Bangkok – Thailand
My name is Thorsaeng, I am 30 years old. I come from Bangkok and have lived in the suburbs of Bangkok all my life. I work in a PR (Public Relations) agency. Both my mom and my dad are still working. We are a middle class family and I am an only child.
“Instead of ruling femininity as something weak, we should use it as a strength”
When I was a child, I didn’t think that there was any difference between boys and girls. I think my parents played a huge role in this because my mom has always been working as well and my dad really respected my opinion when I was growing up. I grew up in a community where women have power; the mother of each house is the power holder of the house. I think it is quite common in the Bangkok metropolitan area. If I had been a boy, I really don’t think I would have been treated any differently.
At school, girls usually do better than boys academically and usually are the teachers’ favorites.
Some teachers are meaner on male students than on female students, and I think it is because, in their eyes, boys are naughtier. Besides, unlike boys, Thai girls have this strategy of being sweet and cute to make their points with older people. I don’t know if it’s because of us being Asian or us being Thai but we are taught not to be straight forward when we have something to say, but instead we can use our sweetness and softness to get what we want. So I think this is how we rise to power!
I studied communications so I think a lot about the art of communications, about the way we communicate to people. For instance, I rarely use the word “feminist” because it is sort of a taboo word. It has some sort of a nagging connotation to it. The way that we portray ourselves and communicate to other people needs to be done to our advantage. Instead of ruling femininity as something weak, we should use it as a strength. I think to become a smarter woman, we should use femininity to our advantage instead of being pushed down as a weaker gender.
“If they bear children it means that they have to take at least three-month maternity leave off of work, that’s when the power balance shifts back to men”
At work, we have about 20 people and only one is a male. The General Manager is a female and even the regional head of our company is a woman. So maybe it’s because we are in the PR industry which is a female dominated industry, I feel empowered working in this environment. Our opinions are respected and we are looked up with respect and consideration. But the majority of other sectors are still male dominated. I think the fact that I am in this industry makes me feel less stressed about being a female than in other workplaces where the majority of the board would be male.
I think restrictive gender roles are more prominent in the countryside than in the cities. In rural areas, females are expected to stay at home. I think the key changer is people in the city can afford to have maids, but people in the countryside can’t. Back when I was born, I was raised by a helper and my grandparents when my mom went out to work. So that’s how she was still able to keep her status and the power in the household because she could still contribute to the family income, even though it was slightly less than my dad. I think education is not a challenge for girls, the problem is that girls get less opportunity to work after they graduate. If they bear children it means that they have to take at least three-month maternity leave off of work, that’s when the power balance shifts back to men. The issue here is about who gets paid more, who is in control of the household money. Once the household can afford to get a helper to help raise the kids, then the female can regain power.
“I think the exposure to online media drives people to have a different focus in life rather than just starting a family”
As a child, I did not expect life to be harder because of my gender, but later, there was definitely a peer pressure to have a boyfriend or to be in a relationship and eventually to get married and have kids. I think nowadays there is less pressure on women to get married. Half of my friends are not married and they are happy and successful. I have never experienced that kind of pressure from my family. I think they would rather have me at home to keep them company. But now that I have turned 30, sometimes, my mom would make a light comment about it, and say things like “I do want you to get married”.
In the city, I see that people are getting married much later. When my parents were my age, they were already married and settled in a house, but for us now, at 30, we are still travelling and we are still figuring out what we want to do in our lives. I think internet makes a big difference, also travelling, it changes the world. Back in the days, when my parents got married, they hadn’t seen much of the world like our generation has nowadays. There were no Facebook posts about the Machu Picchu or photos of Iceland, for example. So they didn’t have that urge to go travelling, their sole purpose was to build a career and have a family and save money. I think the exposure to online media drives people to have a different focus in life than just starting a family. In my opinion, the evolution of the situation of women is also linked to the internet. There are now a lot of online shops run by women, like fashion, beauty or any kind of online businesses that you can think of. For the past 10 years women have formed an increasing number of start-up leaders and online business owners. Because of that, they have become more financially independent. It just takes one person and one smartphone. There is no need to be accepted in a workplace environment dominated by men.
I think the area where being a women has most affected me would be in terms of sexuality. In Thai society, I don’t want to say that we are hypocrites, but we are expected to appear very religious and good-mannered even though some of us are not. Women are not supposed to be sexually promiscuous, but then, there are prostitutes on the streets. We feel pressured from the society to appear well behaved, shy, and not sensual or sexual in our behavior but also in our way of dressing up, otherwise you get called out for dressing seductively.
