When the weather gets cooler in the Western Hemisphere, people search for warmer places with plenty of activities and sights to visit, including beaches. One of the favorite destinations of Westerners is Asia that offers plenty of excellent sights, a variety of activities and plenty of sun and surf.
Asian countries are steeped in traditions, age-old beliefs and customs, many of which are not known to foreigners. Every country in the world has its own set of customs and traditions, just like most countries have their own official or common languages.
It is important for travelers to understand that some things, including the body language and hand gestures they are very familiar with and which they accept as normal, may mean differently in other cultures. In many cases, a foreigner could be labeled rude or in some countries, get entangled with the law due to what could be deemed as an innocuous gesture. The best thing to do is to learn them to avoid committing an embarrassing mistake.
So if you are planning to travel to any part of Asia to have a much-needed R&R, here are some things to avoid. Mind your body language and your hand gestures whenever you are outside and among local people in Asian countries. Some of the common postures and hand gestures are harmless and universally accepted. Others will label you as a rude or uncultured.
Meanings of hand gestures vary
Body language is more powerful than words and in Asian countries, which have so many expressive ways to convey how they feel, it is important to learn which hand gestures and postures are accepted and which are not.
Pointing your fingers
When you are in China, see to it that you do not point your finger at anything and at people as this is offensive. In China, this gesture is only done to dogs. If you want someone to come to you, beckon them by extending your hand, palm down and angled towards you. Move your hand like an up and down wave, which is a signal to the person that you are calling him or her.
However, do not be offended when you see Chinese people point at things using their middle finger. That is a common gesture and does not mean anything, contrary to what it means in the West.
Sticking out your pinky
Another thing you must not do in China is to stick out your pinky finger. This means that something does not make you happy. For the Chinese, the hand gesture is like giving a thumbs down sign.
The V sign
One thing you should get used to seeing is the younger generation who make the “V” sign when taking pictures. The V sign is made with the palms facing forward. Young people, especially young girls make this sign as a trick to make their faces look cuter and smaller. It’s a part of the kawaii aesthetics promoted by Japanese girls as a sign of cuteness.
Hands inside your pocket
If you are visiting Japan or South Korea, be sure to keep your hands out of your pants’ pockets. In some countries this is considered cool but in these two neighboring countries, the gesture makes you rude and arrogant.
Handing your business card
If you are doing business in Japan or in South Korea, remember that showing respect to persons of authority or people older than you is very important. When handing out your business card, you should use both hands when presenting the card. At the same time you should bow your head slightly. This is standard etiquette for people doing business in the country. It also means that you respect the person.
Holding a person’s gaze
There is a saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Some people believe that you should look a person in the eyes when you are talking to them. In some Asian countries, it is impolite to look at or hold the gaze of the person you are talking to, especially if the person is older or higher in position or status than you. For them it is a sign of politeness.
However, you have to contend with long stares from Asian people if you clearly look “foreign.” They do not mean to stare. They are only curious about you.
While it is very common among several cultures to exchange handshakes as a form of greeting, in different countries in Asia, there are different ways to greet someone. In Japan, it is more polite to make a deep bow instead of shaking someone’s hand.
Fiji is not in Asia but in the West South Pacific. But if you going to spend your vacation in this island, bear in mind that when a Fijian shakes your hand, he will hold on to your hand for the entire time that you are exchanging greetings. It is considered rude if you pull away.
If you are in India, you put your hands together instead of shaking a person’s hand. When your palms are together as it in prayer, tilt your head down slightly and greet the person with “Namaste” with your hands are close to your chest.
“Talk to the hand”
The gesture itself is rude in most countries. But if you’re in Pakistan, the gesture is more aggressive. Pakistanis take it that you are telling them that you are going to rub poop on their faces.
Curling your index finger
Curling your index finger is a gesture for calling a dog. Others unknowingly use the gesture to call someone to come closer. In some cultures, this gesture is used by a woman to tempt a man.
But if you are in the Philippines, do not make the mistake of doing this gesture, as you may end up with a broken finger or worse, be arrested. It is also considered a rude action in Japan. The gesture means something worst in Singapore. In this country, curling your finger indicates death.
In many countries in the West and in some parts of Asia, giving the ”thumbs up” sign is an indication that you agree or approve something. But it is not the case in Bangladesh. In this country, this is used as an insult.
Touching a person’s head
Many parts of Asia, such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and China, have large populations of Buddhists. For this religious sect, the head, being the highest body part, is sacred, while the feet are significantly dirty. When you are in these places, remember not to touch the head of someone as it is considered invasive. In the same manner, it is considered offensive to show the bottoms of your feet or point your feet at another person.
Be careful of your chopsticks
It’s fun to eat with chopsticks if you’re in China, South Korea or Japan. However, do not make the mistake of sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. It is considered bad luck because it looks like a funeral incense and taken as a symbol of death.
Likewise, when eating in South Korea or China, do not ask someone to pass you the food or keep your hands on your lap, which is customary in the West. In these countries, you have to join in the action and reach out for the delicious food you want.
Using your hands when eating
Remember to wash your hands before eating – this is something that you are taught early on. While visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and Nepal, eating with your right hand is considered being polite. In these countries, the left hand is used for toilet activities and should not be used to touch food.
In South Korea, China and Japan, it is considered very polite to pour liquor or tea for everyone before you pour one for yourself. Moreover, it is considered impolite to refuse a drink or food. South Koreans offer a person a beer or soju as a sign of friendship, therefore it is considered a personal affront if you refuse to take it.
Blowing your nose
In some cultures, it is acceptable to blow your nose while at the dinner table as long as you excuse yourself and turn away. But if you are vacationing in Japan, China or South Korea where the wasabi or chilies can make your nose runny, blow your nose discreetly and silently as you can. You can leave the table and blow your nose in the rest room or in an area where no diners can see or hear you.
Use both hands
Again, when you are in the popular destinations in East Asia, meaning China, Japan and South Korea, remember to use both hands when giving or receiving anything, from money to gifts to food. It is considered impolite to only use one hand. This is also practiced in Thailand.
Crossing your fingers
If you are used to crossing your fingers to bid someone good luck, do not do this when you are in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have a different meaning to the popular gesture. For them it is like giving them the finger.
Japanese workers find it insulting when someone leaves them a tip. In many other countries, workers look forward to receiving tips from customers, as it is a means to increase their take home pay. However, Japanese workers take pride in whatever they do and they are paid to do their job well. Therefore, to the Japanese, it is embarrassing to receive tips. It also makes the tip-giver look patronizing.
Deferring to elders
If you are in South Korea and having dinner with people of different ages, it is important to defer to elders. You should not start eating unless the oldest or the person with the highest rank or status starts to eat. It is also impolite to get up from the table before the eldest in the group has done so.
Refrain from gum chewing
It is all right to chew gum if you’re aboard the plane to ease the pain in your ears during takeoff. But if you are in Singapore, chewing gum is illegal. Spitting gum on the street will cause you to pay a fine of S$500.
These are some of the most important reminders about body language and hand gestures when you are visiting Asia. However, if you need documents to be translated from and into any language used in Asia, get in touch with our human translators at Day Translations, Inc. You’ll get the fairest price, the fastest turnaround time and the most accurate translation possible. We operate 24/7 every day of the year so it does not matter if you are already in Asia enjoying your vacation or about to leave your home country. You can depend on Day Translations to deliver. Give us a call at 1-800-969-6853 or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for a quick quote. You can also install Terpy, our app to reach us faster using your tablet or mobile. It is available from Google Play and iTunes.
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