PEOPLE, CHARACTER AND CUSTOMS OF SOUTHEAST ASIA

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF SOUTHEAST ASIANS

The facial characteristics of most Southeast Asians are very similar. Even they have difficulty determining who is from where. When Prince Sihanouk visited Rangoon he was mistaken for a Burmese by the Burmese sitting next to him. The Burmese also claim that many of Vietnam's leaders also look Burmese. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, March 1971]

Southeast Asian men have little body hair and very sparse beards. Northern Asians are generally stockier and have lighter skin and thinner eyes than southern Asians. All skin contains about the same number of melanocytes but the amount of melanin they produce varies. Dark skinned people produce more and light skin people produce less.

The sickle cell gene, which confers a resistance to malaria, is common among groups from tropical Africa as well as people from southern Europe, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Arabia—regions where malaria is prevalent. People from northern Europe and Southern Africa—where malaria is not common—don't carry the genes. Using this criteria, blacks from southern Africa, that may look similar to blacks from tropical Africa, are actually genetically more similar to northern Europeans.

It is not understood why people living away from the equator have less dark pigment than those living near it, especially when you consider cloud cover and people in West Africa and New Guinea actually receive less radiation from the sun than people in Switzerland or Mongolia. It is also unclear why some people in equatorial regions—such as Amazon Indians and Southeast Asians—don't have dark skin with large amounts of menalin like people in tropical Africa.

Character and Personality of People in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asians have a reputation for being fun loving, compassionate, gentle, hospitable, open-minded, laid-bank, smiling and friendly. There is a prevailing sentiment that life should be enjoyed at the moment, and problems should not be taken so seriously that disrupt enjoyment.

Southeast Asians have a strongly developed sense of courtesy and respect. Important values include respect for elders, Buddhist beliefs, deep reverence of the royal family and loyalty to friends and family.

According to a short piece on etiquette on Southeast Asia on the Asiatours website: “The value systems regarding dress, social behavior, religion, authority figures, and sexuality are much more conservative than those of the average Westerner. Although people in Southeast Asia are extremely tolerant and forgiving and blessed with a gentle religion and an easygoing approach to life, visitors would do well to observe proper social customs to avoid embarrassment and misunderstanding.

People in Southeast Asia are extremely polite and their behavior is tightly controlled by etiquette, much of it based on their Buddhist religion. It is a non confrontational society, in which public dispute or criticism is to be avoided at all costs. To show anger or impatience or to raise your voice is s sign of weakness and lack of mental control. It is also counter productive, since the Thai who will smile, embarrassed by your outburst of anger or frustration is far less likely to be helpful than if you had kept better control of your emotions.

Southeast Asians have traditionally had a live for today attitude Time and schedules are treated lightly. Expressions that means “it doesn’t matter” are often used in the same way that Latin Americans use “manana .”

Southeast Asia ns also have a reputation for not being very direct. Circumlocution is the norm. Many communicate using innuendo and metaphors that may be difficult for the uninitiated to pick up on. Talking in a loud voice is sometimes viewed as threatening. Talking gently and discreetly is more socially acceptable. In the old days a loud voice conveyed a powerful, chaotic force capable of destroying those that it was directed towards.

Most Southeast Asia societies are characterized by bilateral descent. This contrast with China, Korea and Japan where patrilineal descent dominates. Even though Southeast Asia has strong Hindu influences the caste system never really caught on. The family has traditionally been the most important social unit and its well being had preference over clan and lineage concerns. Kindred patterns varied from person to person and were not restricted by boundaries as is the case with the South Asia caste system.

Some have argued that the idea of being No. 1 is important to Asians because Confucian tradition puts an emphasis on hierarchy and order.

Buddhism, Confucianism, Anger and Smiling

Buddhism shapes character in Southeast Asia as Christianity does in Europe. Theravada Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check and stresses karma over determination, which often means people are more willing to accept their lot in life and is sometimes is viewed by Westerners as a lack of ambition or unwillingness to work hard to improve their positions in life.

Behavior and ideas about respect and society are also shaped in some ways by Confucianism. Traditional Confucian values include love and respect for the family, integrity, loyalty, honesty, humility, industriousness, respect for elders, patience, persistence, hard work, friendship, commitment to education, belief in order and stability, emphasis on obligations to the community rather just individual rights and preference for consultation rather then open confrontation.

