- I spent a year travelling across 20 countries as Business Insider’s international correspondent.
- I spent the first three months of the trip in Asia, visiting China, Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia. I previously visited Japan while helping launch Business Insider Japan in 2017.
- While each country had its own distinct culture and customs, I experienced many culture clashes while visiting Asia.
- Some of the mistakes I made included not carrying business cards when meeting business acquaintances and trying to hug friends hello or goodbye.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
I spent the first three months of a yearlong trip as Business Insider’s international correspondent exploring various parts of Asia.
While you are likely to have some cultural mix-ups as an American visiting European countries, it’s nothing compared to Asia, where the proper etiquette or behaviour often seems to be the complete opposite of what it is in America.
That said, there are over 40 countries in Asia, and while there are commonalities, each has a very distinct culture.
For example, direct eye contact in America conveys confidence. In China and some other countries, it conveys confrontation. In America, tipping is customary for good service. In Japan, it is seen as an insult to the work ethic of the person you are tipping.
As I travelled the world over the past year, I spent three months in Asia, specifically in China, Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia. During that time, I experienced countless culture clashes, miscommunications, and misunderstandings.
Here are just a few.
1. In Japan, China, and Korea, you need to carry business cards because you exchange cards whenever you meet a new acquaintance.
Whenever Japanese people meet for the first time, particularly in a business setting, they present business cards in a custom known as meishi koukan (名刺交換).
The meishi koukan is considered a formal introduction to the person. No business can begin until cards are exchanged, because the exchange itself indicates the beginning of a relationship.
When I travelled to Tokyo to help Business Insider launch its international edition in 2017, I failed to bring business cards and had to awkwardly explain the situation to every person I met.
As the custom exists to some degree in China and Korea, I did not make the same mistake when I visited last year.
2. Using Uber, Grab, or other ride-hailing services is a very big faux pas in Bali.
But taxi drivers have said these services violate Bali’s unwritten traditional laws and profit off their communities while not giving back. Taxi fares in Bali are double those of ride-hailing services, but over 30% of their income goes to the community to build roads and pay for services the government won’t provide.
Many tourists use ride-hailing apps anyways, but Balinese in certain areas will ask you to refrain.
When I arrived on the island, I scoffed at the idea of not using Uber or Grab because of a “taxi mafia.” By the time I left, I was sympathetic to how technology has completely disrupted Bali’s way of life.
3. Few people in major cities in China still use cash in their day-to-day life — and some places don’t even accept it.
Paying with your phone isn’t a novelty in China these days. Paying with cash is.
Tencent and Alibaba’s competing mobile-payment apps, WeChat Pay and Alipay, are used by just about everyone in China, from fancy restaurants and high-end designer boutiques to street vendors, taxi drivers, and even panhandlers.
A 2017 study by Penguin Intelligence found that 92% of people in China’s top cities said they used WeChat Pay or AliPay as their primary payment method.
As foreigners can’t use Alipay or WeChat Pay – you need a Chinese bank account to sign up – I had numerous issues paying for things in China’s big cities.
One coffee shop in Beijing didn’t even have a register, only a QR-code scanner. When I tried to hand the barista cash, he looked at me confused: All they accepted was mobile payment. I had to leave and go to a different cafe.
4. Very few people in China speak English.
Visiting China as a Western tourist isn’t easy.
The Telegraph reported in 2017 that about 10 million people out of 1.3 billion in China speak English, or less than 1%. Good luck finding them outside major cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
The lack of English extends to signage, tourist attractions, hotels, taxi drivers, and every other part of the culture a tourist is likely to encounter. Add in that Mandarin Chinese doesn’t translate well to English via Google Translate, as well as the general lack of American tech services like Google and Facebook (or English-language versions of popular Chinese tech services), and it can be exhausting.
I travelled with my partner, who is Chinese-American and speaks fluent Mandarin. We still encountered plenty of confusion, such as taxi drivers taking us to the wrong destination, or misunderstanding the rules at tourist sites. Be prepared.
5. If you want to get something done in business, you have to become friends first.
In China and Korea, business culture is guided by social relationships, a concept known in China as guanxi.
While there are many ways to explain guanxi, the easiest (and most simplified) is that it’s the web of relationships you build up among family, friends, and business acquaintances through reciprocal favours.
