How to avoid being an offensive jerk in Asia. Source: Shutterstock.
IF there is one thing that foreign travelers to Asia should know, especially first-time travelers, it is that there are 48 countries in Asia and despite some similarities, essentially, Asians are all very different from each other.
This is due to various conditions, from the country’s history to its overall culture, and even right down to the diversity of the people. It is not a “one size fits all” so it is good to know the difference between the countries.
And whether you are exposed to the melting pot of cultures in the region or not, here are some things you should never say or do in Asia.
Because let’s face it. Nobody likes a terrible tourist, so why be one yourself?
Say “Ni hao!” to just about anyone
Contrary to popular belief, “Ni hao!” (which means, “How are you?” in Mandarin) is not universal. Perhaps it is in China and Taiwan, but not all Chinese people in the other parts of Asia understand Mandarin.
For example, a Malaysian Chinese or an Indonesian Chinese may not speak Mandarin because it is not his or her country’s national language. So going around saying, “Ni hao!” to every other Chinese person who is willing to listen is just going to draw some pretty confused looks.
You would have a better chance of a proper, fluent interaction by communicating in English, to be honest.
Say “Wow, your English is very good!”
While we are on the topic of English, absolutely do not kick them in the gut by saying, “Wow, your English is very good!” because as much as it sounds like ayou are paying them a compliment, you are not.
First of all, English is a global language, the world’s lingua franca. Secondly, geography. Remember to check where you are.
If you are in a Commonwealth country (a nation that was formerly part of the British Empire) such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, India, or Sri Lanka, it is likely they can speak moderate to fluent English.
And no, they do not need you to tell them that.
Speak in broken English on purpose
To add on, when visiting the aforementioned countries, there is really no need to speak super slowly and in broken English just because you are convinced it would help them understand you better.
Yes, they speak English.
And yes, they understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.
Point at them
No pointing with your index fingers. In most parts of Southeast Asia, pointing with your index finger is considered rude and impolite, and it comes off as an accusatory gesture.
In China, this gesture is only done to animals. In particular, dogs.
It is also offensive to point at places of worship such as temples and shrines, and religious statues and relics, which are commonly found in primarily Buddhist regions such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
Source: Lainey Loh.
If you want to “point” something out, use your thumb instead by balling your fist and sticking out your thumb slightly.
You should not automatically offer to shake hands upon first meeting because that is mostly a Western tradition and some parts of Asia are still quite conservative about skinship.
In Japan and South Korea, bowing is customary and a sign of respect. The deeper your bow, the more respectful it is.
If you are meeting some new Indian friends, put your palms together and say Namaste, which means “I bow to the divine in you” or “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you”.
You can do the same (putting your palms together) in Thailand when greeting someone, but avoid doing it in China because it is a gesture of prayer.
Patting someone’s head
Touching a person’s head ranks pretty high on the rude ranks and is viewed as invasive.
This is because in Buddhist culture, the head is the highest part of the body and thought of as sacred. So you may want to think twice about giving someone’s head a pat in the primarily Buddhist regions.
Actually, when in Asia, best avoid it altogether because you can never tell just by their appearance alone who is Buddhist and who is not.
Drink tap water
This is not rocket science but it is often the rookiest of all mistakes because of what you are used to back home.
Yes, it is essential to always stay hydrated when you travel, but tap water is rarely safe to drink in Asia with the exception of Brunei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.
Although bottled water can be purchased just about anywhere, some Asian countries are currently tackling a garbage wasteland problem so try to avoid adding on to that.
Instead, put your eco-friendly traveler hat on and pack your own water bottle, then use water-refill machines or get them refilled at your accommodation.