6 June 2024

 “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“When are you getting married?”

“When will you come down off the ‘kaan’?”

These are the most common sayings heard in daily conversation among Thais, particularly during family gatherings. This reflects how Thai culture is still attached to long-standing cultural norms, expecting women to find a husband, as getting married is supposed to be a woman’s goal in life.

On the other hand, is there anything wrong about staying single? Most importantly, why do we need to stigmatise single women with the metaphors, such as “keun-kaan”? 

-Sitting on the ramp-

“Keun-kaan” (ขึ้นคาน) is a Thai metaphor often heard in conversations about marriage.

Literally, it means “sitting on the wooden ramp”, this Thai metaphor specifically refers to unmarried women. This is quite similar to an English saying “to die an old maid”, which refers to women who are no longer young, but are still not married nor in a sexual relationship with anyone.

“Kaan”, in this context, refers to a wooden ramp on which river boats are placed for repair, from which the workers will have to lift the boat down when it’s done. So, being on the “kaan” means that the person cannot find a partner, as if she is sitting on the boat ramp, waiting for a man to take her down.

“The boat that is placed on the wooden ramp means that the boat hasn’t been used, which can be compared to women who are not yet married,” famous Thai language expert, Kitmanoch “Kru Lilly” Rojanasupya explained.

 “Not being married is like they have not been “used” yet, especially when women have to wait for men to make a marriage proposal.”

Considering how Thai people, in the old days, would often compare situations with surrounding objects, many Thai idioms, metaphors and proverbs reflect the culture and people’s ways of thinking in certain eras.

As offensive as it may sound to some women today, this metaphor reflects Thailand’s cultural norms, which are rooted in the patriarchy, where women had to remain modest and reserved, while men could flirt with many women. It also reflects how Thai society often tells women that getting married is one of the most important goals in life.

 “Men, in those days, would be the forelegs of an elephant (leader) while women would be the elephant’s hind legs (follower),” Kru Lilly explains.

 “All of the decision-making belongs to men, with men being allowed to have many wives. Women have been told not to “offer” themselves, not to express their love to men first, and they have to remain humble and sweet, like neatly-folded silk. So, this reflects the patriarchal mindset in the old days and not necessarily in the present era.”

-Who cares?-

With the existence of such metaphors, women were made to feel embarrassed to reveal that they are single, whether they are searching for love or not.

More women nowadays do not, however, feel that there is anything wrong with being single and literally sitting on the “ramp”, as they believe that being happy as a single woman is better than being involved in a toxic relationship.

 Stephanie is a woman who thinks this way and that the Thai metaphor is “funny”, but also very outdated.

“Life is so much more than just getting married,” she believes. “Many people think that single women are sad, lonely and crying at home but, in fact, we’re very busy because we have so many things to do every day.“

Another woman, Taeng-Tai, thinks the same way, while confirming that she is happy being single.

“I’m not that scared of being single. I think staying single is not that bad. Not having enough money is much worse.” 

Stephanie also believes there are many positive sides to staying single. This is because those who are “single” have the most freedom in doing things as they wish, without the necessity of “reporting” to their partners.

“In my opinion, it’s better to be lonely than to be waiting anxiously for someone’s message,” she said.

“I have reached a point where I don’t feel that I need a boyfriend or that I want flowers on Valentine’s Day. Though I might make jokes about it, I’m not desperately seeking anyone,” Taeng-Tai concluded.

-Single is the trend?-

Nowadays, women from a younger generation are no longer afraid of being single and are also proud to stay single, which has apparently become a real trend.

According to the National Statistical Office of Thailand (NSO), those in Generation Y (born between 1980 and 2000), also known as millennials, prefer to stay single. 

If we dig into the statistics, the percentage of millennials who remained single and employed has increased between 2017 and 2021. 44.5% of millennials were reportedly single in 2021, which is a steady increase from 2017, when there were 39.1% single millennials.

The statistics also reveal that the average age of people getting married is increasing. The average age of people getting married in 1990 was 24. The average age increased to 28 in 2010 and it is obvious that this will go beyond the 30 mark in the years to come.

NSO’s research shows that the main reasons why people do not want to get married are the economic recession, the increasing cost of living and the daily minimum wage, which has not increased. Many people feel that they cannot afford to raise their children in this economic situation.

What they feel is not far from reality. On average, parents have to spend from 500,000 baht to 2 million baht to raise a child, while the average household income across the country is 26,000-28,000 baht per month. If you want to send your children to an international school or a school with English programs, you will definitely have to spend much more than that.

Apart from the economic situation, which doesn’t encourage people to have children, most millennials have the ultimate goal of having a successful career, which has meant delaying their decision to get married and start their own family.

At the same time, women are getting higher and higher educational degrees and this means that they will have better opportunities and career advancements in life, compared to getting married and being a stay-at-home mother.

With the changing roles of women, the Thai language expert suggests that such metaphors should be avoided, especially if women take offense. 

She also believes, however, that these old metaphors cannot define a woman’s worth, as many women have proven themselves to be as competent and as capable as men.

“Thai women have proved that they’re not only cooking for their husbands in the kitchen, but they can also fight in battles,” she said.

“There have been examples of women who have proved that they can do much more for society. No matter how society bullies women with these metaphors, their actions will prove it all.”

By Nad Bunnag and Kitipat Chuensukjit, Thai PBS World