Everyone knows that when they travel, they will be immersing themselves in a different culture. It’s part of the adventure. Along with this comes different rules, expectations, dos, and don’ts. But no matter how obvious this may seem or how prepared you think you are, it’s never a bad idea for a bit of a refresher. Here’s a good one, just for fun.
But it’s not always so light-hearted. This was brought to light recently when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife dined at the Israeli Prime Minister’s house in Tel Aviv. By all accounts dinner was great – until dessert was served in a shoe. Yes, like… a shoe, filled with dessert, on the dining table.
First of all, that’s weird, right? Like, who serves food in a shoe? But okay, it was a purpose-made metal shoe filled with chocolate. Still weird, but not the end of the world. But hang on – the Prime Minister of Japan? Some of you are no doubt cringing right now because you understand that in Asia, wearing outdoor shoes inside is bad enough – putting a likeness of one on the dining room table is an outrageous breach of social etiquette. Thankfully, diplomacy carried the day, and we avoided the Great Loafer War of 2018.
These are the kinds of things one must keep in mind as they expand their horizons in Southeast Asia. You don’t need to know every detail of every social cue, but it helps to have even a broad understanding of how an unfamiliar culture thinks.
In his book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, and Why, Richard Nisbett says that westerners see the world as a stable, linear, mechanical place. Things work (or should work) in fairly predictable patterns, and when they don’t, fixing it becomes job #1 (this, of course, doesn’t apply to government bureaucracy). Asians, however, see the world as complex, dynamic, always changing. It’s mad! It’s unpredictable! And you need to roll with the punches, or you’ll just end up tearing your hair out.
This would help to explain why you’ll see groups of westerners on mountainous jungle roads losing their cool over a bus that’s an hour late, while the locals will be snacking (again) while they relax in the shade.
But these little cultural speedbumps are not only good for a curious little “Huh, interesting” mental note – they can often help kickstart a bigger effort to understand the culture in a much broader sense.
One seemingly small detail that hints at the bigger picture is noise, something that big Asian cities have in spades. Some westerners may find the cacophony jarring or confusing – I mean why is it necessary to blast music outside of a drug store in a shopping mall? But for many Asians, the loud music isn’t just a distraction, it’s a representation of action. Dynamism. Commerce. It’s a cue that this is where things are happening, and you should come here to check it out!
There are plenty of other truisms that hint at the larger makeup of Asian culture that might come into play as you travel. For instance, in western countries respect generally needs to be earned, but in Asia it’s often automatically given based on age, job, or perceived social standing. Who’s in charge when an older person meets a famous young doctor? What happens when you meet a politician or a famous actor half your age? Well, we don’t know either, but it’s fascinating to watch someone figure it out.
Losing face, touching someone’s head, dressing appropriately when going to religious sites… all of these are probably familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with Asia, but there’s more here than simply smiling when you’re mad, stroking someone’s hair, or covering up those sunburned shoulders.
Each taboo can be extrapolated to gain a bit of insight into the culture you’re about to explore. So while watching Iron Man beat down an evil robot or whatever on the flight over is certainly enjoyable, it’s much more valuable to do a bit of research into the culture you’ll be leaping into.
Or better yet, let us provide all the necessary local information and cultural suggestions and answer any questions you may have before departing on a Smiling Albino adventure!