"Smile, But Don't Stare"


Thai Culture in Transition: Collected Writings of William J. Klausner. WILLIAM J. KLAUSNER. Bangkok: The Siam Society. 1997. Pp. xiv + 191. ISBN 974-8298-38-8 (paperback). Baht 300.00.


This book is a sequel to Klausner's own Reflections on Thai Culture (4th ed. Bangkok: Siam Society, 1993). While the first book was first written more than forty years ago reflecting the more traditional side of Thai culture, this book presents its contemporary side. Thai culture is undergoing a tremendous transformation, and Klausner reports and analyses these changes.

The forces of industrialization and globalisation have transformed Thai culture almost beyond recognition. When Klausner first entered Thailand to undertake his anthropological research in Northeastern Thailand in 1955, Thailand was a predominantly rural and agricultural country. Its culture was deeply rooted in this way of life. Expressions of anger, for example, were best kept private, and Thais were rarely seen venting their anger publicly. Traditionally, Thais tried to avoid open conflicts at all costs, preferring to settle them through the mediation of senior, respected figures in the community such as monks. According to Klausner, this is because in rural communities where the members know each other intimately and have to depend on one another for labor in each one's field, such public display of anger would cause disharmony in the village and thus would be detrimental to everyone. However, when the Thai society is no longer predominantly rural, Thais are much more often seen being angry in public, especially when they perceive to have been wronged unfairly. This confrontational stance stems from the industrial culture that is fast supplanting the traditional agrarian way of life. Thais are at present generally more ready to resort to violence then before, hence Klausner's admonition: "Smile, but don't stare." Other aspects of the culture also face changes. The belief in social hierarchy is ingrained in the Thai psyche. But the recent advances have made it the case that Thais are treating one another more and more as equals.

Klausner provides a series of vignettes designed to paint the picture of Thai culture as fast changing toward the more open, confrontational, individualistic and egalitarian way of living commonly found in the West. He talks about changes in Thai cuisine (fewer ornate, time-consuming dishes, more ready-to-eat noodles and Kentucky fried chickens), changing scenes of Bangkok (the klongs are all but gone), the status of intellectuals in Thailand (intellectuals are more daring to present their own cases), and changes in status and in perception of the role of women (less submissive, more assertive and self-confident).

Thai women in the past were seen as "elephant's hind legs," forever destined to follow the lead of the men. However, this is changing. Thai women are becoming more assertive, and they are beginning to demand equal rights and equal pay for their work. Today there are some woman parliamentarians, cabinet members, provincial governors, and army generals. Nonetheless, these changes seem only to be an icing on the cake. Such women in high administrative positions are very few. There is currently only one woman cabinet member in the Chuan government, for example. This shows that much still needs to be done so that effective equality can be realized. Though Thai women and men are conscious of the need for equality, the Thai civil codes have not been amended. Even now Thai women married to a foreign man immediately lose all her rights to own land, whereas the reverse is not the case. Klausner rightly predicts that such a distance between the legal system of reality could cause disruption and instability in the future.

Readers interested in Thailand and its contemporary culture will find this book a very good start. Klausner presents a culture foreign to him clearly and objectively. Perhaps what is fascinating about Thai culture is not that it is changing, but the way in which it somehow manages to retain its identity at all. Klausner deserves credit for pointing this out.


Chulalongkorn University