1. Going barefoot outside
If you’ve ever travelled in Asia you’ll probably be aware that in many Asian cultures it is customary to take off one’s shoes upon entering a house, guesthouse or restaurant. After 7 months this habit has become almost automatic now and its an easy one to remember… most of the time. If you do happen to forget, don’t worry – your kids will probably remind you before you’re even through the door. Quite frankly, the streets in Asia are generally grotty so its just good sense not to track all that dirt and grime inside. But did you know that many Asians also believe that taking off your shoes is just good health practice, as being barefoot allows the reflexology pressure points in your feet to be stimulated.
Unfortunately it’s taken me a while to realise the converse is also true – don’t go outside barefoot if you’re in a town or city.
Growing up in a small Australia beach town, it was just normal behaviour to visit the neighbour’s or check the letter box in bare feet. If you do the same thing in Asia though, most Asian’s will look at you as if you’ve grown two heads or a third eye, even if you’re just walking two metres to go to the bin. Its not really offensive to walk around outside barefoot, and it’s perfectly fine if you’re at the beach… but if you’re in a town or city people will think your insane. And if you’re staying at someones house its not really polite to be walking back inside their house with dirty feet. Of course if your staying in a small village where everyone else is barefoot, ditch the shoes and enjoy!
2. Even simple children’s games can be fraught with cultural traps
Before heading into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia we’d read up on all the “Do’s and Don’t”, including to never touch anyone on the head. Touching anyone on the head, where the spirit is considered to reside, is considered a personal insult to the person that your touching and perhaps even to his ancestors.
Unfortunately we forgot this one when we decided to introduce a group of Vietnamese children to the game of ‘Duck Duck Goose’ while waiting for a train in Hue, Vietnam. ‘Duck Duck Goose’ involves the participants sitting around in a circle, while one person walks around the circle tapping people on the head one by one saying either ‘Duck’ or ‘Goose’. When ‘Goose’ is finally said, the person whose head was tapped has to get up and race around the circle, trying to catch the tapper before they sit down in the newly vacated spot in the circle.
It wasn’t until 5 minutes into the game that we noticed the Vietnamese children weren’t tapping our heads but just holding their hands 30 cm above our heads and realised our cultural mistake! We felt really bad about it and adjusted the way we were playing, but thankfully everyone in the train station was having so much fun laughing at the silly westerners and all of the children falling over as they ran around in slippery shoes that no one seemed to mind. I guess they also understood it was a harmless children’s game. But from now on we’re a little bit more cautious of even harmless children’s games.
3. Pointing with your feet
In many Asian cultures, particularly Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, pointing with your feet is rude. Pointing with your feet at someone or a statue or Buddha is unthinkably rude. Thankfully its not something that people generally do so its easy to avoid most of the time. Of course I have slipped up once… at the worst possible time. It happened at the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Killing Fields are a sombre place. You spend most of your visit shell shocked, horrified and sickened that something like this could have ever happened, especially just a few short years ago. You want to observe and share what you see with your friends, but without pointing or shouting ‘look at that’. Our tour guide had been showing us through the mass graves for the past five minutes when I noticed a large leg bone recently uncovered by the rain. Trying to be discrete I pointed it out to my friend, Sarah… with my foot… forgetting the important taboo. Unfortunately I also pointed it out just as our tour guide said the body of his uncle was buried here somewhere. The tour guide never said anything about my mistake. Perhaps he didn’t notice, but I didn’t like to ask. I spent the next few hours feeling incredibly guilty that even if I hadn’t pointed at his uncle’s remains with my foot, I had been disrespectful to someone’s uncle, aunt, father or mothers remains in this of all places.
4. Things that you think are normal to eat maybe just as revolting to locals as some of the things they eat are to you.
This is one Colin and I learnt long ago working as teachers in South Korea. Like many Asian countries, dog is eaten by some people in South Korea. As young, naive twenty-somethings we arrived in Korea trying to keep an open mind but generally convinced our belief that eating dog to be disgusting and cruel was the correct belief. After several discussions with Koreans we soon realised that for them, Westerner’s eating lamb was equally disgusting and inconceivable.
Twelve years later we still don’t agree with the methods used to kill dogs for meat, but we’re a lot more open to the idea that for every fish head soup, fried cricket or red bean roll we turn our noses up at there is probably a tourist in Australia looking equally disgusted at something on our menus.
This time around we’re trying to teach our children that appreciating another culture is more than just being respectful of their religion and being aware of cultural taboos; its also about entering a country with an open mind and trying to look at yourself from that cultures perspective. Of course we’re still not ready to buy a kitten for dinner in Cambodia… even when its being sold to us for 50c and pre-packaged in a bag. It just means that we try not to think about the kittens fate or pass judgement on the poor villagers if we don’t see the kitten the next time we’re passing through Kampot.
5. Don’t offer change, gifts or objects with your left hand
If you’ve travelled in South East Asia, India or the Middle East you will probably be aware that you shouldn’t eat with your left hand while visiting these countries. Did you know that you also shouldn’t pass or accept anything with your left hand?
In South East Asia you’ll notice that most people pass and accept objects, including money, with only their right hand, while their left hand clearly touches their right arm on the forearm or at the elbow. Accepting objects with two hands is also acceptable. In Korea, objects are accepted with both hands and given with the right hand, while the left hand supports the right. The left hand can go higher than the elbow and in fact the higher the left hand is resting on the right arm, the more respect you are showing. Thankfully we were aware of this one after living in South Korea, although we still slip up occasionally. Its a tricky one if you tend to carry your toddler on your right hip – when you’re at a cash register juggling a wallet, backpack and carrying a toddler on your right hip it takes a lot of effort to use only your right hand. That’s assuming you even remember at this point. I’ve broken this rule a couple of times in just that situation. Thankfully this is one of those customs that you won’t get driven out of a shop for not following. But you will gain more respect if you do follow it.
6. Pointing and beckoning
In Asia it’s considered rude to point at a person or an object with your index finger or head. Instead make a closed fist (thumb at the top) with the thumb pointing the direction of the object in question. Its a lot subtler than pointing with your finger and at first its easy to miss the thumb signs and think people are just ignoring you when your asking for directions to the nearest toilet in an urgent hurry with a toddler thats busting. Its also rude to beckon someone with your palm upwards and moving your fingers in a curling motion. To beckon someone instead extend your arm, palm down, and move your fingers in a curling motion towards your body. Beckoning with your palm upwards is how you call a dog. This is one that is very easy to forget when you have young children – I lost count of the number of times I did it early on. Of course there are days when I think it would be easier to call back a dog then two children constantly competing to be the fastest to reach the shopping centre, the car, the playground, the swimming pool and even the toilet. Even walking in a creek is a race.
7. Always wear a bra
Did you know that women should wear bras at all times in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, otherwise it implies they are very low class or a prostitute. Unfortunately for my husband this isn’t one I make a habit of breaking. Such a shame no one seems to have told this rule to the crazy old cat women that I see out walking every day in Tanjung Bunga, Penang with her three cats following her sadly unsupported form.
Like to avoid other cultural mistakes? Kwintessential has very comprehensive country specific information on cultural do’s and don’ts. Of course don’t get too worried about offending people by doing something wrong. Most Asians are incredibly forgiving and they’ll probably be so busy trying to play with your children they won’t even notice you, let alone any mistakes you might make.