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Thai women make Love work both sides of the culture divide

Thursday 6th November 2014 8:00pm

Thai women with foreign marriages manage the culture clash between Thailand and the West

Leading studies by academics in Europe and in Singapore have given a revealing insight on how Thai women successfully bring competing cultures together to build happy marriages and lives.

A Thai woman travels with her brother from Bangkok over the holiday August weekend in Thailand. Areeya is thirty nine years old and married to a Singaporean man. In Singapore she is a dutiful wife and hard working partner. She helps support her household and is a dutiful daughter in law to her husband's mother. But this weekend she is heading for Isaan paying the expenses for the trip with her brother in order to pay her respects to her 'Khun Ma', her own elderly mother.

'My husband has only ever met my mother one time,' she says. During the meeting of a son in law and mother in law in Thailand, it is custom for the man to pay his respects in the form of a monetary gesture but for Areeya it was not quite like that. 'I had to give my mother some money afterwards and explain that my husband did not understand the custom.' The incident highlights the culture clash between Areeya's Thai culture which is Matrilineal and her husband's Confucian Patriarchal Thai culture.

'The same is true for Thai women living in western and european countries. I read a study recently which gives examples of the same thing. It appears Thai women are helping to bridge the gap between the culture clashes in order to keep both families happy, these women deserve a lot of credit for it,' says Carla Boonkong, a magazine writer on the topic in Bangkok.

Thai culture encourages Thai women to find foreign husbands

Traditionally in Thailand, it is men who move around and go out when young to seek their fortune. In fact in Thailand's north east or Isaan region where many Thai women marrying foreigners originate, it is a matrilineal society. Property and family authority are translated through the women in the family and in fact daughters are often preferred to sons. In return for stronger property inheritance rights Thai women are expected to take care of their parents and family (bun khun). Thai men are encouraged to seek their fortune and find wealth before settling down with a wife within the extended family of the woman. In older times this is where the Thai tradition of Sin Sot comes from. It was a financial gift by the new husband to his wife's family to show that he had the financial resources to make the marriage a success. In the last century and particularly the last fifty years the industrialisation of Thailand has meant that it is now more likely that it is Thai women who 'go around' but they do so in spirit of service to the woman's family in a Matrilineal tradition.

Today and coincidentally, this culture readily fits into foreign husbands from foreign shores who take the hands of Thai women in marriage. 'It is certainly an interesting phenomenon and it has varied and been adapted in modern times. For instance a Thai woman may now not inherit if for instance the family has helped her gain a university education whereas the sons may inherit if they have married a woman with less prospects. And in between all this is the massive migration to the cities and Bangkok where a more patriarchal structure exists among wealthy families. But this tradition of bun khun is very much alive and the fact that it has adapted and varied is because it is real tool by which poorer Thai families from Isaan get on. I have a lot of respect for this,' says Carla Boonkong. 'It certainly is a counter point some western views of Thai women from Isaan as being feckless women who drift into a life of prostitution. It is true however that even today economic deprivation drives many into the sex industry and low paid labor but these Thai women do not see themselves as victims.'

How foreign men satisfy older Thai marriage customs

Today it is the husbands of Mia farang (Thai women with foreign husbands) who help bolster the old Thai tradition. Research conducted since 2004 in Thailand's Northeast provinces has shown a strong upswing in support among Thai women and extended communities for such marriages ' It is really amazing, there are now community leaders and even older Thai people who are openly in support of such unions,' says Carla Boonkong. Now the Mia farang can present her foreign husband within the traditional Thai culture as the benefactor of the extended Thai family.'

Cultural factors that are driving thai women into foreign marriages

Academics studying the growing trend of Thai women marrying foreign husbands have identified many other cultural forces that are driving Thai Women into foreign marriages:

  • As in many societies it is common for women to want to 'marry up'. Indeed it is this inherent quality that is driving more economically successful women in foreign countries and more developed countries toward either non marriage or seeking marriage with a more eligible partner. It has emerged in studies in the United Kingdom and Belgium that many men seeking Thai wives are from less financially secure backgrounds which is often synonymous with a lack of education. Interestingly, these foreign men are joined by high flying business men and those who work in international services. The internet and economic forces has now opened up the prospect of foreign husbands to Thai women seeking husbands to work into the traditional Thai Matrilineal family. In addition the overall increase in the availability and level of education in Thailand in respect of Thai women has increased the number of Thai women staying single waiting for a suitable marriage partner.
  • Traditionally Thai men have looked for wives or partners who are virgins and who have not been with another partner. The incidence of marriage breakdown and economic pressures have caused levels of relationship breakdown to increase in Thailand as in the rest of the world. The women who are divorced as a result of such breakdown form a key segment of the the population of Thai women seeking a foreign husband. 'This is particularly the case where the woman has a higher level of education,' says Carla Boonkong. 'Nearly all Thai men would not consider a relationship with a woman in this situation and even more so if she has already been married or had children.'

