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My Thai Transformation: A Volunteer’s Tale of Losing Fifty Pounds and Finding Self-Love

42738760_1108356362675414_3372779762475859968_n (1)Aseem Kever, 130 YinD

I have been very fortunate to accomplish many things in my twenty-seven years, amongst them: graduating from Berkeley, summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro, traveling to 15 different countries, and joining the Peace Corps as a Youth in Development volunteer in Thailand. However, despite any accolades I received, the one issue that I continuously struggle with from childhood is body weight and self-image. I always perceived myself as one of the largest children in my class, and as I matured into an adult I developed unhealthy eating behaviors and coping mechanisms that manifested in low confidence and a larger body. When people say, “it doesn’t matter what numbers appear on the scale, but what matters is how you feel when you look in the mirror,” I believe it. Weight and one’s relationship to one’s body and perception of self varies across cultures and individuals. The unfortunate truth is that the weighing scale has a powerful influence on those most conscious about their bodies and weight. As I watched my own weight fluctuate throughout my life, it had varying effects on my physical health and emotional wellbeing. The numbers ballooned, for many underlying reasons, to a frightening 240 pounds two years ago in December of 2016 when I traveled to India for a month with a study abroad program. As someone who has always been physically active and played sports it was a hard truth to face that my weight was making it difficult to keep up with the rest of the group and even causing me difficulty breathing. I made a vow to be more active and to take better care of myself, and I was able to get myself in good enough shape to summit Kilimanjaro in the summer of 2017. When I got to Thailand in January of this year – 2018 – I was feeling good: I had gone through and passed a lengthy medical clearance process for the Peace Corps, and I was in a much better place in all aspects. As imperfect a measure of weight as Body Mass Index is, I was still in the obese range at the beginning of Pre Service Training (PST), but I found myself surrounded by people who were incredibly supportive and inspired me with their passion and thus, it was easier to not focus on weight and just enjoy the company of those around me.

The first ten days of PST were spent in a hotel surrounded by my fellow PCVS and Peace Corps Staff who, for the most part, have experience working with Americans and thus, for the most part, we operated in a bubble meant to prepare us for the realities we would face once we moved in with our host families and moved into our communities for the remainder of the three months. Our host families were prepped by our homestay coordinators about the diversity present in the cohort of American volunteers that the families would be taking in, and I was very fortunate with my host family placement. In addition, PST kept us all busy with learning a new language and trying to absorb and process all the new experiences we faced daily. As a consequence of getting better at the language, it became harder to ignore the many comments and comparisons made by the members of our preservice site community about the new group of volunteers who swarmed their market like a group of foraging ants. Although these comments breached the sensitive subjects of weight and skin color, I never felt any of these comments were malicious, but rather came from a culture that predicates many conversations around the body. This is not a characteristic unique to Thailand, but when transitioning from an American society – where making comments on the appearance of others is frowned upon and at times even taboo – to a society in which small talk is in many instances based on appearance, it can be quite the shock and even terrifying for the uninitiated.

After the maddening roar of a thousand rushing streams that is PST came the eerie silence which accompanies the first few months of site placement. This is the time when schools are closed, the young kids that will eventually become your best friends have usually gone to the big cities, and you stare at a computer screen for hours contemplating your choices in life. Well, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but this the time when many volunteers have a lot of time to themselves, which – for some – is a great thing. I decided I would use this time to get myself as physically and mentally prepared as I could to serve my community. I started the process by going on runs in the morning with my host dad. Every morning we would wake up at around five fifteen and go for a run (which I would never have done on my own on account of the dogs in the village differing vastly in temperament and willingness to bite from the dogs in suburban California). As I continued to work at my local government agency, or SAO, I got a chance to meet someone who would become one of my main counterparts and one of my closest friends at site: the head of the local health clinic Panaree Chuannok, or Pii Dtoo as I would come to respectfully refer to her. Pii Dtoo – someone with a passion for youth development and extensive connections – asked what I was interested in seeing while I was in the community. I thought it over, and the answer was instantaneous: I wanted to visit a Muay Thai gym. This was one of the things I was most excited about seeing since my arrival in Thailand. Little did I know that this request would change my life at site and have an all-encompassing effect on my physical, emotional, and mental being. I will forever be indebted to Pii Dtoo, who drove me and introduced me to Mae Pung (Mother Bee) and Pii Dit, the owners of gym where I would begin and fall in love with the practice of Muay Thai.