Southeast Asians generally don’t like confrontation and rarely show visible signs of anger. They have traditionally valued cool-headedness, placidity and soft words. Outward expressions of anger are considered boorish and crude. Southeast Asians rarely loose their temper and if they do it doesn’t help them get their way. People just think they are crazy. Anger is usually expressed through a third person so face to face confrontation is avoided.

Southeast Asians smile a lot. Smiles are often a genuine way of expressing happiness and friendliness but they can also be a way of masking true emotions. People from Southeast Asia often smile or laugh when they hear bad news. That is how they hide their sorrow. As a rule, feelings are not expressed directly. Showing disappointment in public is especially frowned upon.

Buddhism and Character

The religious scholar A.C. Graham wrote: “Buddhism is a “Nay-saying” religion, rejecting all life as suffering and promising release from it; yet when one is actually in a Buddhist country it is hard to resist the impression that one is among the liveliest, the most invincibly cheerful, the most “yea-saying” people on earth.”

Describing his people the King of Thailand told National Geographic magazine, "Thais seem to be happy go lucky but are quite strong. Our people are relaxed, not high strung or stiff. They are hospitable to strangers and to new ideas. The majority are Buddhist---and the Buddhists have never had a holy war. They are polite. Honorable politeness. They have courage but are not harsh’strong but gentle."

Poor people in Buddhist countries often have a big smiles on their faces, something that many people believe is attributed to the fact they spend so much time praying and engaging religious activities. Religion is a daily, if not hourly, practice for many Buddhists. Tibetans, for example, seem to spend hours each day praying or spinning prayer wheels.

Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check and stresses karma over determination, which often means people are more willing to accept their lot in life and look for happiness in future lives. This outlook and is sometimes viewed in the West as a lack of ambition or unwilling to work hard to get ahead.

Buddhist Morality

Buddhism also provides guidelines for village justice, namely in the form of the five basic moral prohibitions (the Panch Sila, or the five precepts for the laity): 1) refrain for taking life; 2) don’t steal; 3) avoid illicit sexual activity; 4) don’t speak falsely; and 5) refrain from consuming inebriating substances. These guidelines are supposed to be followed by both lay people and monks. Devout Buddhists and monks are also supposed observe a number of other prohibitions such as avoiding dancing, singing, eating after midday and wearing jewelry and cosmetics.

The religious historian I.B. Hunter wrote: “The criteria of Buddhist morality is to ask yourself , when there is one of three kinds of deeds you want to do, whether it will lead to the hurt of self, of others, or of both. If you come to the conclusion that it will be harmful, then you must not do it. But if you form the opinion that it will be harmless, then you can do it and repeat. A person that torments neither himself or another is already transcending the active life.”

Buddhists believe that humans want many things and want to keep them forever, which is impossible and creates a constant state of desire, which in turn causes suffering and fear of further loss. To get beyond desire and pain one has to find an alternative.

William Dalrymple of the Paris Review talked with an elderly Tibetan monk named Tashi Passang. The monk said, “The main struggle, especially when you are young, is to avoid four things: desire, greed, pride, and attachment. Of course no human being can do this completely. But there are techniques that the lamas taught us for diverting the mind. They stop you from thinking of yaks, or money, or beautiful women, and teach you to concentrate instead on gods and goddesses. [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]

When asked about the techniques the monk said, “The lamas taught us to stare at a statue of the Lord Buddha and absorb the details of the object the color, the posture, and so on, reflecting back all we knew of their teachings. Slowly you go deeper; you visualize the hand, the leg, and thevajra in his hand, closing your eyes and trying to travel inward. The more you concentrate on a deity, the more you are diverted from worldly thoughts. It is difficult, of course, but it is also essential. In the Fire Sermon, the Lord Buddha said, The world is on fire and every solution short of nirvana is like trying to whitewash a burning house. Everything we have now is like a dream impermanent. This floor feels like stone, this cupboard feels like wood but really it is an illusion. When you die you can’t take any of this. You have to leave it all behind. We have to leave even this human body.” [Ibid]

Buddhism, Compassion and Charity

Buddhism emphasizes ideals of wisdom and compassion and sometimes gives as much weight to thoughts as actions. The Buddhist equivalent of the Golden Rule is that “all we are is the result of what we have thought.” There is a great emphasis on generosity and the giving of alms. Concepts such confession, forgiveness and restitution that are normally associated with Christianity are also emphasized in Buddhism.

