Simple Principles for Eastern Travel
July 28, 2011
For Westerners, and especially Americans, traveling to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, can be a baffling experience. Social customs can seem antiquated, inconsistent, or befuddling. People may take offense to something that is perfectly acceptable in, say, England. And one difficulty is that these customs offer differ from country to country. But I have noted that there is a sort of universal Eastern etiquette, in the same manner as Chomsky’s universal grammar. That is, there exists a set of basic principles that, while not necessarily dealing with every specific aspect of every country, will do much to help the traveler to be unoffensive, and even honored, in he East.
1. Greet everyone. In the USA, the land of individualism, people can pass by each other without so much as making eye contact. In fact, in some Northern European countries, eye contact with a stranger is considered impolite. This obviously cannot be done in a large city, but in most other cases, when you pass someone, you should pause, smile, shake hands as appropriate (or bow slightly), and ask how they are, in their language. In doing this, you will instantly stand above all other tourists.
2. When offered a compliment, a gift, a meal, etc., politely decline at least once, saying something like, “Oh, I couldn’t. That is too kind.” This is normal. But then you must take the gift or invitation! To refuse a gift or hospitality in most Eastern countries is a grave offense. This also applies to meals, especially ones that someone has cooked for you and invited you into their home. It is the height of rude arrogance, in their eyes, to refuse anything given you.
3. Respect elders. Whether it is with a bow, a handshake while holding your right arm with your left hand, standing when they enter, or whatever particular custom you see others doing, it is very important to respect elders.
4. Honor their religious customs. Usually they will not expect you to actually join them in worship, but be aware of some of their scruples. For example, in Southeast Asia, you should never touch someone else’s head, or show your soles to them. In Muslim countries, you should not touch women. Learn a little bit about these scruples to be a better visitor.
5. Be quiet and low-key. This is good advice for travel anywhere, actually. Do not barge in, talking loudly, and acting like you own the place. Be reserved.
6. Dress conservatively. One of the major problems that most Easterners have with the West, is how skimpy clothes are. Even if you personally have no problem with skimpy clothing, you should always dress conservatively and cover your body in the East. If you find the style there more relaxed, then dress more casually. But you cannot go wrong by starting off conservatively. Be especially aware at beaches, where a western bathing suit may even be illegal.
7. Finally, just be respectful and observant. Things may be very different, or seem outright bizarre, but we should always respect the fact that we are guests.