Thai women in Singapore run into conflict with Confucian principles

Areeya, the Thai woman from Isaan who is married to a Singaporean men has lived in Singapore for the last seven years. Although very positive about the prospects for Thai Women in Singapore she has seen many other Thai women give up on marriage in Singapore over what is essentially a cultural clash. 'I was lucky as my husband's family were kind to me and I was able to work hard but many of my friends found it difficult to live in Singapore,' she says. The problem she reveals is that for many Thai women in Singapore, there is keen sense of duty toward the Thai woman's family. 'For many Thai women the inability to take care of mothers and families in Thailand is really just too much of a stretch. It causes them to feel low and lose heart literally.'

This is why Areeya returns to Thailand at least two times a year to pay her respects to her mother and her extended family; 'I like my husband to come with me at least once every year and show that he is good husband. I explain it to him that if not, he and I would lose face. Now he enjoys visiting Thailand and it makes our marriage stronger,' she says. But Areeya makes it up to her Singaporean husband and in Singapore does everything required of her. It is this ability to be a bridge between the two cultures that has fascinated many researchers of Thai women marrying foreign men. This was a key finding into an in depth study of Thai women married to Dutch men and living in the Netherland published in 2012 by two academics and is seen in many stories of Thai women with foreign husbands.

Sin Sot - often dismissed but a very real marriage tradition

It is common among some young Thai women and foreigners in Thailand (farang) to dismiss the concept of Sin Sod or payment of money or gift to the Thai women's family on marriage. Many foreigners who have lived in Thailand claim the custom has either fallen out of practice or is invalid with the advance of a more modern and industrialized Thailand.

'Both these points are valid,' says Carla Boonkong. 'The culture in Thailand has of course changed with industrialisation and the women themselves have more freedom.' But this in flexibility in itself is part of Thai Buddhist tradition which has allowed this wiggle room for Thai women. The internet has opened up a whole new vista for Thai women who can now go online and chat and email their way to new and often very valid relationships with foreign men. But hovering in the background, there is embedded in Thai women a sense of duty to the woman's family. For some it is to serve their family and of course all individuals are different but its is clear that there is very real and particular need for Thai Women living abroad to legitimise their relationships and marriages at home in Thailand. Sin Sot is one of the ways of doing this and establishing respect for the groom marrying into the Thai family.

Thai women living in the Netherlands and Sin Sot

Benjawan is a Thai woman living near Arnhem in th the Netherlands. She has lived in the Netherlands for the last three years and works at a local tea shop, her husband is an electrical engineer. Benjawan met Niek her Dutch partner online and traveled to the Netherlands where she married her husband after living with him for twelve months. Their relationship is successful: 'My husband has good money because he can do work on ships but also then he is away often but it is very good when he comes home,' she laughs.

Benjawan sends a little money home to her village in Kalasin province in Thailand and has already been back to Thailand to times to visit her family with her husband. But last year there was a problem: 'My mother and father asked often when we are to be married in Thailand. This is the Thai way and my father is sick. When I told my husband he did not understand. We are married in the Netherlands already he said. And then he was thinking that this was not very important or something not sincere just to get money, I was sad,' she says.

Benjawan had to explain to her husband that he had to visit her parents and show that he was a 'good 'husband' according to the culture in her village. This meant paying some money to her parents, jewellry and staging a party for family, neighbours and guests. Niek's (the Thai woman's Dutch husband) first reaction was one of anger as he seemed to regard the request as superfluous as the couple were officially married in the Netherlands and a way to force him to pay money to the Thai woman's family. The casual nature of the event also raised his suspicions. 'My husband talked about the law and yes we are married under the law in the Netherlands but not in Thailand,' she says.

A double wedding in Thailand

Niek finally relented after a few tense scenes with his wife. 'It was only when he can see that I was sincere and it was important to me that he agreed and we started to make the plan,' she says. A friend of Benjawan's from Thailand suggested because Benjawan had been married before in Thailand and had already lived with Niek for a while so that the Sin Sot should be lower. It was agreed that Niek would buy gold for Benjawan's mother, pay for a party of guests and give B50,000 to her family which they would give back after the event. But Niek changed his mind on the day of the wedding and subsequently insisted on giving the money to Benjawan's mother.

'I think my husband could see what it was like for my mother and father. My family are good people and sincere. When he refused to take the money back and give it to my mother, she was surprised and happy. This shows that he is a true husband,' she says.

After the reception Benjawan and Niek went to the local government office and registered their marriage in Thailand. 'We arranged to have all the documents before we left for Thailand and a local lawyer made the arrangements,' she says. Now the couple have been married three times! But to Benjawan, the ceremony at her home village and the tribute paid to her mother and father are the most important.

'My husband is a good man and we were happy before this but now I feel everything is right,' she says. Benjawan is unlike many Thai women living in the Netherlands in this respect. There are many Thai women living in Europe who are keen to have their marriage and relationships recognised at home in Thailand and who are striving for a similar outcome.

