Observing and interacting with people from different cultures is part of what makes travel exciting. This is especially true in the Far East, which is home to people of widely diverse cultures and norms – many of which may be new to western travellers.
You don’t need to complete a course on cultural differences before enjoying your travels in Asia. All you need is to be patient and respectful, have a good sense of humour, and there are few cultural barriers you can’t overcome.
However, it can help to be prepared. If you know to expect certain differences, you won’t blink an eye when you encounter them. You’ll also have a better idea of how to get along with local people, without making anyone uncomfortable.
Cultural differences between Asia and Europe can be grouped into three categories – greetings, gifts and food.
The American-style firm handshake is something most Asians are familiar with, if not from business meetings with foreign partners then at least from western television. However, there aren’t many places in Asia where the handshake has been adopted by locals. Instead forms of greeting that don’t involve direct physical contact tend to be preferred.
In many contexts, it’s considered especially inappropriate for men and women who don’t know one another to have any physical contact. So don’t immediately reach out your hand – wait for the other person’s cue.
In China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, people bow when they meet. In Southeast Asian countries, it’s more common to smile and nod politely and of course to provide a verbal greeting.
It’s always a good idea to greet people with “hello” or a similar word in their own language. Even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect, your attempt will be appreciated.
In Asian countries such as Japan, people are huge gift givers – and in any Asian country, it’s a good idea to take a gift if you’re invited to someone’s home for a meal.
In the west, the favoured gifts for taking to people’s homes are bottles of wine and flowers. In Asia, not all people drink and, depending on where you are, not everyone will consider alcohol an appropriate gift. Similarly, flowers can be a minefield – in some Asian countries, the types of flowers you give, their colour and even their arrangement may all communicate specific messages you don’t intend to convey.
Instead it’s a safe bet to find out what sweets are popular locally. Buy them from somewhere that’s highly recommended by locals, ensure they’re attractively packaged and you’ll have a gift that’s appropriate in just about all contexts.
In Europe, it’s common for people to eat only from their own plates. At home or in a restaurant, everything is dished up beforehand and you eat the serving you’re given.
Across most of Asia, people dish up for themselves at the table. They also help themselves to more food from particular dishes as a meal progresses. This communal way of eating has advantages. You take exactly what you want (not too much and not too little) and in restaurants, everyone gets to try several dishes instead of having to choose just one.
In China or Japan, you’ll have to master chopsticks, while in Southeast Asia, it’s more likely you’ll eat with a fork and spoon. You may also find yourself in settings where the done thing is to eat with your fingers – for example, using your right hand to roll sticky balls of rice and then dipping them in a sauce before eating them. Go with the flow and you’ll be fine!