Buddhists are taught to practice nonviolence, do good deeds, present gifts to monks, aspire to have gentle thoughts, meditate, and have respect for the sanctity of life. The basic tenets of Buddhism influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Mahayana Buddhists have also debated the merits of charity. Scholars are clearly in agreement that charity is beneficial to the giver but how helpful and useful it is to the recipient is not such a clear cut matter. Some argue charity is merely a means for the well-off to relieve themselves of guilt and duty by giving a few scraps to the poor that ultimately humiliates them.

The great Tibetan saint Milarepa was once asked by his disciples “if they could engage in worldly duties, in a small way, for the benefit of others.” Milarepa replied: “If there be not the least self-interest attached to such duties, it is permissible. But such detachment is indeed rare; and works performed for the good of others seldom succeed, if not wholly freed from self-interest...One should not be over-anxious and hasty in setting out to serve others before onself has realized the Truth in its fullness; to do so, would be like the blind leading the blind....Til the opportunity come, I exhort each of you to attain Buddhahood for the good of all living beings.”

Buddhism beliefs in sanctity of life and non-violence have their origins in Hinduism and Jainism See Hinduism and Jainism.

Confucianism and Character

Confucianism puts a strong emphasis and following teachers, superiors, family members and elders. Liu Heung-shin, the editor of a Hong Kong magazine, wrote Chinese identity is "connected to Confucianism, built around families and connections. It's something Chinese people can feel, even if the don't describe it in words."

Love and respect are principals that were practiced more in the context of the family than in society and humanity as a whole and equality was not necessarily the goal of a just society. These ideas help explain why nepotism is so rampant, why Chinese are so horrified by the way Westerners treat the elderly and why the Chinese are more likely to mind their own business if they witness a great injustice being inflicted on a stranger.

Confucianism stresses the importance of precedent and universal truths articulated by sages of the past and emphasizes self improvement. The two major doctrines of Confucianism are: 1) zhong, based on the Chinese character that combines "heart” and "middle," meaning fidelity to oneself and humanity within; and 2) shu, meaning cherish the heart as if it were one’s owner.

Confucianism is a social code based on morality rather than laws. Confucius said: “If you govern by regulations and keep them in order by punishment, the people will avoid trouble but have no sense of shame. If you govern them by moral influence, and keep them in order by a code of manners, they will have a sense of shame and will come to you of their own accord.” Confucius believed people should look to the past to gain insight into how to behave and said virtuous men should follow the examples of the great ancestors. The Analects outlined the four basic concepts of Confucian thought: 1) benevolence, love of humanity and the virtues of the superior man (jen); 2) moderation in all things (chung yung) and harmony with nature (T'ien): 3) filial propriety, duty and the rules that define good social relationships (li); 4) the "rectification of names" or recognizing the nature of things by giving them their right names (cheng ming).

Unlike Taoism, which emphasizes the natural way, Confucianism emphasizes the social way. It assumes that the natural world---i.e the seasons, day and night and the agriculture cycle---follow the same code as mankind; that all events on earth are the due to the “decree of heaven”; and the natural course of events, whether they be related to society or nature, is a reflection of the “Way of Heaven.”

Five Virtues of Confucianism

Confucianism recognizes five cardinal virtues: 1) benevolence in terms of sympathy for others (jen); 2) duty reflected in the shame felt after doing something wrong (yi); 3) manners, propriety and feelings of deference (li); 4) wisdom, in terms of discerning right and wrong (chih;) and 5) loyalty and good faith (hsin).

Benevolence is regarded as the most important of the virtues, and some effort is made to define it, with the Golden Rule being only one attempt. Manners are also given a lot of attention and means both the outward actions and inner feelings of respect. The concept embraces not only etiquette but also customs, rituals and conventions of all kinds.

Early Confucian focused a lot of attention on the relationship between morality and human nature and the whole idea that they are dovetailing and conflicting forces. Almost every side and view was taken on the subject. One prevailing idea was that human nature was a mixture of good and bad and the amounts of each could vary a great deal from individual to individual. Another important concept was that human nature was something that was evil Yet another view was that human nature was something that was in tune with the forces of heaven.

In the end the view expressed in The Book of Rites—“That in man which is decreed by heaven is what is meant by “nature”; to follow his nature is meant by the “Way”; cultivation of the Way is what is meant by education”---became the prevailing view.

