Before I embarked on a six-and-a-half-month trip around SE Asia and China, that part of the world was like one big blob in my head. “Asia”! The place where people speak with intonations and eat with chop sticks. What I had yet to learn was the myriad cultural differences that exist between East and West. This post is a compilation of those cultural observations and surprising discoveries during my travels through SE Asia and China.
Bathroom and Hygiene
When I was in Indonesia, one time I was using the bathroom and noticed a few “do-not signs” – signs with the silhouette of someone doing something and a red-line across it. No smoking, no throwing trash down the toilette. And… what was that last one? No standing on top of the toilet and squatting? Why would anyone do that?
I learned that in East Asia, toilets are often a hole in the floor surrounded by metal or another hard material for someone to put his feet and squat. Looking through my American goggles, this seems like a strenuous quad exercise that requires balance and perseverance. How can you also do your duty while doing wall sits without the wall?
As I traveled, I observed many Asians squatting on the streets – not because they were having a BM – but because they were just waiting around. I realized that squatting is a no energy way for them to wait. So, correspondingly, it is a natural way for them to have a poo as well! Other rationale I heard: It is unsanitary to touch your bum to the rim of a bowl where strangers have also touched their bum. On this point, I totally get it.
The Bum Gun:
In nearly every country I went to in SE Asia, I noticed a hose with a spray nozzle on the end close to the toilet. A hose to clean the toilet rim! I naively assumed. When bathroom floors were consistently wet, however, I got suspicious. How often are they cleaning the toilets here? And why do they get water all over the floor? In the back of my mind, I knew the answer, but didn’t acknowledge it. I was holding out for another reason.
I asked a guy that works at my hostel in Singapore about these hoses. That’s how people clean here after they use the toilet! He said, referring to cleaning your bum.
Really? But…how? I replied. I don’t remember the response, but it wasn’t that informative.
I asked my friend who lives in Kuching, Sarawak Malaysia, in Borneo, the same question. It’s very clean! Cleaner than paper. Paper is dry. With a hose, you can really wash. He replied.
Yea, but then you’re all wet. I said. His response was to shrug off the wetness.
There are several Malaysians of Indian descent, and there are Indian hubs in various cities in Malaysia. I learned that in Indian culture, the left hand is used along with the bum gun to clean your bum! Consequently, it is taboo to put out your left hand for a handshake when greeting an Indian. The right hand is used for social etiquette, while the left is reserved solely for hygienic purposes.
Food and Eating
This may come as no surprise, but East Asians love rice. What was surprising to me is that they eat rice at every meal. Many Asians also believe they need to eat rice, and a meal is not complete without rice. A local once told me her mother visited California, and was shocked to learn that rice was not served at every meal and at every restaurant. The woman told me her mother promptly got a bag of cooked rice, and carried it around with her to supplement her meals.
Rice obsession is especially true in Myanmar. When I was trekking in Myanmar, our two guides cooked us lunch, dinner, and breakfast. After cooking for us, they would eat alone in another room. I told them I would love for them to join us, and asked why they didn’t. My guides response, we need to eat rice! While this was not exactly an excuse, it highlighted Myanmar’s diet. After pleading with them, one of the guides finally joined us during our final lunch as a trekking group. While the tourists had a variety of vegetables, meat, and some rice on their plate, our guide had a generous helping of rice, and maybe three small greens for her entire meal.
I also discovered that white rice is often complimentary at many Myanmar restaurants, while water, for instance, is not. (However, the cost of food in Myanmar was the least expensive out of all the countries I visited). At one restaurant where I ordered cat fish curry, I had a variety of dishes on my plate – fish, curried vegetables, soup, and a side of rice. I barely touched my rice, when a waitress came over with a bucket of rick and asked more rice sir? I’m OK I replied. 15 minutes later, when half of my rice portion was eaten, More rice sir? the waiter asked.
Eating with your hands:
In Indonesia and especially Malaysia, eating with your hands is how you eat! It is in the boundaries of good manners. As a matter-of-fact, I observed people in business casual attire at a metropolitan restaurant in the middle of Kuala Lumpur digging into curry with their hands. I asked an Italian guy who lived in Kuala Lumpur why people eat with their hands. Many people think it’s unclean to use silver wear that has been used by tons of people. Why one’s hands are cleaner than silver wear is unclear to me.
Fashion and Style
Men have one or two long fingernails:
The most common nails that men grow long are one thumbnail or a pinky nail. I asked men in Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Myanmar why they have one or two long fingernails, and I got at least as many different answers.
- The longer a pinky nail grows the more wealth a man will earn! Makassar, Indonesia; male clerk at Makassar airport
- [My husband] has one long nail to clean his ears and another to pick his nose. Vietnam; a middle-aged woman
- Style. Indaw, Myanmar; a young guy
People wear medical style mouth coverings, face masks, or "mouth-muffles":
These can be from the disposable type that you might see a doctor wear, to ones with designs and logos. I asked people in various SE Asian countries why they wear these masks.
