Strangers in a Strange Land

By Mike LNg

Thais at the Wat

As Muay Thai is steadily gaining a grass roots hold in the United States gyms have often imported Muay Thai talent to teach and fight under their gyms banner.  It gives the gyms some added authenticity as they can now boast of talents from the homeland of Muay Thai: Thailand. The additional star power a former or even current top nak muay from Thailand is hard to ignore and the opportunity to train with them is an easy enticement. In a happy scenario information is exchanged and the imported talent grows while a gym grows both in knowledge and in monetary gain.  However recently my memory is jogged about an ugly underlying element I too often encounter. And that element is one of base exploitation.

In the United States it has become harder and harder to gather talent through the visa process of in essence licensing a foreign worker. The requirements are fairly stringent but in their core the requirements must be a specialty occupation a potential employer is seeking which only the foreign worker can fill as a non-immigrant worker. In other words there is not a process for gaining citizenship in these terms. The H1B dependent makes the assumption the potential USA employer has made a good faith effort to fill the needed job role with native talent but couldn’t. So for example if a gym is seeking a Thai stadium champion in Muay Thai the hunt overseas is justifiable. The visa can be made up to a maximum duration of six years.

Here’s where the issue begins to form. Basically there are many gyms that exploit this to bring Thai talent over and with an arrangement in housing monetary payment can be exceedingly low or at an agreed fee for a gym’s cut wholly dependent on class attendance and so forth. In a scenario where attendance is low due to the gym’s poor marketing or organization the Thai worker can end up with very little to show for, for their efforts. Even worse there are many Thais that would like to formulate the curriculum of Muay Thai on their own but often they are often given no voice in this. Lastly gyms will take a cut of the Thai talents fights for gym fees, management fees and various other costs. At the end of the tally often times there is very little left for the trainer. In almost every scenario I’ve encountered the Thais are typically laboring not just for themselves but for their families at home to build a future for them as well.

To add to this issue there is an obvious language barrier many Thais are going to run into while in America.  Additionally one can accurately guess that typical communication tools native citizens use on a daily basis can prove daunting for many imported trainers such as cell phones, e-mail, or various other forms of electronic messaging. This results in more confusion and often poor treatment because of it. The basic struggles with communication very easily becomes a brand of stupidity or incompetence by native citizens. As basically a first generation American citizen I can relate to it very well. And one may ask how?  And I have to answer because I’ve seen it and I’ve experienced it.

Though now into the 21st century Asian Americans are some how viewed as a class of people who are largely doing well it wasn’t that long ago I can remember seeing my father being refused service by white Americans, being talked to loudly and slowly as if there was a lack of intelligence and basically being broadly assumed ready and able to do any menial work for extremely low pay. To add to it even after my father completed his degree with high scores he soon found that the ‘glass ceiling’ is indeed a reality. After 30 some odd years of employment by the same company he was never to hold a management position. As the benefactor to my father’s hard work and insistence on higher education I did noticeably better and had significantly less struggles economically. However even now anno domini 2010 I still get told how my English is so wonderful and how I am doing so well ‘for my people’. And the ‘glass ceiling’ has remained a constant in my career thus far.

So where does this little anecdote go with the point I am attempting to make?  Too often the foreign culture and reduced communication skills lead people to believe that Thai trainers are plainly stupid. This is an important distinction to make because then it becomes a small mental leap to assume they therefore deserve their treatment.  To further illustrate my point let me draw upon some real world examples. The names are  not used to protect both the guilty and the innocent and frankly so I don’t get sued.

  • A trainer sets up a well known and fast growing camp.  Eventually this gym gets the ears of MMA practioners and trainers and they join forces.  The gym proudly bears his name as the ‘Golden Lion’. The gym sees potential and the gyms partners view the Thai talent as a barrier to financial gain.  With maneuvering from the staff and a student the Thai trainer is leveraged out of his own gym that continued to bear his name on it until the gym went out of business and closed.
  • A trainer sets up his gym after basically escaping slave wages and a go no where scenario. His student who basically was raised by the trainer form a new gym and success is had by both.  The gym grows steadily and begins to also attract new MMA students.  The idea is struck that the Thai is a barrier to new money and opportunities.  The gym begins to maneuver to drive the Thai co-owner out.
  • A trainer relocates to find new opportunities in a place where Muay Thai is beginning to thrive in the USA. He packs and leaves and makes his way to the Southwest United States where hopefully he can make his mark and earn enough money to support himself and his family. However after an extended stint with his lifelong employer on the USA side he also wisely decides he can and should do better. His new employer signs him to a low paying contract below $20,000/annually that he and his family are expected to subsist on.  After much wrangling and years of work he now has a larger salary of $35,000 annually that he and his family live on all the while carrying on with a curriculum not his own and formulated by a far less talented and knowledgeable teacher.

These are real scenarios and not an invention of mine.  And nothing would make me happier than to say it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately it does persist well into the 21st century.  While the USA has made great strides in Muay Thai and continues to this persistent culture of exploitation has too. I’ve seen it too often to ignore it and as I grow older so does my need to answer my conscience. I am doubtful I can make great revolutionary changes on my own but I try to help when and where I can in this scenario. But exploitation and frankly an ample dose of racism is very much alive in the USA and in Muay Thai gyms. I’ve seen it first hand and a far. And these same gyms make much lip service about respecting tradition and adhering to the Thai way.  But for all the calls and saluting in broken Thai I hear and see ensuring integrity and dignity in the sport I think we all need to look into our own houses to make sure they’re clean first.

Muay Thai is a ring sport but with any fighting sport there’s a measure of honor exchanged between fighters and between camps. I think all of us are responsible for extending the same honor and compassion to some of the sport’s best exponents: the Thai trainer in the United States.

Thanks for reading.

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~ by fatsoking on June 16, 2010.

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