Confucian Beliefs About Social Relationships

Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well being of society. He promoted virtues such as courtesy, selflessness, obedience, respect, diligence, communal obligation, working for a common good, social harmony, and empathy. The code of behavior he described was based on a system of harmonious, subordinate relationships based on the notions of filial piety, a well-ordered family, a well-ordered-state and a well-ordered world.

Confucians stress that a person’s worth is determined by public actions. The concept of li defines a set of social relationships and clearly described how people are supposed to behave towards one another. Fealty in Confucian terms takes five forms: 1) subject to ruler, 2) son to father, 3) younger brother to older brother, 4) wife to husband (woman to man), and 5) younger person to older person. Under the concept the li, the dominate person receives respect and obedience from the subordinate person but is by no means a dictator. He is supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support and affection towards the subordinate person.

The Confucian code of subordinate relationships also extended to professions, with scholars at the top; peasant farmers in the middle; and artisans and merchants at the bottom. Confucian scholars grew their fingernails long to show they didn't do physical labor. Under Confucian leadership, crimes were often dealt with by ostracism and humiliation rather than physical punishment.

Confucianism and Families

Under Confucianism, the oldest male and the father are regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. They set rules, and the "duty and virtue" of everyone else is to follow them. The oldest male and father, in turn, are supposed to reciprocate this reverence by supporting and looking out for the best interest of the people subordinate to them. Love and respect are principals that are practiced in the context of the family. Confucians do not ascribe to the idea of loving all people equally.

Confucius promoted the concept that it was important to worship one's parents while they are still living and old people should be venerated because even though they are weak physically they at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom. This sentiment is best expressed during the "elders first" rite, the central ritual of the Chinese New Year, in which family members kneel and bow on the ground to everyone older than them: first grandparents, then parents, siblings and relatives, even elderly neighbors. In the old days a son was expected to honor his deceased father by occupying a hut by his grave and abstaining from meat, wine and sex for 25 months.

Filial piety is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them.

Sons have traditionally been taught to give whatever money they make to their parents. To do otherwise would incur a loss of face. This unquestioning acquiescence was expected to be maintained regardless of how their parents respond. "In early times," one Chinese man told National Geographic, "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age."

Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In The Analects, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too.”

Loss of Face, a Cool Heart and Saying No

In Asia, it has been said that "face is more important than truth or justice" and losing face is often an individual’s greatest fear. Face is essentially respect in a community and is a crucial underpinning of society. Loss of that respect threatens the relations of individuals with almost everyone in his or her world and is hard to get back once lost and thus is avoided at all costs.

“Face” is equated with honor. Maintaining dignity and avoiding embarrassment is at the heart of maintaining face. Some people describe the West as a guilt-based society where people's behavior is dictated by their personal hang-ups. In Asian societies, on the other hand, are often described as shame-based society, in which behavior is often defined by fear of losing face. It is considered very bad taste to publically criticize a person since it results in a loss of face within the community. Necessary criticisms and suggestions should be made in way the that no one is blamed and shame is not cast upon any individual.

Face is very important in Thailand. Candor and emotional honesty — qualities highly prized in some Western societies — are considered embarrassing and counterproductive in the East. Never lose your temper or raise your voice no matter how frustrating or desperate the situation. Only patience, humor, and jai yen ( cool heart ) bring results in Thailand. The use of the word 'heart'( jai ) is very common in the Thai language, here are but a few examples; jai lorn - angry, nam jai - feelings, nork jai - unfaithful ( adulterous ) jai dee - good hearted, jai dum - black hearted,

Southeast Asians often consider it rude to say "no" directly. They often say something like "maybe," "I am busy," or even "yes" when they really mean "no," or convey a no answer in way that foreigners don't understand. This behavior sometimes causes confusion with Westerners who like a "yes" or "no" answer, and who tend to believe there is a possibility of a "yes" unless they are told "no" straight out. Sometimes people say yes simple because they can’t understand what a foreigner is saying.

Less Attractive Side of the Southeast Asian Character

Southeast Asians have a cruel and stubborn streak that has been demonstrated in the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia and the love of fighting sports, graphic photographs of murder and accident victims in Thailand. It has been suggested that the Asian propensity to hold anger in might lead to violence.

The younger generation is regarded as not as polite and gentle as their parents. The influence of modern urban culture has been said to have given young Southeast Asians a rougher, meaner, more street-wise sensibility.