- Most people wear it for style, but I wear it so I don’t breathe in any hair. A guy cutting my hair in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. He was wearing a trendy camo face mask.
- When I am sick it is so I don’t spread my germs, and also so I breath in warm air. Myanmar, spoken by a South Korean woman with whom I was trekking.
Men growing out mole-hair:
Yes, men do this, and I’ve seen it across all the 10 SE Asian countries I went to as well as China. Someone told me it is supposed to bring good luck. I’ve also seen times when men just don’t shave a patch of their facial hair, to make it look like it is mole hair. If I spoke their language, I would have loved to tell them that they aren’t fooling me!
The Yankees are the most popular team in the world:
Actually, it’s the Yankee’s symbol that is popular. Everywhere I went, I saw locals of all ages wearing Yankees hats and attire. I had fun pointing to their hats and saying, “go Yankees”!
When I spoke to locals, I asked them if they knew what the symbol represented. Not surprisingly, most of them had no idea. Some of them knew it was associated with New York, but no locals I spoke to knew it was a sports team. In Asia, it’s simply a fashion item. East Asians love the symbol so much, that there is an entire store devoted to Yankees attire at the Chatuchek market in Bangkok.
As someone who grew up close to New York, this bugged me a bit. Why were people wearing this symbol without having any idea of what it means?
I realized that what bugged me is that it is an indication of behavior where people act because it is a trend. It is a way for people to know that what they are wearing will be socially accepted. Wearing a Yankees hat is benign, but what else are people capable of doing in the name of acceptance? I don’t think this is unique to Asian culture, I think it is a shared human quality. However, as an American touring Asia, this human quality was easier to identify.
The Canadian Tuxedo:
For the uninformed, a Canadian tuxedo is when someone wears a jean jacket and jeans. A hit in the 80s, it’s often novelty attire in North America. Young SE Asian men love it! Especially when the jeans are tight.
A few tourists told me that East Asia is “ahead of us” when it comes to things like technology and fashion. I never thought of fashion as something you could be ahead or behind in, but maybe I’m the one who’s not forward thinking. In any case, it was a delight to see this novelty attire worn with gusto in countries such as Laos PDR, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Children not wearing helmets on motor scooters:
This is always a disappointing thing to witness. In multiple Southeast Asian countries, I often saw a child riding in the front of a scooter with her parent driving the scooter. The parent was wearing a helmet, while the child was not. I asked a Vietnamese woman why this happens:
Vietnamese woman: Well, some people think a helmet might stunt a child’s growth.
Really?! Do people actually believe that? I responded in disbelief.
Vietnamese woman: Well, the helmets are made in China, so they won’t do any good anyway, she said as she was riding in the front seat of an SUV without her seat-belt fastened.
I’m referring to four-wheel vehicles here, not motor scooters. Trucks, cars, buses. This form of transportation exists across a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is dangerous and uncomfortable transportation. This includes people squeezed on the back of a pickup, or sitting on top of a truck, holding on. It seemed to me that the strategy often was to get some four-wheeled vehicle, and then throw as many people on top and in the back as possible. Several times throughout my journey in East Asia, I sat in the back of pickups and trucks, bumping along for hours with locals who didn’t speak English.
On the other end of the spectrum is safer and comfortable transportation, that is similar to how much Westerners drive. I experienced this end of the spectrum most in Vietnam and China.
The most extreme form of the dangerous and uncomfortable transportation that I experienced occurred in Myanmar. I was staying in Lonton, a village on the West side of Indawgyi Lake, in Kachin State. There is a two-hour ride through a mountainous and unpaved road to the train station. The inn I was staying at offered inexpensive shuttle transportation to the station. I ordered the shuttle. When the “shuttle” arrived, I was shocked at what I saw! It was a large pickup truck with crates stacked on the back. On top of the crates were two local women sitting cross-legged and two local men standing up. This was the shuttle? I thought in disbelief. I climbed up on the crates, nodded to my new travelling companions, and started laughing out loud. The thought that this was the service provided by the inn was hilarious to me. I decided to embrace the culture, and hang-on for the ride.
Later, during my travels in in Myanmar, I was riding with a local family in the back of a pickup during a two-hour ride along unpaved roads. I was chatting with a woman next to me who spoke a little English, about transportation. She told me her favorite type of transportation was motor scooters, because it gets her the least sick. Then were boats, planes, and, finally, motorized vehicles. I think this list would be the exact reverse for most westerners. Her list emphasized Burmese’s concept of motorized vehicle transportation – riding in the back of trucks without any seat belts along unpaved roads for hours. If only she took a car ride along a highway in America! She proceeded to vomit.