Asia is one of the most diverse continents, filled with rich culture and heritage. It is a traveler's dream with varied cuisine, ethnic groups, religious diversities, and beautiful landscapes. However, before you depart on your holiday, be well aware of the customs and laws of the region. Many Asian traditions are built on long-standing beliefs, and non-compliance can lead to unintended misunderstandings and insults. Gaining knowledge of these values will help you respect the unique cultures you’re going to explore and will be a good start to an educational and enjoyable experience of a lifetime.
While many of us are used to living in our shoes, it is always a good idea to take off your shoes when entering an Asian household and, more so, a place of worship. The house is also considered a sacred place in countries like India and China. Besides being a mark of respect, it's also practical in countries with high dust pollution and can help keep the house clean and tidy.
It’s an easy faux pas, especially when the temperatures are soaring and all you want to do is throw away your well-worn bulky winter wear for more summery shorts and a vest. However, it’s probably best to refrain from being under-dressed and keep your breezy clothing for just the beach trips of your holiday. Don’t indulge in public displays of affection unless you want to attract the attention of the law keepers.
This particular faux pas, especially in South East Asia, can cost you very dearly. Many over-the-counter and prescription drugs available in Europe and the U.S. cannot be carried freely on your person when in Asia. With some rigid drug-related laws, it's also safest to avoid carrying packages for others.
In some of the Arabic nations, it is a rule that no one in the country should be seen eating in public during the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims, during this period, abstain from food and water, from sunrise to sunset, and indulge in luxurious feasts at nightfall. Non-Muslims and visitors don’t have to follow this rule, but they should ensure that they are not publicly seen eating during these hours of fasting.
Buddhism is another religion originating in Asia which has very specific and unique traditions. In Japan, chopsticks are placed vertically in a rice bowl as an offering to those who have passed on from this life. In China, it is seen as bad luck to do this, as it is reminiscent of the placement of incense at funerals. It is considered good table etiquette to place chopsticks right above your plate of food and parallel to your table, with tips pointing towards the left.
Respecting everyone is a part of being brought up as a good human being. However, in certain Asian countries, you need to always respect your elders, even if you disagree with them or believe that they are in the wrong. For instance, when being introduced to an older adult in India and Pakistan, it's wise to rise from your seated position and greet the person formally.
Giving a person the thumbs-up sign is very common in the western world. It’s a friendly symbol to show that everything is going great and you’re happy with the way things are. However, in certain areas of the Middle East, like Iran and Iraq, this gesture is considered one of the most horrid non-verbal insults. In the older times, sticking your thumb up in the air was synonymous with giving someone the middle finger today! Former President Trump was in hot water sometime back for using this gesture in Saudi Arabia, but the issue was quickly dismissed as his intention was sincere.
Most westerners would find it embarrassing to go out for a meal and not give a tip to the person attending to your table. However, if you ever travel to Japan, do the opposite. The Japanese are taught to be proud of their work and value their wages, no matter how small. They believe that they don’t need any extra incentive to perform their job, and your honest gesture could come off as patronizing and rude.
Another strong South Asian belief is that a person's soul resides in their head, and the head is therefore seen as sacred. It is the highest part of the body and is considered the cleanest. This is another reason the head is off-limits. When you visit Laos and Thailand, make sure that you don’t ruffle the hair on the heads of cute Asian kids you meet, or you may have just insulted their parents!
Moving along from the previous faux pas, this one is to do with the other end of the human body. Many folks believe that the feet are dirty and should not be shown in public as far as possible. It's
seen as insulting to point with your feet. In Nepal, if you step over someone’s outstretched legs, you will be frowned upon. It's a good idea to go around if you need to reach the other side.