Blogging Abroad’s fourth prompt is to examine life on the road. Lately, when I walk around the streets of Asia (currently Thailand), I come across things that I first found strange and photo-worthy, but now it has become the norm. I often need to take a step back and realize that some things that are normal* in Asia are so foreign for westerners. Likewise, there are behaviors that westerners engage in that people in Asia would find insane.
Here are some cultural differences that people who stay extensively in Asia would find normal after a while. Note some are specific to Korea.
*Note that normal is a relative term. No way of life is better than the other… just different.
When I first came across the infamous squatty potty in Thailand, I panicked.
What do I do? Do I take my pants off? Dang, no toilet paper. How do use this water gun? Now, how do I… oh, flush the toilet by using this bucket of water! Phew. Glad that’s over with. What, no sink or soap?
Now, all of this has become so commonplace. While my schools in Korea used squatty potties (which teachers shared with students), they aren’t as common in Korea as in India and Southeast Asia. Standing on wooden planks above a giant ditch full of human waste for one week in Mongolia made even a ceramic squat toilet a luxury. Overall, I prefer squatty potties now. They are more sanitary. With western style toilets, your bum may touch the bums of other humans! But your body parts don’t touch anything while squatting. My body type allows me to squat comfortably, but it is not a natural position for many westerners, so others may have a more difficult time adjusting.
2. Fruit Trucks
Before I had a good grasp of the Korean language, the trucks inching around neighborhoods blaring men intensely throwing out words through loud speakers had me frightened. I initially thought that they were warning people that North Korea was causing unrest or that an earthquake was predicting. Well, I come to find out that the trucks are just selling fruit. After a few months of living in Korea, those trucks became my adult ice cream truck. Yay, the 3,000 won watermelon truck is here!
3. Cows and Chickens Everywhere
Besides in the big cities, farm animals run wildly. You may be held up in traffic because of cow stampedes or be woken up by roosters every morning. You won’t have to search for long to spot a cow on the beaches in Goa, India. Note that this isn’t common in East Asia.
4. Convenient Store Hangout Spots
Open container laws make it illegal to drink in public in most of the United States. In Korea, not only is it legal to drink seemingly anywhere, it is commonplace. Korea has a hefty drinking culture, which shocks many who come to learn that, but once you live in Korea, you think this is common knowledge. We forget that people never heard of the fact that alcohol consumption in Korea is one of the highest in the world. Over three years, it became normal for some friends and I to grab a drink at the nearest convenient store instead of going out to a bar. It is much more relaxed, you get to enjoy quality time with friends, you save your voice from yelling over loud music, and you get to be outside!
5. Karaoke Anytime, Anywhere
I knew that karaoke is a popular activity in Korea (they actually call it noraebang, or singing room). By living in Korea, I learned that karaoke can happen anywhere at any time. After a school staff outing to the mountains, we piled in the bus, exhausted after a day of teaching, hiking, socializing, and drinking, I was surprised to watch my coworkers pulling out a mic and start busting some songs. The bus has disco lights and a karaoke machine installed on the bus! There are even special taxis that have karaoke for patrons.
We experienced karaoke all around Asia. People in Laos and the Philippines seem to fancy this activity the most from what I observed. Belting out your favorite tunes is a great wayto relieve stress.
6. Hospital Patients Walking Around Town (Korea)
On a walk down a busy street, one is likely to come across giggling kids in school uniforms, young girls taking selfies, older women hunched over their vegetables….and hospital patients walking around with their IVs rolling along? Yes, it is now common for me to see this site. Their hospital pajamas look mighty comfortable as they gather around back smoking cigarettes with their roommates.
7. Couple Sets
Forget Paris; Korea is the place for romance. With love locks weighing down bridges and omnipresent romantic photo zones, most young people’s dream about finding a soulmate. The most telling sign that two people are going steady is the infamous couple set. A walk through a university area or cherry blossom park will be overflowing with couples sporting the shirt, even as far as shoes and bags. I’ve come to like this cute cultural quirk, but don’t actively engage in this behavior with my partner. Only once, sort of as a joke.
8. Balancing an impossible (but obviously not) amount of objects of people on a motorbike
After traveling in India and Southeast Asia for several years, five people on a motorbike for a family outing is normal. I’ve also witnessed a collection of impressive things balanced on motorbikes such as a huge log, desk, television, suitcases, a week worth of banana harvesting, a handful of live chickens… it takes a lot to impress me nowadays.
9. Crossing the road in Southeast Asian cities isn’t scary anymore
After successfully crossing the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, you can probably cross any road. Traffic in big southeast Asian & Indan cities are notorious for being crowded and chaotic. You don’t have to wait until the road is all clear; just walk straight with confidence and drivers will avoid you. This is a milestone for any foreigner in Southeast Asia.
10. Desire for white skin
When I first visited Korea from Thailand, I was sporting a serious tan from the tropical environment. Koreans didn’t like it. An old woman took my arm and rubbed it like my arm was full of dirt. People in Korea and all of the Asian countries I’ve visited aspire to have the lightest skin possible. They go through lengths to wear hats, long clothing, and face masks even if the weather is unbearably hot. The use of parasols is also common. Take a trip a beauty store and you will have a difficult time finding sunscreen or other facial products that do not have whitening agents.
This behavior rubbed off on me as well. Although I do not go through great lengths to shield myself from the sun, I am conscious of wearing sunscreen and when in the sun for too long. It’s not a desire to have white skin for me; it’s because the sun is actually damaging to your skin.
People in Asia think it is strange that westerners go to the beach with barely any clothes and bake in the sun. Honestly, I also now find this behavior strange! There is a balance. Enjoy the sun, get your vitamin D, but don’t burn!
Those are just ten cultural differences I’ve grown accustomed to during my time in Asia. There are certainly more!