Exotic, Strange, Scary, And Inscrutable?
“When you consider Southeast Asia,” writes Asia Correspondent Wendy Justice, “do you imagine a vastly different world than ours, full of people speaking incomprehensible languages, eating strange, scary foods, and thinking inscrutable thoughts?
“Yes, there are differences between Southeast Asia and the West.
“Understanding verbal and non-verbal communication and conveying respect in a culturally appropriate manner can be challenging. Americans tend to be outspoken and verbally expressive. We are informal in our terms of address, using first names and saying “please” and “thank you” effusively. We look people straight in the eye when we talk to them.
“In the Far East, a smile is often used to convey many different emotions, from happiness and amusement to embarrassment or even anger. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are much more commonly expressed by smiles or slight bows. My husband David and I, spending as much time in this part of the world as we have in recent years, have had to learn to smile more and talk less when communicating the local way. Even our close Asian friends refer to us very formally (‘Hello, Missus Wendy and Mister David…’) or, to our amusement, simply call us ‘Grandmother and Grandfather’ or ‘Mother and Father.’ We’ve learned that direct eye contact is considered aggressive and that people look down and slightly away if they want to show respect when speaking to us.
“If you’re a Christian, you likely won’t be in the majority. Most of your neighbors will probably be Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, or even Muslim. Some cities, such as Saigon, Nha Trang, and Hua Hin, have large numbers of practicing Christians. Other areas, such as Kuala Lumpur and Chiang Mai, have significant Christian minorities. Jewish people make up only a very tiny percentage of the population here.
“You’ll notice a difference in the food, though globalization has had huge impact in this area. In general, food is fresher and healthier in Southeast Asia. The distance food travels from farm to table is usually much shorter. Meat makes up a smaller percentage of the diet for most people than in a typically Western diet. Most Asian main dishes are stir-fried or grilled, rather than baked or deep-fried, and are served with assorted fruits and vegetables.
“Savory flavors are more prevalent than sweet. You’ll see plenty of rice and noodles, but rarely potatoes. However, restaurants catering to Western tastes are sprouting up everywhere. McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger Kings, KFCs, and Pizza Huts are common throughout the region, and many independent restaurants also serve Western dishes. Living in Southeast Asia, you can choose your diet. Go local or not, it’s up to you.
“The architecture is different in this part of the world. People live closer together here, and large, multi-generational homes are common. Large, sprawling yards are uncommon. You find a lot more solar power here than in North America. Newer buildings are made from fire- and insect-resistant concrete and brick. Most houses are at least two stories tall to take advantage of cooling breezes, and many are four or five stories high. Older homes are typically made from jungle hardwoods, such as teak. Most residences have the same amenities as their counterparts in the West-electricity, indoor plumbing, cable TV, and so on. Floors are usually tiled or maybe carpeted; unless you are really in the poverty-stricken hinterlands, they’re not dirt!
“Roads in Southeast Asia are generally paved. You find very good roads in Singapore and Malaysia, and most roads in Thailand are also quite good. There are plenty of multi-lane controlled-access highways. Elsewhere, roads may be dirt or gravel or paved but in poor repair-but no more so than you find in Mexico or in any developing country in the Western Hemisphere.
“You see more little motorbikes on the roads in this part of the world, partly because they cost less than automobiles, but also because they are more fuel-efficient. You also see plenty of Fords, Chevy’s, and SUVs. No one other than tourists uses elephants as a means of transportation any longer! Trains are used more for public transportation than they are in the Western Hemisphere, and they tend to be clean, safe, and efficient.
“As is common in many parts of Europe and Central and South America, shopping at the market is a part of daily life. It’s a good opportunity to buy fresh local produce while immersing yourself in the local culture. Bargaining is the norm in Southeast Asia, and shopping is a time when knowing a bit of the local language can be a benefit. However, many a non-bilingual foreigner has gone to the market armed with nothing more than a calculator and a smile and lived to tell the tale…
“In the markets, you’ll discover locally grown vegetables, such as bok choy and kai lan, and delicious fruits including dragon fruits and mangoes. When you compare prices with imported produce, such as apples or iceberg lettuce, you’ll likely develop a taste for these inexpensive alternatives. Of course, there are also plenty of supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores where you can shop.
“Developing friendships and becoming a part of the community is the same in Southeast Asia as it would be anywhere in the world. People in Southeast Asia enjoy getting together for dinner, dancing, watching TV, and playing cards. Most people work during the day and relax at night…just like everywhere. Parents dream of seeing their children go to college and making a better life, and children study hard to make their parents proud. Higher education is highly valued in Asia, perhaps more so than in the West.
“Living in Southeast Asia is very different from living in your own country in many ways, but, in some fundamental ways, life is very similar. Asia seems exotic because it is so far away, but this is something that probably meant much more 30 years ago before the Internet made the world so much smaller.”