Asian cultures are often very different from western ones and many foreigners make some horribly embarrassing mistakes as a result of these disparities. Even those who read up in their guidebook about the do’s and don’ts in a particular destination only grasp the general concept and not necessarily all of the nuances. Beyond the standard differences between east and west, such as greetings (the handshake vs a bow or wai) some are much more subtle and can lead to some awkward situations.
Welcome to a special edition of Talk Travel Asia, Foreigner Faux Pas and Cultural Clumsiness in Asia. I’m Trevor Ranges and this is one of two episodes that TTA is doing as a crossover series with the hosts of Bangkok Podcast. My guest host today, I’ve known for as long as I have been living in Asia, having been neighbors when I first moved to Bangkok and then housemates for several years, and therefore both have experienced our share of foreigner faux pas, Ed Knuth.
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Hey, everybody glad to be here on Talk Travel Asia. Trevor and I survived as roommates for three years which is quite a feat which means we definitely know each other well. I’ve been in Thailand since 2000 and for the last 8 years I’ve been teaching at a Thai university. Trevor is my go-to travel consultant in Asia so I’m a big fan of Talk Travel Asia. Since I’ve made every faux pas in the books, I guess you could say I’m an expert on do’s and don’t’s in Thailand.
As we’ve both spent so long in Thailand, maybe we start with something Thai that foreigners have some learning curve to get right: Greeting people. Thai people don’t shake hands, they wai. how there are rules for different wais (how low or high) and who should wai first. I remember Nat telling me that the wai isn’t simply a greeting its a sign of respect, even deference. i had waied the immigration official (which i still think isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but after she explained it to me, whenever I saw people wai like the doorman at the hotel, it became occasionally cringe worthy, like watching Trump salute the Korean general. It took a little time to learn the nuances when arriving at a dinner party to wai the hosts, people’s parents and grandparents first etc, not the hostess who sat you brought you to the table.And that’s just the rules in Thailand. I really don’t know how Japanese bowing works.
Ed and Trevor discuss some of the major differences that seem simple at first but have numerous nuances that can make for some interesting experiences, including the concept of saving face. Ed and Trevor then go on to discuss other areas of potential cultural clumsiness, and sometimes embarrassing experiences that have occurred as they learned to understand the nuances of dating, using the bathroom, eating, driving, crossing the street, and even getting in and out of a car
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