Asian Customs You May Not Know About
When you think about it, some of your culture’s traditions and customs may be pretty surprising to someone from another region. There even may have been times when someone did something rude or disrespectful simply out of ignorance to local customs and values. Learning about a country’s customs is extremely beneficial in understanding their practices and becoming a better and more respectful traveler. So, Postcard Press has put together this primer on Asian customs to get you started.
Bowing is used as a greeting, and more importantly, a gesture of respect. Seen in Korea and Japan, a bow is performed as a bend from the waist with the back straight and the eyes down. Many different variables go into the use of a bow, such as the duration, depth of the bow, and to what the bow is in response. A deep bow is reserved for more formal settings, to someone with high status, to show great respect, or out of humiliation. A more informal bow, however, is most common for travelers. This would be about a 15 degree, or less, bend for greeting acquaintances and also in a show of appreciation.
Check out this informative article on the ins and outs of bowing in Japan.
Bowing is less common in China, especially for travelers, and should be reserved as a response to someone who just bowed to you or for very formal settings, such as ceremonies, temples, and funerals. Today, it is not widely practiced, apart from certain areas of the country that maintain a more traditional lifestyle, but it was formerly an important aspect of Chinese etiquette. Perhaps it can be practiced as a small head nod in thanks, but not as a greeting, as more commonly thought.
Seen as something reserved for couples or those romantically-involved in Western cultures, it’s simply a sign of friendship in China. It’s not uncommon to see friends holding hands or linking arms while walking down the street, especially women and young girls. Members of a family, young or old, will also hold hands while out and about.
Public Displays of Affection
In Japan, it is believed that bringing attention to oneself in public is bad manners, and a kiss on the lips, in public, is considered extremely intimate and best done in private. There aren’t as many PDAs seen publicly in Asia as in the West.
In China, kisses are not acceptable unless between a couple or when kissing a child or baby. Love is seen as more practical, and physicality is saved for procreation. For more on why romantic affection is not shown in public, this Asian-Australian writer shares the history of this custom and her personal experience.
Rare, and sometimes banned, tipping in China is considered unnecessary.. However, some more touristy areas will include gratuity on the bill, as leaving a cash tip is not expected. In Japan, tips are refused and may be considered offensive. If left, you may be chased down so it can be returned to you. The service workers in Japan take pride in their job performance, giving excellent service at all times. In Thailand, it is entirely up to the guest at the establishment, depending on the service provided; however, while in Vietnam, tips are not customary but received with good grace.
It’s important to make sure you know that tipping culture of your destination before you arrive. Here is a great article on the ins and outs of tipping in Asian countries.
In Japan, while enjoying meals consisting of soups or noodles, it is respectful to slurp them as you eat them. This is a sign of appreciation, letting the chef know that your meal is satisfying, as opposed to eating quietly, which can be considered rude. This custom is also true when eating in China!
South Korea has practices that are the opposite, and, similar to Western culture, it is considered impolite to slurp your food or chew with your mouth open. It is good manners to eat quietly; however, you can still talk, just without food in your mouth! When traveling throughout Asia, always research the customs, especially if you’re unsure, as they can differ from location to location.
Furthermore, while eating, be sure to never leave your chopsticks standing up in your bowl, due to its association with death and funeral practices. Lay the chopsticks to the side on the table if you are finished with your meal, or on a rest. For more reading on chopstick etiquette, this article has great information to keep in mind.
In most Asian countries, you are served a communal drink with your meal, usually tea or anything from a bottle that is shared at the table, such as beer, wine, sake, or soju. Know that pouring your own drink is frowned upon, as it is seen as greedy and self-centered. Instead, you should allow someone else at the table pour your drink for you. If you decide to refill your own drink, be sure to refill the cups that are low at the table first, leaving your drink to be filled last.
If you notice someone’s cup is empty at your table, take the initiative to refill it, as they will likely do the same for you. This is especially important if you are dining with someone who is your elder or someone of higher rank than you.
Check out this article for more on drinking etiquette in Japan.
The practice of removing shoes before entering an establishment varies by country, but generally, this custom stems from an emphasis on cleanliness or separating the home from the ground. Thai culture considers the head to be the most revered part of the body, and as the feet are the furthest from the head, they are considered dirty–so it is respectful to remove shoes before entering a home or temple.
Vietnam has many homes and lodgings with an accumulation of shoes outside the front door. It’s easy to keep up with the etiquette of the country by keeping your eyes peeled for shoes in the entryway of a hotel or residence. Some temples will provide slippers and sometimes booties that are slipped over shoes. In Japan, slippers are provided by the host so visitors can remove their shoes and switch them out before entering a home, lodging, and even restaurants.
South Korea follows suit closely with Japan’s customs. In fact, it’s such a long-standing tradition that ancient 14th-century homes were built with heated floors using a special venting system. Other Asian countries like China and Cambodia will always offer guests slippers as they remove their outdoor shoes before walking into a home. It all stems back to the custom of keeping dirty shoes out of living spaces.
This is a practice that is important to take note of while traveling throughout Asia, and to which travelers should always adhere.
It’s quite common for people to blow their noses in public in the West–whether they’re a little under the weather, they’ve just had food that’s a bit too spicy, or they’re just clearing their nostrils after a sneeze. But don’t get caught blowing your nose in Japan, China or Korea, as it is considered disrespectful and is not appreciated. If you must blow your nose, go somewhere private, such as a bathroom stall.
If you have ever visited an Asian country, you may have noticed this in your travels. Surgical masks are worn by Asians if someone is sick, for allergies, or even due to air pollution (younger generations utilize them to avoid social interactions and sometimes even as a fashion statement). This custom is common is East Asia, due to the fact that in densely populated regions such as these, viruses can spread rapidly.
This custom originated in Japan in the early 20th century after an influenza pandemic killed over 20 million people around the world. This practice can also be seen in Asian populations in the U.S., especially after the the SARS outbreak in 2002 and the 2006 bird flu pandemic. Wearing a surgical mask is a way to help stop the spread of germs, and now that there are chic designs featured on modern surgical masks for fashion, wellness is practiced with style!
Asian culture is very important to consider as you plan your travels. Always research prior to your trip, so you can learn as much as you can about the practices of the region, be a respectful traveler and return home with great memories and a deeper appreciation of the country’s customs.
Are there any Asian customs that surprised you? What are some other interesting customs you’ve noticed in your travels? We’d love to learn more about it!