While I was traveling in Asia on a fabulous Azamara cruise that pulled into so many different ports, I was hesitant at times in regards to etiquette. I was unsure of what to do and what not to do. Following my experience, I thought it would be a good idea to share some etiquette tips so you won’t inadvertently offend your hosts when visiting Asia.
Asia is a huge continent with many countries, cultures, and subcultures. My tips are general in nature. Of course, there are always exceptions and special cases – that’s part of the thrill of travel. Let’s take a look at better understanding cross-cultural communication.
Top 10 Etiquette Tips You Need to Know When Visiting Asia
- I remember as a child, when seated for a meal the common custom was for elders to pick up their chopsticks first. I also remember disliking it when people used chopsticks as drumsticks at the table. Although I grew up in the United States, that always bothered me. One should never use chopsticks to point, wave them around in the air, or play with them too much. Definitely taboo.
- When people are being introduced to each other in a business setting, business cards are exchanged. Business cards reflect the status of an individual and a company. Use both hands to present and receive business cards. They are serious business – treat them with respect. Don’t use them to clean your fingernails or stuff them in your pocket. It makes sense to have the card printed on both sides: one in English and the other in the national language of the country you are visiting. If the language is Chinese, use the “simplified” characters for Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Mainland China. The traditional characters are used in Taiwan and parts of Hong Kong.
- Body language is just as important in Asia as it is in the West. Feet belong on the floor, never on a desk or a chair (especially when wearing dirty shoes). Gesturing, passing things, or pointing with feet is considered very rude. On the other end, touching someone on the head is bad luck in China. If an Asian man was having a good run at a casino blackjack table and someone touched his head, he would leave the table immediately. The belief is that touching another’s head takes their luck from them. Pointing, with the index finger, is considered rude, too. Showing with an open hand, rather than pointing, is acceptable.
- I tried to tip my taxi driver in Japan but he refused to accept it. Tipping is very foreign in Japan, as it is China and Korea. Naoko Nishida, director of public relations with the Ritz-Carlton in Osaka, explained it this way: “We don’t give Japanese hospitality with the expectation of getting a tip. It’s just a natural thing [to be hospitable].” With an increase in Western tourists, tipping in other Asian countries has become more common, or even expected. It can be very confusing as we think of tipping as a way to show appreciation, while others may find it insulting. When unsure, it’s always best to ask.
- Business meetings usually include a beverage (tea, coffee, or juice) and a light snack (some rice crackers or cookies). It would be rude to decline, no matter how full you are. When dining out, follow the lead of your hosts, i.e. wait until they start eating. With the exception of the Philippines, cleaning one’s plate could be interpreted as there wasn’t enough food served and you were still hungry. Again, follow the lead of your hosts. As a personal aside, I went on a date once and ordered kim chi. My date was so rude and commented on the odor. (So a second date was not going to be happening there.) Be mindful of your comments and reactions if the menu doesn't match your taste.
- At restaurants or business meetings, wait for the host to assign seats. Don’t just grab a seat. Pecking orders are common, and as the honored guest, you may be asked to sit in the best seat (though you wouldn’t necessarily know where that is). You can’t go wrong by waiting for your host, who, most likely, is the head of the local group of Asian attendees, and will sit at the head of the table looking toward the door. The most important guest (maybe you, maybe not) sits to the host’s right. There are certain drinking rules, too. First and foremost, avoid pouring your own drink. Raise and hold your glass with both hands while someone pours you a drink (and someone will), and then you pour that person a drink. The mutual pouring continues throughout the meal. If you don’t want more to drink, leave a big amount in your glass. Most likely, you will be toasted. Reciprocate all toasts and take a sip, at least as a courtesy.
- When visiting someone’s home always bring some sort of gift, an edible treat is a safe bet. Remember, home entertaining in Asia isn't as common as it is in the West; it's a big deal to be asked to someone's home. During Chinese New Year, greet family, friends, and colleagues with wishes for a Happy New Year, good health, and wealth and prosperity. Make sure you aren't wearing socks or pantyhose with holes. As you probably know, shoes are removed before entering homes, but they also are removed when visiting traditional restaurants in Japan and Korea, as well as Japanese-style lodging (ryokan). You may be requested to remove your shoes at temples, dressing rooms in larger department stores, and a doctor's office. Slippers are typically provided. There are special restroom slippers, too, in homes, restaurants, and other places. These toilet room slippers are worn only inside the restroom. It would be the biggest faux pas to forget to take off the restroom slippers – and it will be noticed as the slippers are designated restroom slippers by a different color and artwork. Japanese tatami (bamboo mat) rooms found in temples, restaurants, homes, and other places are only entered wearing socks and/or pantyhose, never with shoes and not even with slippers.
- This one is especially for Americans: Silence is OK. One does not need to fill a lull in conversation with some kind of chatter. Also, be mindful of how difficult it can be to operate in a second language. Watch your jargon and slang. Learn basic phrases – please, thank you, hello, goodnight – in your host’s language.
- Handing money directly to someone can be considered rude. Most likely on the counter you’ll find a tray to place your money, or you can set the money on the counter. I made this gaffe in Japan at a salon and noticed the discomfort right away. Illustrating how directly giving money is not done is the New Year’s custom in Japan for grandparents, aunts, and uncles to give money gifts to grandchildren, nieces, and nephews for New Year’s. The money is always presented in white elegant envelopes.
- Circling back to the chopsticks, here is a big no-no in Taiwan, China, and Japan: Putting chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. It reminds people of incense used when mourning a death.
Etiquette can be very confusing and mistakes will be made. The main thing is to keep your sense of humor and smile, which translates the same in all languages. I remember giving up my seat on a jam-packed Tokyo subway to an elderly woman, who gave the seat to her 8-to-10-year-old grandson. I could NOT believe it and I felt like asking for the seat back. Funny when I look back on it now. In some ways, children in Asia are a bit more indulged than in the West (where "spare the rod, spoil the child" originated). This isn’t necessarily an etiquette item, but it sure is different. And that’s why I love travel so much. I look forward to learning more about your culture as I cruise on my next journey with Azamara.
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