Local Etiquette in Asian Countries: Do’s and Don’ts
Planning that Thailand vacation this summer? Going to Japan for Spring Break? Respect the local culture.
It may not be possible to learn all the Do’s and Don’ts before you visit another country, but the valuable part is that this is an educational process for the family. Learning to respect other cultures is part of what I love about family travel. It’s educational. It’s fun. It’s learning to share the world we live in.
The following is a sample of three countries and some areas of etiquette that I learned first hand from our multiple family trips to Thailand, Japan, and China. As a Chinese American, the same rules of etiquette apply for more traditional occasions here in the U.S. as well.
Traditional Asian Customs in 3 Countries
Avoid Yellow and Red Shirts
No, it’s not a gang thing. It’s a political thing. There are two major parties, and they have been going at it forever. Pick another color.
In the Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, forks are used in the left hand to move food into the spoon in your right to eat. Do as the locals do. Avoid using the fork to put food into your mouth. Instead, use your spoon.
The Left Hand
Don’t eat food with your left hand like Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods did. In countries like Thailand, India, Middle East, Africa, the left hand is for the bathroom. Don’t shake hands with your left. Don’t hand people things with your left. And definitely don’t lick your fingers on your left hand.
Feet, Legs, and Meals
When you have a traditional Thai dinner and you are sitting on the floor, avoid pointing your feet at someone, especially the Buddha statue. Also, avoid crossing your legs when seated. Both are considered rude in Thai culture. Watch how locals sit. They usually extend both feet to the back of one side.
Avoid Hand Shaking and Touching
When greeting Thais, bow with your palms facing each other and hands up near your chin and say: Sawaadee-kop (Hello for a man) and Sawaadee-kaw (Hello for women). The deeper the bow from the waist, the more respect you pay to the other person.
Speak Quietly in Public
The first thing I noticed in Japan was how quietly people spoke in public areas. The Japanese are always mindful of others. Go to any McDonald’s even, and you will notice that everyone speaks in a hushed tone of voice. People are respectful of others. Cars seldom honk their horns even in major downtown cities like Tokyo. Respect the local culture and keep your conversations at a lower decibel.
Eating and Drinking
Drink your Starbucks at the store. Eat your item next to the street food vendor. Ditto with the ubiquitous vending machines. Drink and eat before leaving. It’s generally considered rude to eat and drink while you are walking.
Place Chopsticks Respectfully
You might have heard of this one before. Don’t stick your chopsticks upright into your rice. It is a custom in Japan during funerals that a bowl of rice with chopsticks sticking up is placed before the deceased. Unless you want to end up with the same fate, place your chopsticks parallel to your bowl when resting them.
Use Soy Sauce at Your Own Risk
I was once scolded by a sushi chef at a famous Tsikiji Fish Market restaurant for dipping my sashimi into some soy sauce. He shook his hands profusely while saying “No! No! No!” I get it. It’s already seasoned. Arigato!
When eating at restaurants or people’s homes, it’s family style. Seating is usually at a round table. The honored guests are asked to sit on the “inside” or away from where food is served. Your best option is to wait for everyone to find their place and sit at the same time. Food is shared and hosts often serve their guests. It is perfectly acceptable to return the favor and serve them food from family style dishes. When pouring tea, always pour tea to other people first.
Pro tip: When receiving tea, lightly tap the table in front of your cup with a closed fist like knocking on a door or using four or five fingers with your palm down. This symbolizes kowtowing. You are simply saying thank you.
When eating with a Chinese group, pace yourself. At banquets, there might be 10 courses. The first ones are cold dishes. Don’t get full in the first couple rounds. Chinese people show their hospitality by feeding you until you are stuffed. My strategy is to eat lightly at first to be prepared for the onslaught toward the end. Your host will put more and more food on your plate each time you finish it. Pace yourself to finish strong.
Pro tip: Thank your host and comment how delicious the food was and how little they have eaten.
Sometimes, when introduced to a group of people, Chinese people will applaud. Applaud back in response. It might feel weird but it’s the norm.
Handshaking has become more common in China and other Asian countries, but in general, touching strangers is not preferred. This includes high fives, back slapping, shoulder tapping, fist bumping and even hugging. Handshaking is acceptable among friends. Just watch for their cues and mirror their response.
Chinese might bow slightly when introduced. They bow from the shoulders rather than the waist like Japanese.
Last names first
Chinese say their family names first and then their given names. It is often three characters in all and sometimes just two. The hierarchy and formality of addressing each person can be complicated. Adults can use Mr. or Mrs. so and so. Children will get extra points for using “Uncle” or “Auntie” when addressing people their parent’s age.
Learn Common Expressions
My father traveled a lot to Asia for business when I was a child. Upon returning he would share a few common expressions he learned in other languages like hello, thank you, and goodbye. I started doing that in our travels and experienced how friendly people become even when you try to say a few words in someone else’s language.
I still appreciate the picture menu at restaurants when traveling overseas, but the fun part is meeting people and learning new aspects of culture. Happy travels everyone!
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Eugene lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He and his wife have taken their two children to about 15 countries for work and vacation. Eugene is…