On the surface people are smiling god-natured and friendly but is not always clear how sincere and genuine they are.

Greetings and Smiles in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asians address each other by their first names, prefaced by the equivalent of Mr. or Mrs., Miss, or title such as Dr., Teacher or Professor. Titles are important and last names are often omitted. Young people often call older people they know well “Mr. Uncle” or “Mrs. Aunt.” Many people have nicknames. Some Southeast Asians welcome guests or visitors by tying cords around the wrists.

Smiles, See Thailand

Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”—and the same could be said about Southeast Asia as a whole. While smiles are prevalent and often a sign of happiness and good will that is not whole story. According to Culture Shock! Thailand : In the west, a smile is about something and generally an expression of amusement, In Thailand a smile is a natural part of life, sometimes serving social functions as well.

Different kinds of Thai smiles, according to American Expat in Chiang Mai, include: 1) The “Greeting” smile – This will have a polite smile at you when they want to greet you instead of saying hello. When you see a pretty girl smile at you, it does not always mean that she is interested in you but sometimes she just wants to say hello. 2) The “Nervous” smile – When Thais become nervous, this smile is to make them feel better. 3) The “Encouraging” smile – When you did something silly or made a mistake and you see Thai people smile or even laugh, don’t get angry. Sometimes they did not mean to make fun at you, they just try to make you feel better or encourage you to forget that embarrassing situation. [Source: American Expat in Chiang Mai , February 2, 2012]

The Wai

A short bow known as a nop in Laos and a wai in Thailand is the most common form of greeting and way of saying good-bye. It involves placing ones hands together in a prayer position between the chest level and nose level but not touching the body and bowing slightly. The higher the hands the greater the sign of respect. The bow is slight and usually accompanied by a slight bend of the knees and a smile. The hands should never be held above the level of the nose.

This style of bow is used throughout the Buddhist areas of Southeast Asia. It is not only a greeting but is also an expression of thanks or respect. The bow is particularly important as a way of showing respect towards people of higher status or age. If two people of unequal status meet, the bow should be initiated by the person of lower status (i.e. the one who is younger, of lower income, of lower position, or a women meeting a man). Bows should not be used with children. Simply say “Hi” to them. Many Southeast Asians are comfortable shaking hands with Westerners.

The wai has been described as a physical demonstration of the “height rule”—in which people of low status are expected to respect people of high status. The hands are often raised during the wai as you bow your head, however there are rules regarding where the hands should be raised to. Generally the higher the hands are raised the more respect that is being shown. It is also important to note that the hands are not jerked upwards, but rather are raised in a fluid and graceful movement. In addition, the lower the head is bowed towards the hand the more respect shown. When equals or strangers unaware the status of the people they are meeting meet the hands are kept at neck level, but not above the chin. When an inferior meets a superior head is lowered so the nose is just above the fingertips. When an a superior meets an inferior head is straight or slightly bent. [Source: the bool Culture Shock! Thailand ]

A wai can be used as a sign of respect for objects as well as people. This often done when passing a temple or something else of religious significance. When encountering a statue of The Buddha or a monk one is supposed to drop to one’s knees and wai from that position (with men sitting on their heels and women with their legs to one side), accompanied by a deep bow so that one’s head almost touches the floor. When the head almost touches the floor one should place the palms of one’s hands on the floor (right hand first) and then straighten the body into a the sitting wai position. [Ibid]

The wai first appeared in Thai culture during the Sukhotai Period (13th century AD). As was the case with the origin of handshaking, the wai is thought to have begun as a way of showing a person you are meeting that you have no weapons in your hands. The low status-high status aspect of it is close to the heart of Asia where relations between juniors and seniors and inferiors and superiors is important to how people interact with one another. At the top of the heap is the king who is not expected to wai anyone except monks. When children wai their elders, elders may nod but otherwise are no expected to wai back. The same is true when a junior employee meets a high-ranking boss.

