One part of being a good traveller is learning the customs of the country you’re heading to before arriving. And while you’re not expected to know everything, a little effort will go a long way to ensuring you have a warm, authentic experience. Navigating the ‘dos and don’ts’ of travel through Asia can be a minefield, so below, we provide tips for some of the more popular destinations for trips to Asia.
The Rules That Cross Borders
Most countries have their own sets of rules to follow, but these apply across Asia.
If you can master wielding these appropriately, you’ll be halfway home when it comes to etiquette in Asia.
– Play with your chopsticks. If you tend to talk with your hands, set your chopsticks down, as waving them about is rude. The same goes with drumming them on the table and pointing them at people.
– Stick your chopsticks upright in food.
– Cross your chopsticks over each other. When in doubt, it’s best to line them up alongside your plate.
– Pass food to another person’s chopsticks from your own.
– Use your chopsticks as spears. If you’re struggling, you’re better off asking for help (or a fork).
– Use the ends you eat with to serve yourself food. If you’re in a share-plate situation and there is serving ware provided, use that. If not, try flipping yours over and using the thicker ends (although this might take a little dexterity and practice).
Using Your Hands
The hands are used for many things – eating, talking, greeting and exchanging among them. Here’s what you need to know about gesturing in Asia.
– Always use your right hand for greeting and eating, as the left is seen as unclean. This concept is particularly important in places like India, where people eat with their hands.
– When giving and receiving gifts, business cards or money, using both hands is a sign of respect.
– Avoid pointing: no matter where you are in the world, it will probably offend.
Etiquette Tips for Japan
Japan is home to some of the kindest and most respectful people on the planet. If you get lost here and ask a local for help, they are likely to take you by the hand and walk you to your destination. Seriously! Japanese manners are second to none. There are many subtleties to the Japanese culture, and a few customs you should know before you go.
– Bow: it’s a greeting and a sign of appreciation and respect – the deeper the bow, the more respectful.
– Take off your shoes: in people’s homes, in some accommodations and restaurants, and at temples, shrines and historic sites. A shoe rack at the door will usually be a good indicator.
– Keep it down: you’ll notice it’s whisper-quiet on Japan’s trains, and your phone should be kept on silent, too.
– Get out your phrasebook: you might be surprised by the amount of English spoken in Japan. Learning a few words will go a long way to ingratiating you with the locals.
– Slurp your noodles: loudly!
– Tip: Japan is not a tipping culture, and leaving one is likely to confuse.
– Touch money: payments are rarely passed from hand to hand. Baskets and trays will be available, so use them.
– Pour yourself drinks: allow your company to pour yours, and, in turn, pour theirs.
– Blow your nose: if you have a sniffle, don’t deal with it publicly.
Etiquette Tips for China
It’s one of the globe’s oldest civilisations, and while the Chinese culture and landscapes are a fascinating tapestry, the noise, crowds and way of life can be confronting for some. A word of advice? Try not to be too precious. A degree of nonchalance will serve you well. Toilets tend to be reasonably open, spitting, although on the decline, is widely accepted, smoking is common, and talking is loud. Don’t take giggling or pointing the wrong way, either – it’s often the result of either nervousness or curiosity. Here’s your China travel guide.
– Respect hierarchy: it’s an integral part of Chinese culture. When meeting a group, try to address the eldest or most senior person first.
– Shake hands: bowing is not normal here. When introducing yourself, take off your hat and sunglasses, stand up if sitting down, and refrain from clasping a person’s hand too tightly, as it can be mistaken for aggression.
– Carry business cards: swapping them is common, and locals might be disappointed if you don’t have one.
– Join in on toasts: drinking is a prominent part of Chinese society, so if you find yourself at a party, raise your glass.
– Try a bit of everything at the table: if you’re at a Chinese banquet, it’s expected you’ll sample a little of all the dishes served.
– But leave some food on your plate: or else your host will think they didn’t cater adequately.
– Slurp your noodles: and while you’re at it, go ahead and burp and chew loudly, too – when it comes to Chinese dining etiquette, these are all acceptable.
– Get into a tussle over the bill: it’s a matter of pride. And if you insist on paying, you better get the whole cheque.
– Flip the fish: thinking of turning it over to get to the meat on the other side? Think again. In parts of China, especially coastal areas, it’s symbolic of capsizing a boat.
Etiquette Tips for India
The dazzling and diverse country that is India offers equal parts wonder and delight, shock and chaos. While the cultural anomalies are hardly surprising, what might be is how conservative this colourful country can be. The mix of religions and traditions are one of the biggest hurdles you’ll face here.
– Cover up: particularly your legs and shoulders.
– Be respectful at religious sites: you’ll need to take off your shoes, sometimes cover your head, and keep quiet while people pray.
– Indulge in conversation: even if the line of questioning seems strange, the curiosity is genuine.
– Kiss or embrace your partner in public: this kind of intimacy is best kept private.
– Swear: it might be lively, but India is a very traditional place.
– Give money to street kids: while it may tug at your heartstrings and make you feel as though you’re helping, giving money to street kids should be avoided. Some may be forced to beg by parents or other adults, and money may go straight into someone else’s pocket. If you do want to help, research a verified organisation or program.
Etiquette Tips for Sri Lanka
A trip to experience Sri Lanka’s culture, wilderness and beaches will be a little easier going than some places, as it’s fairly westernised and most people speak English. That said, there are still a few ‘good to knows’.
– Be polite: of course, this should be a given wherever you go, but good manners are especially important here. Keep your voice down, say your pleases and thanks, and pay the place you’re visiting a few compliments – Sri Lankans are proud people and flattery will get you everywhere.
– Tend towards modesty: public displays of affection, skimpy clothing and nude or semi-nude sunbathing are generally a no. And similar to other Asian countries, in the temples, it’s shoes off, and shoulders and legs covered up. (Socks are a good idea too, as walking barefoot on hot concrete can be uncomfortable.)
– Use your good judgement: be savvy when it comes to locals offering services and beggars targeting tourists.
– Give handouts to children: much like in India, you’ll find there are more constructive ways to give back to the community.
Etiquette Tips for Vietnam
Vietnam is a place of contrasts – of serene natural beauty and chaotic streets, of traditional villages and towering skylines, of smiling locals with a war-torn past. Its culture is just as complex. In general, however, the Vietnamese people favour humble, gentle behaviour.
– Be careful with your words: the Vietnamese language can be difficult due to complicated pronouns and inflections changing meanings.
– Opt for humility: all of those beaches might have you reaching for your strappy singlets and short shorts, but t-shirts and loose-fitting clothing could be more culturally appropriate.
– Watch your body language: folding your arms and placing your hands on your hips could be perceived as arrogant.
– Respect your elders: greeting them first and letting them eat first are some of the rules to observe.
– Get too touchy-feely: Vietnam is one of the most reserved countries in this regard. Even hand-holding runs the risk of raising eyebrows.
– Leave food on your plate: unlike in China, this is rude, so eat up!
Etiquette Tips for South Korea
Korean culture is a bit of a mash-up of the countries above. As in Japan, bowing, taking your shoes off indoors and keeping your snotty nose out of sight are the norms. And like in China and Vietnam, seniority is valued, and you should let your elders eat first. Here are some other etiquette tips for travel to Korea.
– Be modest: you’ll have more leeway in the major cities, but as a general rule, more is more when it comes to your clothing.
– Put toilet paper in the toilet. The plumbing in Korea isn’t so hot, and your toilet tissues should be placed in the provided bins.
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