My first visit to the gym was quite hilarious in retrospect: I had just finished work, and I was dressed in a long-sleeved dress shirt and black dress pants in 100 degree weather with a humidity that made you feel like someone had slapped you across the face with a warm, moist towel and left it there to dry. The other fighters who were in the middle of their training – and had worked up a lather of their own – stared on as the clueless farang (foreigner) punched and attempted to kick the hefty gym punching bags. Pii Dit, the owner of the gym and head trainer, came over and gave me some tips, and, after I went to work for a while, he asked me if I wanted to climb up into the gym ring with him. I immediately accepted, knowing what a great honor this was: to be able to work the pads with a trainer who had coached fighters who were victorious at the largest stadiums in Bangkok was not an opportunity I was going to let slip by me. Although it was a relaxed session, it sparked something in me: a passion I never knew I had. I wanted to get better at this martial art; I enjoyed the fact that it made you utilize all the parts of your body and especially your mind. I asked Pii Dtoo if she was willing to go back with me, and she has continued to be very generous, and we have kept going back. Day after day I train with Pii Dit, and Pii Dtoo has also become a fierce workout warrior, too. Muay Thai training has become a major source of joy and pride of mine and is a part of my daily life and service here in Thailand. I can say without a doubt that it has changed my life, since beginning I have changed my lifestyle around it, improved my eating habits, become more active and as a result I find that I have a lot more energy than I have ever had. Another thing that many people may not immediately think of when pondering a martial art like Muay Thai is the role of meditation. Muay Thai requires that one remains cool- and level-headed, maintaining focus in the moments of highest pressure. I had never been a practitioner of meditation, but with the encouragement from my trainer and instruction from our incredible head monk Luang Paw Lek I now try and incorporate it as much as possible in my daily activities. The mental and physical aspects of Muay Thai training have had a profound impact on my service, perspective and my interactions with my community. Muay Thai and this fitness journey has provided me with the work life balance, focus, and motivation to be a better person and volunteer.  

Results take time and are often not visible but the key that has helped me go through my transformation is consistency. There have been plenty of days where I felt I had hit a point of stagnation and was not seeing any progress, but I didn’t let that stop me from going. I had gone down that path before, I had let frustration and lack of consistency stop me before; I wasn’t going to let myself be my own worst enemy again. This time is different: I have a greater sense of focus, my service and my community give me a greater sense of purpose, and I am genuinely happy. There are tough days – days when I really don’t want to do those extra sit-ups after training or go for my morning run – and on the hardest days I lean on my immediate community and my community of Peace Corps volunteers. This journey would not have been possible on my own. I would not have made it to this point without the help of my friends, my trainer, and some incredible PCVs who I have to shout out: 128 Danyal who has repeatedly inspired me by his example and has even video called me multiple times to lead me through some incredible workouts, 129 Chan who was super helpful and sent me ideas for a home gym and a weight lifting regimen, 129 Anna who I am convinced is a superhero and inspired me to pursue Muay Thai as a form of integration and training, 130 Ashley who gave me great advice on both exercise and nutrition, 130 Gabriel who started the process of getting me to workout when we arrived at our hotel in Thailand, and, finally, 130 Tim V who has continued to support me throughout service and encouraged me whenever I was down.

To conclude this article, I want to make a small note on the topic of confidence, which I mentioned was something that I have always struggled with. Losing over fifty pounds from when I first arrived in Thailand has helped build my confidence; however, confidence like losing weight is not instantaneous – it is a process. My confidence is something I work on everyday: it ebbs and flows, I make a conscious effort to not let the lows get too low and to remain humble and empathetic because everybody’s struggle and path is different. I know I can do hard things but there is still a fear that looms over me that I could gain the weight back at any time – a fear that months of hard work, the dedication, the exhaustion that were all a part of this journey could be derailed by poor choices. This fear can be overwhelming, but every time it approaches that point, I remind myself that it is important to be kind to myself, that this journey of fitness has really been a journey of self-love, and that I have finally reached the point where I love myself too much to let me sabotage myself.      

Figure 1  January 2016: the heaviest and most unhealthy I have felt

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Figure 2 Jan 2018 Arrived in Thailand with some of the incredible people who helped me make it through PST

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Figure 3: Mar 2018 My first week at site

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Figure 4 My first time at the Muay Thai Gym: Look at that form

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Figure 5: May 2018 Learning meditation from Luang Paw the head monk

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Figure 6 The Muay Thai family celebrating birthdays Pii Dit 2nd from Right and Pii Dtoo 4th from right

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Figure 7: Sept 2018 My most current picture after five months of Muay Thai and better nutrition

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