I meet Lai for the first time on a balmy October morning. At 9:30 am, the air was already moist, and even my eyelids were dripping with sweat, just from the ten-minute walk to the gym.
We make eye contact, and he comes over, solemnly taking my hands in his and introducing himself. He seems shy, unassuming, and serious. I was here for private Muay Thai kickboxing sessions, and although I had never met Lai before, he came highly recommended by a friend.
We start the class with some basic drills, so he can assess my technique. Having done Muay Thai for a while in both Korea and Cambodia, I am certain that my athletic skills, speed, and coordination will greatly surpass his expectations.
We do a few minutes of pad work, and with every punch and kick, his eyes cloud over with disappointment and regret. He looks at me forlornly and says, “No…”
He corrects my stance and posture, demonstrates what I was meant to do again, and holds up the pads. After a few more minutes, where I continue to amaze him with my ability to do each and every combo he teaches me incorrectly, he drops the pads.
“Yes, TV. Come.”
He takes my hand and leads me to the other side of the gym. We stop in front of the full-length mirrors and he faces them.
“Look at the mirror?” I ask, pointing at our reflections.
“Yes, TV. Look!” he says, and pushes my head forward, so that I have no choice but to stare at myself.
He demonstrates the roundhouse kick that I was meant to do. We do it together, slowly at first. He is a perfect display of grace, power, and agility.
And beside him is a baby giraffe having a seizure.
“Noooo…” he cries, and we try again. After several more tries, when the disappointment in his sad eyes becomes too much for me to bear, he stops me and takes my hand again.
“Ok… now, kick is…” he wags his fingers back and forth, to indicate overwhelming mediocrity. But we are running out of time. We leave the TV, and he gently pulls me back to the floor.
I have had several lessons with Lai now, and although I was confident that I would soon impress him with my athleticism and physical prowess, this is not turning out to be the case.
Most of our lessons have ended with him holding onto one of the punching bags and sobbing into it with the hysteria of an abandoned child.
He told me recently that long ago, he used to train UFC fighter Cody “No Love” Garbrandt. A cursory (and totally un-creepy) Google-stalking of Lai revealed that he had been fighting since he was 7 years old and had eventually moved to Bangkok on his own to earn a living as a professional fighter.
I am so curious about this gentle soul, and I want to know more of his story. But we are impeded by a language barrier and a lack of time, as he is usually booked for back-to-back lessons.
How did this incredible athlete come to be here? How did he go from training a professional mixed martial artist to working at a Muay Thai gym, training an asthmatic Canadian girl with the dexterity and flexibility of an aging sea turtle?
I came to look forward to our lessons each week, both for the learning experience and for Lai’s beautiful spirit and sense of humour. I was determined that one day, this poor man would be proud of me, and would not end our classes ugly-crying in the corner of the room.
Lai and I are working on my front kicks, known as the teep in Thai. Lai is nervously holding the kick pad around his mid-section.
“Careful,” he warns me, gesturing to his crotch area, which is partially covered by the bottom of the kick pad.
I nod, and we start. My technique is awful, and my aim is even worse. I manage to hit the pad about 70% of the time, but only 10% of my kicks are reaching the centre. The rest of the time, my kicks are landing south of the pad.
“You see tiger???” Lai yelps, pointing at the giant orange tiger’s face painted on the kick pad.
“Yes, I can see the tiger…”
“Why you no kick tiger if you see tiger?”
“Um… because I have the coordination of a drunk gazelle?”
“Please, careful!” Lai pleads with me.
“You see tiger, you kick tiger! No kick here and here and here!” Lai gestures at the air surrounding the pad and at his nether regions, directly under the pad.
I am nervous but determined. I can do this.
Come on, Christine. See the tiger… Be the tiger…
I concentrate on the tiger directly in front of me and think of the techniques we went over today.
You ARE the tiger…
I teep the pad, executing the kick with decent technique and all the power I can muster. I hit the bottom of the pad, right below the tiger.
Lai doubles over and drops the pad, gingerly holding his groin.
“I am so sorry…” I say weakly.
He shakes his head and looks up at me from the ground. “BREAK!!”
I shouldn’t laugh. It’s not funny that I injured this sweet, hardworking man. But I can’t help myself, the laughter rises from the bottom of my stomach up to my face. My whole body is shaking with the effort of controlling this inappropriate display of joy.
I recently read an interesting statistic about laughter. It stated that a young child laughs over 400 times a day, while an adult only laughs a dismal 17 times a day. In that class, I laughed so hard I had to sit on the floor and hold myself to keep from rupturing my spleen.
At the end of our lesson, Lai takes my payment card from me.
“I am so tired…” he says.
“You didn’t sleep well last night?” I ask sympathetically.
“No. I sleep good. Because of you, I am very tired.”
With this, he takes the card from my hands and walks away, most likely to jump off a cliff.