The BAD SIDE of ASIAN CULTURE

Taiwanese flag

When you read travel blogs about countries in Asia, phrases like “friendly locals”, “amazing food” and “beautiful scenery” pop up all over the place. Although these words are cliche and stereotypical, I can’t help but agree with them, most of the time.

I’ve been living in SE Asia for two and a half years, both in Vietnam and Taiwan. I’ve witnessed and experienced the friendly locals, the amazing food and the beautiful scenery. I’ve felt safe in these countries. I’m not expecting to see a drunken idiot at the pub who needs to inflate his ego by being all rowdy, which often happens in Australia.

Since living in SE Asia, I haven’t seen a single fistfight; I’ve been taken aback by the help I’ve received from strangers; I’ve tasted food that’s made me think ‘how is this possible?’. And I’ve seen views that have made me literally say out loud, “Wow! Are you kidding me?!”.

In short, every good thing you read about SE Asian countries and their culture is true. Still, as much as I love Asia, there are some things I hate about Asian culture.

Taiwanese guys setting up a display
Two guys set up a table of offerings outside their shop during Day of the Dead

The shit side of Asian culture

There are some shit things about the cultures I’ve seen, and I still don’t understand them. When I’ve asked a friend why something happened, the usual answer is, “it’s just the culture, Dan”.

1. They’re utterly non-confrontational

Now, socially this is a great thing, because it means violent crime is extremely rare. Taiwan is considered one of the safest countries in the world. According to World Population Review, it’s ranked the 36th safest in the world, whereas the USA is ranked 123rd.

You can see this culture of non-confrontation whenever you wander around: I haven’t seen one single fight, and I’ve only seen about 6 instances of road rage (which was mostly just people swearing as they drove past, certainly no physical violence).

For the most part, Vietnam and Taiwan are peaceful countries that feel safe at any time of day or night. So why does this suck?

if someone has an issue with you, they’ll never tell you

While this might seem good to some people, I really dislike it. If someone has a problem with something I’ve done or said, I’d prefer that they told me so we can sort it out and attempt to clear the air.

In the workplace, this is common: if someone has a problem with me, they won’t tell me. They’ll go behind my back, tell my boss and then my boss will tell me. This can happen for any issue — big or small. For example, when I was new at teaching I once taught a class where I stood near the wall too often. I’d been working there for about two months, so I knew my co-teacher a bit. The next day, I got a message from my boss telling me not to stand near the wall.

It might seem like a small thing, but if someone has a problem with me, I want them to tell me. If this happened in Australia it’d be considered cowardly and ‘going behind someone’s back’. In Asia it’s considered normal.

Psychedelic puppet show
A psychedelic puppet show during a culture festival in Taiwan

2. People sometimes talk without a filter

If people think I look skinny, they’ll come right out and say it. If they think I look old, they’ll tell me. If I say something like, “Do you like my t-shirt?”, they might come back with, “I don’t think you look good in that colour”.

They’re being honest, and they’re telling me to my face, which I guess is good. But sometimes we need to filter our comments so we don’t shut down the other person.

In my culture, saying such things would be considered rude. If someone is fat, and I think they’re fat, and they ask me, “Do you think I’m fat?”. I won’t just come out and say, “Yeah, you’re fat.” It’s an awkward question, so I might deflect it by saying “What do you think?” Or “You’re bigger than me, sure”. Maybe this is a sensitive response, but I’m doing my best not to upset the other person.

From what I’ve experienced, people in Asia have zero problems saying exactly what they think right to your face. I’m still very much getting used to it. It’s normal in Asia, but it’s not normal for me. I just need to learn not to take it too personally.

I’ve seen tourists in backpackers say something like, “Do we get the bus there?”, and the staff member will just look at them and say, “Yes, of course.” It’s blunt and to the face, but the “of course” reply is common.

I recently asked my co-teacher where she was going on holiday, and she said “I’m going to Thailand”. My response was “Cool, have you been there before?” To which the reply was, “Of course!” I’m so sick of getting these replies that I immediately replied with, “Sorry, how was I to know you’ve been there before?”. She replied with “Oh, yes, I went there last year…..”

It was a friendly exchange, but if you hear an “of course” to answer your question, it seems to be a popular phrase, so don’t feel stupid or get angry.

Not everyone is like this

Of course not everyone is like this; as with any culture, everyone is different. However, this is generally what I’ve experienced in my 2.5 years living in Asia.

I’ve also written about different aspects of Asian culture. You can read about Male and Female Etiquette in Vietnam, Vietnamese Culture, and How to Minimise Culture Shock in the posts on my Vietnam page.

Taiwanese flag
The Taiwanese flag on the back of a truck

5 COMMENTS

  1. I randomly found your blog after googling “cheapest way to transfer money out of vietnam” and decided to stay and check out more of your writings.

    I’m a VietnAmerican, born in VN, raised there for about 9yrs, then exported to the States to be fully matured. I returned at 22 and boy oh boy was I in for a shock.
    The queue cutting, the absolute chaos of everything, the busyness of the streets, the “if I’m not almost killed twice a day by a random Ninja-lady on a bike then it’s not a day”, and so on.

    It’s ironic how people can be one thing once they find out I also speak fluent Vietnamese ( mainly because I’m naturally pale af for a Viet, and look more Korean/Japanese for some reason lol). Their tone switches immediately once I get tired of them trying to sell me sub-par quality stuffs for ultra-quality price.

    Anyway. Hopefully you’ll still update this blog once in a while.

    • That’s great you found it interesting. I’m glad you stuck around. I loved reading your story, it’s quite amazing and you definitely have an advantage if you can speak Vietnamese. When I first got there and went to a market I was grossly over charged for some fruit and was quite stung by it. Now I’ve been learning VN it won’t happen again haha! I plan to go back as soon as borders open.
      Where are you living there now? I’d love to hear more about it.
      Dan

    • Hey Skylar,
      Thanks a lot and yeah you’re right about everything you said. The traffic is scary until you get used to it, after a while I found that it started to flow. And I’ve been ripped off too I think, but in the non touristy places and smaller cities it was much better.
      I’m not travelling at the mo, and would dearly love to go back to Vietnam as soon as I can. I’ll surely do some updates then. Thanks for your encouragements 🙂

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