When And How To Wai Properly

According to Steve in his website Thailand Musings: In addition to a greeting and way of saying goodbye the wai is also used for giving thanks, apologizing, praying to the Buddha and begging and is part of the unique Thai honorific system and is used to convey a variety of emotions and modes of deference including politeness, respect, honor, gratitude, apology and friendship. In order to wai correctly it is important that the person waiing do so with their whole heart. You should feel your wai and be sincere in paying your respects physically, mentally and spiritually. [Source: Thailand Musings Thailand Musings /\]

“There are a number of rules surrounding the use of the wai. These include when to wai and the type of wai to use for various people. What many foreigners don’t seem to realize is that it is not necessary to wai to everyone. That’s right, there’s no need to wai the 7-11 clerk after paying for your bottle of water. Typically there’s no need to wai any service type individual and this includes waiters/waitresses, shop clerks and anyone else you pay to perform a service. If you feel that you MUST wai these people only do so if they wai you first and then make your wai very generic i.e. palms to the chest and no bowing of your head. /\

“While Thai’s can recognize and use a vast number of types of wai’s depending on social status, power, age, and prestige there are 3 major groups of higher prestige people in Thai society. Initiating a wai to each of these groups is different. 1) Royal Family/Monks. When waiing someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers or thumbs touch the forehead. 2) Parents/Teachers/Older Family Members. When waiing someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers touch the nose. 3) Older acquaintances/Superiors at work. When waiing someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers touch the mouth. /\

“In all three cases you want to keep the elbows tight against your body. When returning a wai you can typically use the stranger’s wai which is a slight lowering of your head until your fingertips touch the point of your chin. This is the wai used when you don’t know the social status or age of the person you are waiing and is generally accepted as a happy compromise. This is also the most useful wai for us farang as typically we won’t know the social status of the Thai person. /\

“Etiquette and social status determines who initiates the wai. Younger people will wai older people first and those who are lower in social status wai those of higher status first. Because you are a farang and outside the Thai social hierarchy it makes it difficult for many Thai’s to know where to place you. In fact, it is only recently that a Thai person would even consider waiing a farang. This wasn’t meant as an insult, but rather a way to avoid embarrassment since there was usually no way for either Thai or farang to know the social status of the other and insult could be given if the wrong wai were offered. /\

“In some cases (especially business situations) a Thai will offer a handshake to you instead of a wai. Simply returning the handshake is completely acceptable. If they do offer a wai the polite thing to do is to respond in kind. And don’t worry too much about getting the wai right. You’re not Thai and no one expects you to be able to wai properly. The fact that you attempted to wai back is enough to make the person who initiated the wai happy. /\

“In many western cultures a nod of the head is often acceptable as a response to a greeting and it is important to note here that in Thai society a wai can be acknowledged by a nod of the head or an upraised right hand, BUT this is only done by monks or royalty. It is called Rap Wai or acknowledging a wai. If you respond to a wai in this way it may be perceived as if you are impersonating a monk or royalty and there is a slight chance that you will cause offense. At the least it can certainly be seen as amusing to the person you Rap Wai. In fact, outside Bangkok and the other tourist areas of Thailand you will likely generate loads of goodwill along with some amusement and possibly even amazement if you are able to wai. I guarantee that you will get many genuine smiles of appreciation at this small act of politeness. /\

Public Customs in Southeast Asia

Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women rarely show affection in public. Even holding hands is frowned upon. However, men often hold hands with men and women hold hands with women. This is an expression of close friendship not a gay relationship.

When giving an object to someone you should use two hands or the right hand. Never use the left hand (sometimes associated with toilet duties). This is especially true when a younger person give something to an older person. When offering a book or paper to someone older than you or of higher rank, you should show respect by using two hands to present the object. An alternative is to present it with the right, with the left hand holding the right elbow. Some a bow accompanies the offering of an object. The receiver should accept it gently with the righ hand. Books and written material are treated with great reverence and should never be placed on the floor or slid across a table.

Talking in a loud voice is sometimes viewed as threatening. Talking gently and discreetly is more socially acceptable. In the old days a loud voice conveyed a powerful, chaotic force capable of destroying those that it was directed towards.

Heads, Hands and Feet

In many Asian cultures, the head is considered the most sacred party of the body; the bottom of the feet are the least sacred and dirtiest part of the body. One should not touch a person's head, point his or her foot at a person or sacred object, place a hand on the back of chair in which someone is sitting, put feet on tables or chairs or touch anyone with his or her feet. If you accidently touch someone with your foot or touch their head, apologize profusely. In the old days and even sometimes today Thais manifested “height” respect towards the monarchy crawling in front of the King so that the head of crawlers was below the feet of the king.

