The Class System in Thailand – An Average Thai Girl’s View
Dear Mr. Stickman,
It is nice to write to you again. After writing a bit on the dowry issue last time, I ran out of ideas. Thanks to the readers though, some of your emails and questions led me to write this topic which really seems like a confusing topic for foreigners… The Class System in Thailand. Does it or does it not exist? In what form is it present in the Thai society now? Who is from which class? What do Thai people mean when they say they are middle class? I hope this article will help clarify some of the questions you have somewhat.
Note from author: This article is subjective. I am not a sociologist so please bear in mind that my observations might be wrong. Since it is my observation from my point of view, it is only fair to tell you where I am seeing things from. I am an only child raised from what I consider a middle-class family. It is noteworthy that my family is a bit on the conservative side.
The first part will provide you with some background information. This is what little that is left from my history class. I have verified some of the facts and *think* they are accurate. However, the ‘today’ part is based on my own observation.
Centuries ago: The Thai government and society used to be based around our own style of the feudal system. On the top of the pyramid of power was the king, then came members of the royal family, noblemen, commoners and at the bottom of the food chain, slaves. This system was abolished by King Rama V in the 1900s.
Today: Not unlike the West, Thais, save for the royal family, is considered equal under the constitution, but there are still classes defined by one’s socio-economical background. Unfortunately, due to our poor wealth distribution, the difference in status here is much more prominent than the west. Let me give you my idea of classes in Thailand (this is information according to *me*… )
Elites: These people are known in the Thai society as ‘hi-so.’ They are the privileged, wealthy and well-connected.
Middle class: Often hold undergraduate or graduate degrees. Good job. High economic capital, although not as high as the Elite.
Working class: Blue-collar workers. These people don’t earn a lot, but they do get by. Children from working class families usually finish high school or even university if they work hard enough.
Precariat: They are the most deprived of all groups. No steady job or income. Life is a struggle for these people. Children from these families usually only finish the 9-year mandatory education, if they get the chance to finish that at all. I believe that the majority of girls in the bar industry are from families in this class.
At face value, Thais usually determine people’s class in society by how they present themselves, their mannerism and how they talk.
In the second part, I will clarify some issues foreigners have about the Thai class system. This is subjective. I am answering these questions from my own opinion and experience. Also, even though what I am going to write might suggest otherwise, I am not an elitist.
1. Do Thais from different classes socialise?
Yes, we do, but not very often. It has more to do with not having a chance to socialise with people from other classes than not wanting to. Starting from childhood, children from well-to-do families tend to attend prestigious governmental schools, university demonstration schools, private schools and international schools. Of course, these schools normally consist of students from middle class up. By the time we go to university, we have already developed certain lifestyles and circles of friends and stick to them. After graduation, we work with people from a similar educational background. The opportunity to get to know people from a different class was never really there.
I do admit that there are people who are reluctant to let their loved ones socialise with people from the lower echelon of society out of concerns for their safety. There are a couple of stereotypes among Thais that deem people from the lower echelons of society deceptive and dangerous.
2. Thai people don’t marry outside their own class?
We do, but not often. Thais normally associate with people from their own class so chances are we would date someone from our own class as well. Marriage in Thailand is between two families, not two people, so parents would take the other party’s family and socio-economic background into account to ensure that their children’s married life would go as smoothly as possible.
In cross-class marriages, it’s normally the bride who marries up. Since Thai men are expected by society to take care of the bride in all aspects of life including financial, it’s a bit awkward for them to marry a woman from a higher class. The dowry is one powerful tool used by parents to deter guys who incidentally have a lower status from marrying their daughters.
One thing my parents emphasised about marriage is that I should not get married if it is going to make my life tougher. My parents would say that they can afford to take care of me, their only child, for the rest of my life so I don’t have to get married and that if my married life involves me counting my pennies, they’re not going to be able to die in peace. This is an example of two middle class Thai attitude towards cross-class marriage.
Most Thais who are middle class and up disapprove of Thai-foreigner relationships?
In the past, the majority of people who dated and married foreigners were prostitutes, so there was a certain stigma associated with dating foreigners. However, during the last decade, that kind of prejudice has faded and it is more a case by case thing nowadays. Most conservative families would not approve due to the cultural differences. Some parents fear that their children would have to move abroad. Others are worried, because they don’t know the guy’s family and can’t be sure of his socio-economic background. The good news is that if everything checks out and the guy seems reliable and compatible to their daughter, chances are the parents wouldn’t object the relationship.
My friends don’t want to socialise with my girlfriend, because she is from Isaan?
Thais don’t have problems with Isaan people. However, we do feel more than a little awkward when your significant half is obviously a bargirl (Read: someone who dresses like one.) I once had that awkward moment when a Scottish friend introduced his bargirl girlfriend to me. I made sure to be polite and friendly, but she was intimidated by me anyways. What bargirls do for a living is considered shameful in the eyes of most Thais and that makes them self-conscious. Even though I didn't judge, she felt like I did. However, to be honest, I didn't want to be seen walking with her, because who I hang out with also reflects on me.
*** If an Isaan girl dressed in revealing clothes is hanging out with a foreigner, chances are people are going to assume that she is from the bar industry. My guess is that most girls in the bar industry come from Isaan so it became a stereotype. Thais also consider other aspects, though. If she looks proper and seems well-educated, people are not going to make those kind of assumptions.
Thai people are racists? Darker skin is not pretty?
A lot of this is due to socio-economic status. Most businessmen / women in Thailand are Thai-Chinese who have lighter skin due to being of Chinese descent. These people are the ones with the money so Thais associate lighter skin with being wealthy. We also have to admit the majority of the poor are farmers who have darker skin tones as a result of working in the sun.
Thai people like clear and delicate skin. We have a bit of a preference towards a lighter skin tone, but dark and delicate skin is also appreciated. I believe that the latest Miss Thailand world has tan skin.
Thai people from one class are not aware of what that happens in another class?
Thai people are very much aware of what goes on in other classes. Yes, we do know about a lot of things that happen in the lower echelons too. We just don’t like to admit it. It’s easier to say that I’m middle class. I am different and this is a middle class point of view. People don’t want to be associated and identified with things they don’t do and never agreed with in the first place. At this point you would have spotted that I told a lie in my last article. I might not understand how these people’s brains work, but I sure know the way many Isaan families deal with the dowry. Feigning ignorance is what Thai people do a lot of time to avoid answering hard questions.
The questions posted above were gathered from some of the articles I read. I know that this article is far from perfect, and that it would not answer everyone’s questions about everything, but I do hope that it would help you understand Thailand and its people a little more.
Thank you for taking your time to read my article until the end. If you have any questions, I am happy to clarify what I wrote and I would love to hear from readers and what they think of this article too.
Thank you for the space to write and post my article, Mr. Stickman. Putting together this article has been fun for me. I am actually curious about one thing… Do foreigners know why we call them “Farang?” (Don’t worry, it’s a neutral term. I’m just curious if foreigners know since I am thinking of writing about it next.)
An Average Thai Girl