'Reports specifically into Thai women living in Europe and the Netherlands reveal that they are placed in a unique position between two different cultures. Many of the Thai women living in the Netherlands have former husbands or partners a large proportion also have children. So already they have a balancing act. For younger Thai women there is the duty to their families in Thailand and staying not only in touch with their families but also being part of the family and often fulfilling demands for financial assistance', says Carla Boonkong in Bangkok. 'Thai families and Thai culture are closely interwoven, it is culture of care and reciprocity, one taking care of the other. I think this is something very powerful and vital to Thai families particularly those from less well off backgrounds.'

Differences in culture between Thailand and the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a modern European country which has seen major social changes since the 60's era in the last century. There is high level of social security and relationships are considered the prerogative of an individual based on love between two people. The Netherlands is one of the most developed nations in the world in contrast to Thailand where a large proportion of the population lives on very low incomes in a country with little or no social welfare.

'Families are crucial to Thai people living at the lowest levels of society,' says Carla Boonkong. 'Research has shown that Thailand's Northeast regions, where many Thai women who married Dutch men come from, practices a matrilineal culture meaning women are at the heart of the survival of the family and its material wealth. The responsibility is placed on the Thai women,' she says. 'The Thai women who are forced into prostitution or to work long hours in factories are doing so for the benefit of their family. Their culture tells them to look out for a husband or a partner who can help them and their family. I think it's very good thing but it can lead to tensions in relationships between Thai women and European partners. Recent studies have highlighted this not only in the Netherlands but in the United Kingdom, Singapore and various European countries.'

Laws and marriage - Thai women's understanding

The story of Sin Sot and the importance of Thai culture also highlights another fundamental issue. Thai women are not often not aware of the legal framework and path that should be followed when meeting or looking for a foreign partner.

'It's funny but it also shows just how benign and well intentioned many Thai women are when conducting relationship discussions with foreigners or 'farang' she says. 'Many do not appreciate that the critical support or security for their own well being is the legitimisation of the marriage in the foreigners' home country,' she says. The divorce rate between Thai women and European marriage partners is currently estimated at 23%, well under half the level of domestic marriages. In addition courts in the United Kingdom and other European countries have shown themselves to be less than sympathetic to Thai women where relationships have broken down at an early stage in the relationship even in the absence of abuse. But this is not the issue says Carla Boonkong. 'Most if not all Thai women seeking foreign partners are genuine, as in all relationships, sometimes it is not successful but Thai women try harder than most I think to make sure this doesn't happen. Sometimes tensions are placed on the relationship as the Thai woman is not just thinking of her own happiness and that of her husband's but of her family at home in Thailand. But to look at it deeply, as I know many foreign men do, it shows a good nature,' says Carla Boonkong.

Understanding the profound differences in Thai and foreign culture

Benjawan's Dutch husband explains this quite well. 'I did not agree with this new marriage in Thailand. I think that I suspected that this was just about money and this is true you know. I was angry often you know even after I agree to this, it was only when I was in Thailand and afterwards I could see that for my wife it was about pride, then it got into my heart.' This is why Niek agreed to let Benjawan's mother keep the Sin Sot.

Carla Boonkong has another perspective. 'I recently spoke to a Thai woman with two children who was married to a foreigner living in Switzerland. She told me that when she was married, she had no idea how children were made, she was shocked and unprepared for sex,' she says.

Carla says that many foreigners assume that the world is similar to western countries where since 1960's there has been revolution in social thinking focusing on the rights and concerns of the individual. She points out that many European societies one hundred years ago had some facets of what is still reality in lower and impoverished levels of Thai society. 'Of course then there is also the religious differences, I think most people are not prepared to accept the reality of how closed off Thai society was to foreigners even thirty or forty years ago,' she says.

In Thailand, Thai culture is part of real life for Thai women

Carla also explains that Thai society is very strong as it is living and working for many Thai families. 'Thai culture is something very real and beneficial to poorer Thais, any foreigner marrying a Thai women should not easily forget how this thinking is built into the Thai woman's brain. And it is also a very good culture,' she says. On the other hand there is a flexibility and practical element in Thai Buddhist traditions which has proved beneficial to Thai women bridging the gap between Thailand and foreign countries like Singapore. 'Many Thai women are learning new ideas and concepts from western countries,' she says.

Benjawan sums this up by explaining: 'Life in Holland is good but people work hard and they do what they say, everything is important. I think this is good, sometimes it is so easy in Thailand simply to lose heart and sit in the sun, this is not possible in foreign countries. That is why I like farang culture also,' she says. is Thailand’s biggest internet dating site with over 355,000 members and growing rapidly …Begin your search for a Thai girlfriend, wife or partner here.

Thai women manage a clash of cultures between family in Thailand and foreign husbands
New reports in Europe and Singapore into Thai women with foreign husbands shows how they manage the gap between the culture of a foreign husband and family at home in Thailand all in the name of love.
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