In Southeast Asia many people believe that the head — the most sacred part of the body — is inhabited by the kwan, the spiritual force of life. Never pat a Thai on the head even in the friendliest of circumstances. Standing over someone older, wiser, or more enlightened than yourself — is also considered rude behavior since it implies social superiority. As a sign of courtesy, lower your head as you pass a group of people. When in doubt, watch the Thais. Because hats are associated with the head they are also treated with respect. They are hung carefully and should not be tossed casually on a chair or, especially, the floor.

Because the feet are the dirtiest part of the body a great effort is made to avoid stepping over someone, food, utensils and sacred books. It is much more polite to ask someone to move than to step over them. Also don’t touch anyone with your feet. If you do, You can touch your hand to their feet or make a gesture that implies that to apologize. It is also considered rude to cross your legs when sitting because when you do so there is a good chance you are point the bottoms of your feet at someone.

Pointing your foot at someone is like saying you are the lowest, dirtiest creature on earth. Don't pat a child on the head. Patting the head is disrespectful. Many Southeast Asian carry good luck charms in their shirt pockets instead of their pants pockets, because the higher up you go on the body the more sacred it is. If it necessary to touch someone the most polite way to do it—say to get someone’s attention is to gently touch them on the elbow. Among friends, and even cowokers, touching is acceptable and common. Good friends of the same sex sometimes hold hands. This does not mean they are gay.

Pointing with a finger and waving are also considered rude, with the latter being less so. If you need to single somebody out do it with a glance and a gentle nod towards the person. In some massage parlors the girls where numbers to avid being pointed at. If you must beckon somone with you hand the best to do it is with the palm down, moving you fingers towards you but considered rude as it is used by parents to call their children and people on the streets to hail a taxi or flag down a bus.

On top of all this, the left hand is considered unclean and should not be used to eat, receive gifts, shake hands or pass something. This is true even if you are left handed, which many people are in Thailand. Aggressive stances such as crossed arms or waving your arms expressively are consider boorish and threatening. Throwing objects are putting your hands in your pockets are also considered rude.

Social Customs in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asians often ask strangers questions about marriage and age almost immediately after meeting them They sometimes even ask how much money you earn. This is not necessarily meant to be nosy. Rather, it is important to know this information about someone to know the correct way to address them and bow to them.

The “height” rule also manifests itself horizontally in that when in a room people of high rank and status sit at the front of a room while those of low rank and status sit at the back and when a people are walking one in front of the other and those of higher rank are at the front. The expression “Walk behind an elder, the dog doesn’t bite you” refers to children walking respectfully behind those old than them, although it isn’t always adhered to.

Be on time if you can. Avoid red ink.

Buddhist Temple Customs

People are supposed to take off their shoes before entering a temple and leave umbrellas outside. They are also expected to be neatly dressed. Hats should be removed. Short sleeve shirts, short pants, short skirts and pants for women are generally regarded as inappropriate attire but are often grudgingly tolerated from foreigners. Some cultures require visitors to take off their shoes (and sometimes their socks) when entering the temple grounds. Others only require that they be removed when entering a temple building, shrine or pagoda. Some people wash their feet before entering a temple.

Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments, thus keeping the religious landmarks to your right (this is more important in Tibet and Himalaya areas than it is in Southeast Asia) Don't walk in front of praying people. Don’t take photos during prayers or meditation sessions. Don’t use a flash. As a rule don’t take photos unless you are sure it is okay.

Buddha images are sacred object and one should not pose in front of them or point their feet at them. When sitting down many local people employ the “mermaid pose” to keep both feet pointed towards the rear. Photographing Buddha images is considered disrespectful, but again, is tolerated from foreign tourists.

Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped to their foreheads from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are often made after tossing a coin or banknote into an offering box and leaving an offering of flowers or fruits or something else. Many people visit different altars, leaving some burning incense and praying at each one. Other bow at the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life. Other still, kowtow before shrines, bend down and stretch three times. In big temples money can be left in a donation boxes near the entrance. If there is no donation box. You can leave the money on the floor.

Monks should be greeted with three Southeast Asian bows. When talking to a monk try if you can to have your head lower than his. This can be achieved by bowing slightly or sitting down. If a monk is sitting down you to should also be sitting down. Women should not touch a monk or give objects directly to him (instead place the object on a table or some other surface near the monk). On buses and trains, people customarily give up their seat to monks.

