Photo by Maggie Fuller
It’s a good idea to learn local etiquette before traveling somewhere unfamiliar. If you want to make a good impression on your first trip to Asia, here are the things you should and shouldn’t do.
So you’re going to Asia. You’ve planned your trip, packed your bags and and maybe picked up a language guide. It’s all so exciting until you step off the airplane and the Japanese toilets are talking to you and you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore. With your focus on new and different visuals, food, and language, it can be easy to forget that cultural norms are different as well—and vary widely between countries. Try as you might, there are bound to be a few inadvertent blunders. You can always fall back on a friendly smile and apologetic attitude, but here are a few tips that will help you avoid really awkward situations.
First and foremost, touching a person’s head is considered VERY rude is most parts of Asia. In Buddhist culture the head is the highest part of the body and thought of as sacred. The feet, on the other hand, are the lowest part of the body and considered dirty. So in countries with large Buddhist populations such as China, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, touching someone’s head is an incredibly invasive gesture. By the same token pointing with your feet, or showing the bottoms of your feet to anyone is equally offensive.
If even thinking about using chopsticks makes you nervous, don’t worry—you are more than welcome to ask for a fork or a spoon. But if you’re adept at using chopsticks, don’t let your hard work go to waste by sticking your chopsticks upright in your rice. In China and Japan, this is considered very bad luck. Prevailing traveler superstition is that upright chopsticks resemble funeral incense and therefore symbolizes death. More traditionally, the connection comes from a part of the funeral services: Rice is offered to the dead with his or her chopsticks stuck upright.
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No matter which utensils you use, in China and Korea it’s considered presumptuous to keep your hands in your lap or to ask someone to pass food. Instead, participate in the action! Sharing is caring after all, so reach for the food you want and don’t feel shy about putting particularly delectable morsels on others’ plates. In this same convivial spirit, if someone in Beijing or Seoul offers or gives you food, it’s rude to reject the offer.
Maybe chopsticks aren’t your scene. In Nepal, India, and Muslim countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia, it’s polite to eat with your hands. Scratch that; it’s polite to eat with your right hand—NEVER use the left hand. In those countries, food is eaten with the right hand and the left hand is reserved for certain sanitary activities. In fact, just try to leave your left hand out of it as much as possible—don’t hand or take things with the left hand Kathmandu, don’t point with the left hand in Dhaka... you get the picture.
Just as it’s rude to reject offered food, it’s rude to refuse to join in a toast. In Korea, when someone offers you a shot of soju or Korean beer, it’s a symbol of friendship and turning it down would be an affront. If you’re worried about getting too tipsy during particularly friendly gatherings, beware that if you can’t drink someone under the table in China, you’re a sitting duck as a business person—no one will take you seriously. Also, you never know when you’ll find yourself, as our own Will Bleakley did, in the middle of an afternoon drinking game in rural Puzhehei: Everyone drinks or no one drinks.
And even though it’s considered polite in many cultures around the world, it stands mentioning that you should always pour tea or alcohol for everyone else before pouring for yourself.
Spicy food is notorious for causing a runny nose, but if you don’t want to gross out your dinner companions, refrain from blowing your nose at the table in Japan, Korea or China. If you must, you must—but try to be discreet or get up and leave the table first.
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Crossing your fingers in Vietnam does NOT mean that you’re wishing for good luck (much to my surprised chagrin). It’s the same as giving someone the finger or making the peace sign or “v” for victory in Ireland and the UK. In Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries, pointing with one finger is rude. If you have to single out a thing or a direction, it’s safest to gesture with your full hand, palm up. In Korea, Japan, and Thailand giving or receiving with one hand is a big no-no. With everything from giving gifts to handing money to a cashier—always use two hands.
It’s actually insulting to leave a tip in Japan. Rather than relying on tips to make up the bulk of their wages, Japanese workers feel they are getting paid to do their job and take pride in doing it well. They don’t need an added incentive which, in fact, comes off rather patronizing and embarrassing.
Respect is an important basic cultural tenant in Asia and is taken very seriously. Possibly the rudest thing you can do in Thailand is make someone “lose face.” Thailand is called the “Land of a Thousand Smiles” so it can be hard to figure out if you’ve made someone lose face, but err on the safe side and try to never question someone’s authority or do anything that could potentially embarrass another. In Korea, even more so than in surrounding countries, it is important to respect elders. It’s rude to even pick up your chopsticks at the start of a meal or get up from the table at the end of it before the oldest people do so. When in doubt, defer to elders. Also, many Asian cultures tend to be conservative so it’s important to respect that in everything from how you interact with others to how you dress. While you won’t be ostracized for walking around with bare shoulders, you’ll feel a warmer welcome if you make the effort to dress a bit more conservatively.
While not technically offensive, chewing gum is actually illegal in Singapore and has been since 1992. What’s more, it’s strictly enforced: You risk a $500 fine for spitting out gum on public streets. Better stick with Altoids.
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