Asian Culture Shock-Settling In.

Asian Culture Shock is real. Moving to another country is never an easy step to make, throw in a different continent and the issues increase. Then add all that is wild and wonderful about Asia and you have a whole different ball of wax. It is confusing, bewildering and at times damn right maddening. Have I got any regrets? Yeah, I wish I had done it 30 years earlier!

Emigrating has been the best decision I ever made in my life. It was always on my mind but there were always things preventing me making the leap. Elderly sick parents, young family, business needs, I’m sure many will identify with them. Then 12 years ago everything seemed to slot into place and I simply thought, sod it, I’m off. 

Love at First Sight

I fell in love with Southeast Asia, well Thailand to be precise, immediately. Within days of my first proper visit, I knew I wanted to live there. It took me three years to make it happen. So in 2008, I finally made it. Being in a foreign country with no return ticket, somehow just felt different. It was permanent and I knew pretty quickly that there was no going back, despite the very obvious Asian culture shock. I simply cannot imagine my returning to the West.

It is not easy though; let’s not kid ourselves. If you come here on a large salary and a decent length contract you will still struggle with the sometimes-maddening differences. They are not wrong; they are just so alien to anything I had experienced before that it genuinely used to throw me off balance on a daily basis. After a while though, you find a way through the Asian culture shock. 

Being an expat will mean that you make friends pretty quickly. every foreigner living in Southeast Asia has sometime in common; being an alien. Conversations strike up immediately, business contacts are made and friendships formed. The downside is that for many, it is a transient life. Their contract changes and they move. All too often really good friendships come to an end. But there is always a steady stream of new people to meet and new friendships to find. Asian culture shock differs between different countries, but it is always there.

Asian Culture Shock Comes in Many Forms

The frustrations can be anything, traffic, banking, dealing with utility companies and the seemingly absent lack of logic. On the back of a motorbike taxi once in Bangkok, the driver suddenly made a turn on the wrong side of the road round a completely blind bend, at speed. If there had been anything coming it would have been a complete wipeout. I went crazy, made him stop and got off the bike, shouting at him. I know you shouldn’t shout in Thailand but I was in shock. He simply said, “Buddha take care.” No amount of questioning whether an Atheist might be driving a truck coming in the opposite direction, would convince him. 

Vietnam motorbike crazy

Vietnam motorbike crazy

Traffic in Thailand is as bad as I have witnessed anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of India. In Vietnam it looks crazier at first glance, but everyone drives a lot slower and there is a pattern to it; it’s invisible, but it is there. Traffic is high up on the agenda when it comes to Asian culture shock. Visitors come to Southeast Asia and are adamant that they would never get on a motorbike. Expats come to Vietnam, and within two weeks they are normally looking for a good rental deal. 

Don’t Be The Cause of Someone Losing Face

The loss of face thing is massively important here, especially in business. I firmly believe that it holds the region back, but these things are delicate and have to be managed. Making an employee lose face is a major issue. Nobody is ever wrong; it is always better to merely point out that there is sometimes a better way to do things. Only last week my bank made a mistake and charged me over $100 in fees for two withdrawals from an ATM. I went in and complained and after the woman had typed at her computer for ten minutes she declared, “No sir, you made a mistake, we never took the money. The online statement shows it going out of my account, then back in, whilst I was in the bank. But they were not wrong; smile and walk away. 

Religion is a huge thing in Southeast Asia. Mainly Buddhist, there are also many other religions. The region does better at allowing these religions to coexist than any other area in the world. I am especially impressed with Vietnam, where all religions are tolerated and there is very little trouble over them, despite this being a mainly secular country. And tolerance doesn’t end there, sexual and gender tolerance is extremely good in the region. In fact Vietnam was among the earlier countries to recognise gay marriage. 

Food & The Weather Will Certainly be Different

The change of diet is likely to take a bit of time to get used to. Thai food for example will be hotter than most of what you have been used to in the west. Also across the region, sometimes, basic hygiene can be a problem. However any stomach upsets normally settle down in a short time. Our bodies seem to have a great ability to adapt. I rarely get sick these days and when I do it’s just a 24-hour thing, which let’s face it, can happen in Western countries as well. It’s the same with the weather; trips home now are like visit the artic circle for me. I really do not like cold weather.


Thai staple Papaya salad

In conclusion, I found moving an entirely positive thing to have done. I love the fact that I never need more than a T-shirt. I pretty much eat out twice per day every day and I travel around by motorbike. My life has no resemblance whatsoever to what it was a decade ago. I have made so many great friends and social media enables me to stay in touch with old friends at home. Although, I moved here alone I have more friends than at any point in my life. I lead a pretty simple life, I earn enough to survive and stress levels are low. My favourite region in the world is Southeast Asia. I love the people and life is sweet, come and try it.

Keith Hancock Biz-find writer