“Successful marriages between Thai women and foreign men don’t get coverage in the media because it has nothing fun in it”
The perception of Asian women dating foreign men puts us in a very bad spotlight. Especially, when people see a Thai woman dating a Western man, they assume she wants his money or his green card, that she is a gold digger. Part of it is true, I’m not going to deny it, there are women who want to marry foreign men solely for the money and as a ladder to a better life. It exists. But this perception is limited to people who haven’t truly visited Thailand or been exposed to Thai culture and its people. When I go abroad I want to tell people about Thai women, I want them to understand who we really are because sometimes, people have stereotypes that can be hurtful.
The representation of women in the global media is also reinforcing this image and stereotypes against Thai women. I feel like we are misrepresented. It is true that there are some Thai women looking for foreign men for their money, but those are the only stories that get published. Successful marriages between Thai women and foreign men don’t get coverage in the media because it has nothing fun in it. But I have many friends who are happily married in an intercultural relationship.
“Now more than ever, we are being colonized by western culture”
I think the main challenge for Thailand today is to maintain our Thai identity. Thailand has never been colonized before. I have this feeling that other countries in Asia that have been colonized in the past tend to stick to their own identity more tightly because they feel like they have already been invaded enough. But for us, in Thailand, we are chill, we are like “yeah it’s fine”, but for me, now more than ever, we are being colonized by the western culture. A lot of young girls are imitating what they see in music videos or online, especially in the countryside. As their knowledge is only based on what they see online, they have a biased perception of foreigners as being of a higher status than Thai people.
While in Myanmar, for example, they have a strong cultural identity. They still wear the longi (traditional outfit), they still put the Tanaka paste on their face, and they keep the things that represent their traditions. In Thailand, some people feel ashamed to wear a Thai costume, because they feel that it’s old fashioned. Although, lately there has been a rising trend in wearing traditional Thai costume at weddings for the brides and bridesmaids that helps bring back this Thailand pride.
“I’ve experienced catcalling more in western countries than here”
Regarding street harassment, in Thailand I feel that it’s the same as in other countries. I’ve experienced catcalling more in western countries than here. Maybe it’s because I’m a local, men feel they have the freedom to do it to tourists because those people don’t understand Thai.
Here in Thailand, we are very open about ladyboys and gays, although less about tomboys and lesbians. The guy at our workplace is gay and he is our favorite! It is a blast to have him there. For me, this has an impact on all genders. If we can accept ladyboys, it should be easier for us to accept strong women. So with that mindset many people are very open which indirectly influences the balance of gender roles here.
“There are very few successful women, even globally, that are put in the spotlight, like CEOs. For example, we always portray Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but people like Sheryl Sandberg are hardly ever mentioned”
At a common workplace, there is still a gender stigma. For example, there are no men who are secretaries and there are only a few women working as engineers. My cousin just got into an engineering school and in her class there are about 300 students, less than 10 are women. Yet, it doesn’t mean that they can’t get in, it’s just that girls don’t want to choose these professions because it is seen as for men or male dominated. I think the important thing is to have role models. There are very few successful women, even globally, that are put in the spotlight, like CEOs. We always portray Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but people like Sheryl Sandberg are hardly ever mentioned. (If you haven’t read the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, just go to the bookstore and buy it right now!)
I would like women to believe in themselves. But Thai people are taught to be humble and to talk down on their ability. I think you don’t need to gloat about how good you are but you can find a way to show it, don’t be shy, don’t hide your abilities, find a way to showcase it without being too proud or too cocky.
For me, feminism doesn’t mean that you have to fight against men. Some feminists try to fight off men and say that they hate men, those negative remarks stand out and harbor bad reputation for feminists. Emma Watson is campaigning HeForShe, but it’s still about gender while actually it should be something neutral.
I think men are under a lot of pressure too; for example, they need to be financially stable like it’s their main responsibility before starting a family. Women don’t have that kind of pressure. Men are perceived to be less of a man being without money or a car or a house. A lot of women still expect men to pay on the first date, but if you date men of the same age and you expect him to be more financially stable than you, then that’s not fair. There are a lot of stereotypes on men too, to be strong, to be tough and so on which also need to be addressed.
What is inspiring about women is our ability to sympathize with other people. Women are more caring and motherly. Again, I think we should use that to our advantages. If we are able to sympathize with others, we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes, we can perceive things from their point of view, and have the ability to understand, then we, too, can help make the world a better place.