Home and Eating Customs in Southeast Asia

It is customary to remove one's shoes or sandals when entering a private home. In homes raised off the ground, shoes or sandals are sometimes left at the stairs. Otherwise they are left outside the doorway. There often aren't any tables or chairs because the family spends most of its indoor non-sleeping time sitting or lying on the floor. In a traditional home, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men may sit with legs crossed. Women often sit with legs bent off to one side. Visitors are generally not invited to homes. It is not customary to bring a gift when visiting.

Southeast Asians eat with a fork in the left hand and a spoon in the right hand. Chopsticks are generally only used for noodles or Chinese food. In some places sticky rice is served in a ball and eaten with the fingers, which are cleaned with a napkin.

Southeast Asian like to eat in groups and sample many different dishes. The soup courses usually come first. Meat Dishes (and other dishes too) are often served in bite-size pieces in accordance with a Buddhist custom that no whole animal be cooked and served. People often alternate bites of rice with bites from the dishes and serve themselves many small serving rather than one large one. Guests may be served tea or fruit. It is impolite to refuse food or drink. One should at least take a taste.

In a traditional home, the meal is served while diners sit on a mat on the floor. As a sign of respect to a guest, the host and his family will not raise their heads above the head level of their guest. In some cases the food is brought by the hostess in a squatting position so she does not offend anyone.

The person who invites others to a restaurant pays.

Toilets and Bathing in Southeast Asia

Most toilets are Asian-style squat toilets or a hole in the ground. Upscale hotels and restaurants usually have Western-style toilets; sometimes the don't have seats. Bring along toilet paper or tissues. Many restrooms don't have toilet paper. Asian style toilets often have a small cement tank next to it with some water and a plastic scoop inside. The water is there to clean your butt and flush the toilet. Many Asian sewer systems can not handle toilet paper. You are expected to put used toilet paper and tissue in a wastebasket rather than in the toilet. Otherwise the paper might clog the pipes.

Instead of showers, guesthouses often have a cement trough filled with water and a plastic scoop used for bathing. Even places that have showers often don’t have hot water. Water is often in short supply. In some places hot water or water only comes at certain times of the day: usually the morning and the evening. Sometimes water will cut off when you are using it. People often keep buckets and tanks with water near the sinks in case this happens. Wealthy families have water tanks on their roofs that store water when the water is one for use when it isn’t.

Men and women often bath and shower outside while wearing clothing. In homes toilets and showers are often in separate rooms. Sometime there is no hot water, because it is considered too hot take a hot shower.

Squatting, Sitting, Washing, Wiping and Toilet Culture in Asia

In December 2005, the Asahi Shimbun reported: Junichi Hirata, vice president of the Japan Toilet Association, is fascinated by the notion of adapting cultural anthropology to toilet studies. He came up with his own term, "toilet demarcation," and a world map marked with cultural boundaries based on toilet styles. He says the area covering Asia, the Middle East and Africa can be labeled as belonging to the "squatters." The "sitters," for their part, are distributed in Western Europe, the entire American land mass and Australia--all areas hosting immigrants from Western Europe. However, Hirata warns, "There are many enclaves. So we can never be clear about these boundaries."

Hirata estimates that the area in which squatting-style toilets are used roughly matches up with the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) at the height of its power, covering the Middle East, parts of North Africa and much of southeastern Europe. The demarcation line runs south down the Aegean Sea and travels west through the Mediterranean, drawing a line incidentally congruous with that dividing the Islamic and Christian cultures that continue to vie for dominance.

The origins of the two styles are unclear. One hypothesis is that humans were all originally "squatters." Then some branched out to become "sitters," perhaps to become less vulnerable to a sneak attack. The hypothesis, however, remains just that.

And when it comes to cleaning, there are, again, two main schools: washing and wiping. Washing, naturally, relies on water. But when it comes to wiping, people have come up with a variety of ingenious materials. Only about 30 percent of the world's population uses toilet paper, according to Hideo Nishioka, professor emeritus at Keio University. Nishioka specializes in geography, but is well-versed in all sorts of matters related to the toilet. Other materials of choice include leaves, bark, wood chips, seaweed, sand, gravel and more. In other words, people have been making use of whatever natural resources have been handy in their local environment.

The world map as re-envisioned through toilet culture can thus be demarcated according to four basic elements: squat, sit, wipe and wash. As for how the four elements are combined, things take on a decidedly anthropological bent, swayed by local climes and customs. Even now, as the world moves toward globalization, tradition usually has the last say in what takes place in the bathroom--or its equivalent.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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