Unique Customs to Know Before Traveling to Asia

Aug 01, 2023


In 2014, a 37-year old British nurse was arrested in Sri Lanka for having a tattoo of a meditating Buddha on her arm. In 2012, three French tourists were apprehended for kissing a Buddha statue in a disrespectful manner. In Sri Lanka, the mistreatment of Buddhist images is a serious offense. Even in Sri Lankan homes, religious statues are kept at the highest point and no other photographs or ornaments are hung above them. What the British and French tourists experienced as culture shock, the people in Asia experienced as cultural insensitivity. When you travel, it’s important to be aware of the customs of the country you’re visiting. While most breaches of etiquette and social faux pas won’t land you in jail, it’s important to understand a country’s complex web of rules and traditions. You don’t want to insult a host, embarrass yourself, or worse.


Bowing is an art form in Japan, a form of respect taught to children from day one. While the duration and inclination of the bow is important to people in Japan, for a visiting tourist, a simple inclination of the head will suffice. At the same time, handshakes have become an accepted Western custom in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, according to Terri Morrison and Wayne Conway, authors of "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands Asia.” However, Morrison and Conway caution against using a handshake that's too firm; while a firm handshake is how you make a good impression in the West, in Asia it’s interpreted as a form of aggression.

Table Manners

Slurping noodles is one of Japan’s great pleasures. In fact, if you don’t slurp, it’s often taken as a sign you’re not enjoying your food. Shizuo Tsuji summed it up best in his book Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art.  "Like sipping piping hot Japanese soup, to really enjoy noodles, one must imbibe them fast with a cooling intake of breath. To do this involves a decided sucking sound, which easily deteriorates into a slurp.” Slurping anything -other than oysters, perhaps -is frowned upon in the West, a sign of bad table manners and poor upbringing.  

Food Rituals

Different Asian countries have different food customs and rituals. In China, never wave your chopsticks at someone or rest them on a table in a way that points to someone. More importantly, never leave the chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice bowl. While it might seem like the natural thing to do when you’re done eating, upright chopsticks are reminiscent of a ritual offering that’s made to the dead. In Thailand, it’s considered bad form to put food in your mouth using a fork. Use the fork to push the food onto your spoon, and then put it in your mouth. If you’re eating at a restaurant in Japan, tipping isn’t required. This is also true for other service scenarios such as hotels and taxis. It’s also polite to say “itadakimasu” (I will receive) before you eat. In addition, it’s considered bad manners to eat while walking down the street. However, stand and eat shops, called tachi-gui, are popular in Japan and serve Soba, sushi, and ramen noodles. 

Polite Refusals

As a sign of politeness, it’s tradition in Asia to refuse something at least once. For example, a host will refuse a gift you bring to their home once or twice before finally accepting it. In other words, if you’re with a group of people at a restaurant and offered the last piece of sushi, you’re expected to refuse it; it’s a sign that you’re humbled by the offer.

Personal Space

Westerners are vigilant and fussy guardians of personal space. But that’s not the case in Asia. Personal space is nonexistent. Asians are close talkers, and if you’re on a train or subway, don’t be surprised if someone rests their head on your shoulder when they fall asleep (yes, it might take some getting used to).


Take off your shoes. This is a common practice at the entrance to homes, hotels, and most businesses in Asia. And don’t worry… nobody is going too see that your socks are a little threadbare or that you have a penchant for funny animal designs; most places offer a selection of guest slippers.  Asia has many different proprieties and customs. Before you travel to an Asian country, be sure to familiarize yourself with that country’s etiquette. The last thing you want is to offend someone or exhibit insensitive behavior. 

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