Customs and Traditions in Asia
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – especially when traveling. Let us tell you about the most significant customs and traditions in Asia, so you won’t commit any unintentional faux pas on your trip. This can easily happen since western cultures are, in some ways, quite different from eastern ones. Some gestures and actions that we consider polite have completely opposite meanings in Asian countries, or are at least interpreted differently.
To make sure that you don’t find yourself in awkward situations, we’ll go over a few things in this article, from proper table manners to unusual laws you should know about.
We often associate a constant smile with Asian people. It’s a cultural norm because it’s considered impolite to “lose face.” Controlling one’s emotions and not simply showing them is an expectation there, and nobody wants to lose their pride and honor. That’s why it is better not to ask questions that might be embarrassing.
Moreover, don’t raise your voice in public, as it is a sign of losing control over your emotions and therefore seen as rude.
You might discover that, as a foreigner, you’ll probably be leading most conversations, particularly when it comes to personal views. In Asia, people usually express their opinions in an indirect manner. It’s often preferred that someone else take control of a situation. Don’t force your counterpart to make a personal comment, and don’t put them in a position where they have to take the upper hand.
You’ll probably be speaking English with the locals. Keep in mind that due to their traditional view of relationships between lovers, the word “relationship” is often synonymous with “marriage.” Therefore, there’s no such thing as a “business relationship,” as we’d call it.
The first mistake you might make is to try to shake hands, which is a no-go in Asia. It’s considered rude in all countries except for China and Vietnam. Instead, greet your counterpart by smiling and bowing a little. Also avoid prolonged or direct eye contact, as that is also seen as impolite.
If you want to hand something to someone, use both hands, especially in Korea, Japan, and Thailand. This is not only appropriate when you give someone a gift or a letter, but also when you pay somewhere, for example.
If you want to point out something or someone, don’t point with your finger. Instead, use your open hand with your palm facing upwards.
In many Asian countries, the left hand is seen as “unclean,” so don’t use it to eat or give something to someone. Use your right hand or both hands instead. Shoes and feet are also considered unclean, so don’t touch them in public.
Many hand gestures can be easily misunderstood as well. For example, crossing fingers is a sign of luck in western cultures. However, in Asia, this is not a common gesture, and this interpreted as offensive. Also, try not to stick both hands in your pockets. For us, it’s a relaxed posture, but in Malaysia, it’s interpreted as a sign of anger and a bad mood.
Furthermore, avoid touching anybody’s head because it’s deemed to be where the soul resides. So don’t tousle a child’s hair. Just remember, your hands should always remain below the neckline.
For eating, there are also lots of customs and traditions in Asia. For instance, in Korea, as a sign of respect, you can only start eating after the elders at the table have started. The same goes for leaving the table. Furthermore, throughout Asia, the saying “sharing is caring” is a big deal, so you can take what you want to eat rather than asking for it.
It’s also normal and polite to put small bites of food on each other’s plates. And since the food is always shared, be sure to take small portions, but as often as you want. Mealtimes are also quite long, so be sure to make the most of it! At the end of the meal, leave a small portion on your plate to indicate to the cook that you enjoyed the food and are satisfied.
If you’re invited for a meal or drink or something is offered to you, it’s best not to turn it down, since that is also seen as rude. Besides, an invitation like that is always a great opportunity to meet new people and try new dishes.
In terms of drinking culture, you should know that in Asia, people drink a lot, and it’s unusual if somebody doesn’t. Another polite custom is to serve tea and other beverages to everyone else first before pouring your own.
During your stay in Asian countries, you might want to try eating with chopsticks. Never stick these vertically in a cup of rice, because they would look like incense sticks that are lit for the anniversary of someone’s death. This gesture is frowned upon since it not only signifies death, but it is also said to bring bad luck. Another interesting fact is that, unlike many other parts of the world, eating with your hands is considered polite in countries like India, Malaysia, and Indonesia – but only with your right hand!
Speaking of “unclean” gestures, blowing your nose, coughing, and sneezing at the table are part of this category and therefore absolute no-goes in Asia. Try to find a bathroom for any of these.
Dress Code and Etiquette
Many Asian countries are very conservative, keep that in mind when choosing your clothing. Nobody will reprimand you if you’re not dressed according to Asian standards, but getting along with the locals will be easier if you try to fit in.
In most buildings, it’s considered good manners to at least have your shoulders covered. Otherwise, you may not be allowed to enter. Hot pants are a no-go even in most Asian cities, and you should really just leave them at home.
It’s very important to choose the right clothing when visiting temples in Asia – don’t wear anything too short or provocative. At the very least, your knees and shoulders must be covered. The minimum length requirements for tops and bottoms are usually displayed at the entrance. So be sure to inform yourself before visiting.
Another important habit is to take off your shoes before entering houses or temples. Many families have slippers at their entrances that they can change into. If you’re not completely sure about what to do, just check if there are shoes in front of a building or temple. If you spot some, take yours off, too.
Blunders to Avoid
When it comes to gifts, there are a lot of customs and traditions in Asia as well. Giving somebody a bouquet of flowers, which is a polite gesture in western countries, is something Asians do only at funerals. Potted plants are a better choice. Younger generations, especially friends or lovers, are more and more open to it, but don’t take the risk – just bring something else.
Watches and umbrellas symbolize similar things. They represent lapsed time and communicate something like “I don’t want to see you again,” so don’t give those as a gift either. In China, it’s typical to bring fruit or groceries from your hometown. Bring something from your country if you already know that you’ll be visiting someone at your destination.
Another tricky thing in Asia is tipping, because it’s handled differently in each country. While it’s part of western etiquette, leaving a tip is considered an insult in Japan and sometimes still in China as well; in these cultures, good service is simply expected. Thailand, however, has adapted to western standards and tipping has become pretty common there. In countries like Malaysia and Vietnam, it’s not customary, but not taken as an insult either.
In Asian countries, there are some laws that forbid things that are considered “normal behavior” in western countries. Always check beforehand if such restrictions exist at your destination. For instance, in India and a few other countries, kissing in public is forbidden. And in Malaysia, you’re not allowed to go skinny-dipping.
Singapore has the most laws and fines can be extremely expensive. For example, it is forbidden to eat or drink on public transport here. Spitting gum on the street is also a crime. Basically, carelessly throwing anything on the street is punishable by a fine.
Additional Customs and Traditions in Asia
To sum up all customs and traditions in Asia in a nutshell, respect for your elders and those in positions of power is key. The Korean language, for example, even has different levels of politeness and titles of respect built into the language structures.
Moreover, in countries with royal families, other royal public personas and respected politicians, avoid speaking negatively about them in public. If their faces are printed on a banknote, try not to drop it. If it still happens, pick it up with an apologetic gesture. In some countries, you can face jail time for such disrespect.
The most important thing to remember when visiting a temple is to keep quiet in order not to disturb those who are praying. Furthermore, the soles of your feet should never point in the direction of the Buddha statue; keep that in mind, especially when sitting down! Posing next to Buddha statues is also forbidden.
And finally, just relax and be patient, even if something takes longer than expected. In rural areas of Asia, it’s not uncommon for the train or bus to be half an hour late. Life is different there, so go with the flow and accept it as it is.
There are a lot of customs and traditions in Asia that you should know about to avoid attracting negative attention. If you stick to these simple rules, you’ll have no problems connecting with locals and maybe even making new friends. They are just as curious about you as you are about them! We also recommend you learn a few phrases in the language of the country you’ll be visiting – it might open a few unexpected doors on your trip! 再見! (zàijiàn)