Top 5 Faux Pas Westerners Make When Visiting Asian Countries
Before I travelled throughout Asia, I used to group the idea of “Asia” into one giant conglomerate of countries in my mind.
There seemed to be strong similarities, at least according to my preconceived notions, between China and Vietnam, South Korea and Japan, Indonesia and India.
The second I stepped off the plane in Nepal, it took about two seconds to realise how incredibly diverse this vast continent really is: how rich in its peoples and cultures, how wildly different from one city and village to the next.
The American habit of referring to a person as “Asian” in order to describe their appearance became glaringly ludicrous – my Nepalese friends look nothing like my Vietnamese friends, and yet both would be described as “Asian” back in the U.S.
All of my PC pontificating aside, there do seem to be many cultural similarities found throughout Asia that aren’t found throughout the West.
If we divide the world up into two cultural halves, there are very distinct things one mustn’t do (or must always do) when traveling within the “other” half – things that many Westerners, at least those I’ve observed in my travels, seem to be completely oblivious to.
Here are some of the most embarrassing faux pax that Western travellers make when descending upon the great continent of Asia:
1. Dressing like a lady of the night
At the time of writing I’m in Vietnam, and I remain horrified at the hordes of Western tourists cycling around in bikini tops (women) or shirtless (men).
All that skin may be fine to show at home, but in many Asian countries you may as well be prancing around stark naked.
Yes, it may be hot, but wearing sleeves (even short sleeves!) goes a long way in proving to locals that you’re not completely without respect for their culture.
2. Automatically assuming a scam
The other day a Western woman came into the lantern shop where my fiancée was working. He was surrounded by other workers, all of whom spent hours upon hours sitting on the floor making hand-crafted lanterns from scratch.
The woman was trying to bargain with the shop owner over the cost of three lanterns. I knew the price to be more than fair, but the woman automatically assumed she was getting scammed and tried to lowball the owner on the price.
When traveling in Asia, there are most certainly scams – but not everyone everywhere is out to get you. In this case, if the woman had opened her eyes she could have seen the loving labor that went into making the lanterns, and would have realised how ridiculous it was to offer anything less than the asking price.
3. Treating locals like servants
My Vietnamese fiancée also works at a tourist bar. Every night he comes home with stories of Westerners demanding ridiculous things they’d never ask for back home.
One Western woman left a pack of cigarettes at the bar, then returned an hour later looking for them. The staff hadn’t seen them, so the woman demanded that the staff buy her another pack of cigarettes.
In our independent Western culture, losing something is your own damn fault. I highly doubt this chick would’ve traipsed back into the Cheesecake factory and demanded that the manager buy her a pack of smokes.
There is a decided dichotomy between West and East, especially in terms of wealth. Having more money doesn’t give you the right to treat people like servants, or to expect them to bend over backwards simply because you happen to be a foreigner.
4. Drinking like fishes
Yes, you’re on holiday. Yes, you have a right to have a good time. But the rowdier you get, the worse you’re making us all look!
Keep in mind that the locals aren’t on holiday – they live here, and they most likely just put the baby down to sleep.
Have a good time, but don’t forget that you represent all Westerners when you travel, and that locals who’ve had little contact with other foreigners will assume your behaviour to be par for the course.
5. Demanding Western comforts
“Where is the milk for my tea?”
“This latte does not taste like Starbucks.”
“That waiter should treat us better. We’re paying customers for god sake.”
Part of the pain and joy of travel is journeying to places that are different than home. You’re simply not going to find everything you need and want when you’re on another continent (at least not the Asian continent). Or, if you can find it, it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg.
So dive into life without coffee creamer, peanut butter, customer service, or a decent glass of wine (unless you’re in a big city, of course).
After all, this is Asia. And what Asia lacks in Western comforts and ideals it makes up for tenfold in its rich, mysterious, baffling, glorious approach to daily living.
Rebekah Voss is an author, travel writer, and the creator of TheHappyPassport.com.