time training near foreigners and it was weird. They used a language I'd never heard before. We tried to communicate with each other a little bit, but I didn't feel close to them. They were nice to me, though. And I learned some English from them—"How old are you?" and "You can go see boxing!"
At the end of the two months, my parents came to pick me up. I was so excited to see them, I ran over to them when they came into the gym. They asked me, "Was it fun for you? Did you have a good time?" and I said yes, it was a lot of fun. "I want to go home, though," I told them. "It was fun but I'm ready to go home."
They brought me home, I went back to my gym in Trang, and I went back to school with all my friends.
Four months later, I left home again.
The owner of my Trang gym said I showed real promise. He told me to go to Singpatong Gym in another part of Phuket. My parents said I could enroll in a new school and stay at Singpatong if I liked it.
I've been at Singpatong three years now. I like it now, but it was hard to adjust when I first got here. When I was at Dragon, I knew I was going to stay only two months. When I got here to Singpatong, though, I cried a lot because I thought I was going to be here forever. I didn't know when I could go home and see my family again.
I missed them so much but I knew I had to stay. My mother was so worried about the drug problems in our neighborhood. She said all the boys were suffering because of drugs and she didn't want that to happen to me. I told her she didn't have to worry because I would stay at the gym and focus on Muay Thai.
My parents come to visit me whenever they can. I don't see them much but I know they're proud of me. Sometimes they come to my fights and hug me afterwards. They tell me I'm good because I work hard at Muay Thai. I saw my parents maybe four or five times last year. It didn't seem like much, but then I reminded myself that some other boys here see their families even less.
I still talk to my parents almost every day on the phone. They ask me questions like if I'm going to school, was my heart in training today, am I being responsible and doing my job? They remind me to focus on training and then before we hang up, they tell me they love me. I always say it back to them.
One time I started crying when I was talking to my mother on the phone. I hadn't been at the gym long, maybe just a few weeks. Everyone was nice to me but I missed my parents so much, and I wanted to be home with them and be part of the family again.
My mother told me not to cry. She said, "You are in a good gym where you can learn to be a better boxer. Don't worry about us at home. We're here for you, and we will come see you in the future. Remember why you are there, and focus on what you need to do."
I said okay, told her I'd try to be good and work hard. I was still crying after she hung up. I put my head down because I thought the other boys were going to make fun of me, but no one was making jokes about me crying.
A couple of the boys asked me what was wrong. I said, "Nothing. Nothing's wrong."
They sat close and said, "It's okay, Meen. We miss our families too."
Thai-English interpretation by Prim Parichart Padburee.
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