Tourists aren’t likely to run into guanxi too much, but those travelling for business need to understand the concept. In China especially, ongoing personal relationships must be developed to complete business deals. That can mean lots of dinners, nights out drinking, and favours.
At times, I found myself stumped in China to get a source to respond to an email or a question. When a friend with guanxi with the person asked for me, doors opened. Unresponsive public-relations reps were suddenly willing to help me with every aspect of my reporting trip.
6. Because of the need to maintain social standing or reputation, it is rude to ask new friends or business partners for things directly, to criticise someone in front of their peers, or to contradict or upstage someone.
The concept of “face” is essential to understanding China, Korea, and many other Asian countries.
Like guanxi, face is hard to translate, but it basically means your reputation in relation to your community, as determined by dignity, prestige, and social status.
While Westerners don’t need to worry too much about their face when visiting China or Korea, understanding the concept can help in business.
Americans and other Westerners tend to ask questions and negotiate directly. East Asians operate more slowly in business, will drag out negotiations, and try to achieve consensus with their peers.
When Westerners push for yes-or-no answers or criticise, contradict, or otherwise upstage an East Asian business acquaintance, they are likely causing that person a loss of face, which will consequently harm the relationship.
I had more than a few awkward moments in boardrooms with Chinese executives or dealing with PR representatives where I forcefully pushed for a yes-or-no answer that made us both look bad.
7. In China and many other East Asian cultures, it is considered rude to maintain direct eye contact in a conversation.
As an American, I have become used to keeping eye contact with the person with whom I’m having a conversation; to look away would indicate shiftiness or untrustworthiness. In most East Asian cultures, it means something completely different.
I first noticed this in China when I was interviewing people in the tech industry. The more I kept eye contact, the less they wanted to talk. It was clear that my intensity and directness was making them uncomfortable. I had to dial myself back to fit in better with the culture.
In Asian cultures, direct eye contact can be considered rude, an insult, or a challenge. It can be seen not as confident – as it is in the US – but as confrontational.
As the Harvard Business Review has written, direct confrontation is seen as “immature” and tactless in East Asian cultures.
8. People in China, with its population of over 1 billion, have a different understanding of personal space than Americans do.
There are a lot of people in China – roughly 1.3 billion. For a Westerner in China, it can be very overwhelming to go to places like train stations, the subway during rush hour, or major historical sites.
The mass of people means that the Chinese concept of personal space is very different from the American perspective. Entire families may live in tiny apartments, and you are almost always standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowd. With so many people vying to get into a subway car or into an elevator at all times, there is no option but to pack in like sardines.
Unless I wanted to wait around forever to get anywhere, I had to get with the program. It was shocking at first, and I suffered more than a few bouts of claustrophobia.
9. In China, it is very strange to hug friends or new acquaintances hello or goodbye, though that’s starting to change among younger generations.
Like many Westerners, I’m a hugger. Shortly after meeting someone in a personal setting, I offer hugs as a way to say hello or goodbye. Chinese people – and most East Asians, for that matter- not so much.
In traditional Chinese culture, hugging is not acceptable, particularly between people of the opposite sex. As Yang Chunmei, a professor at Qufu Normal University, has written, “public displays of affection are a source of embarrassment.” Even among spouses, hugging, kissing, or holding hands in public is odd.
While I knew this before visiting China, it is difficult to eschew an ingrained cultural practice. There were many moments during my six weeks in China where I awkwardly went in for a hug with a new acquaintance and had to pull back and extend my hand for a handshake instead.
10. In China and Korea, it’s common to ask personal questions about topics like salary, marital status, age, religion, and education shortly after meeting.
While East Asian cultures shy away from physical contact, it is normal to ask new acquaintances questions that Westerners may consider to be prying. It’s not unusual upon meeting someone at a party or a bar to be asked about salary, job title, personal relationships, education, and marital status.
In Korea, at least, such questions help people determine a new acquaintance’s social status. Social hierarchy is very important in East Asian cultures, particularly in business. The higher your status, the more respect you command, and therefore the more likely it is that someone may help you out with a favour.
No matter how many times it happened, I found it initially jarring to be asked very personal questions (for an American) in the first few moments of meeting someone.
11. In many Asian cultures, it’s considered extremely rude to place your chopsticks standing up in a bowl, as this is a symbol of death and funerals.
There’s a reason every East Asian restaurant you visit has a rest block for your chopsticks: It is very bad etiquette to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl. In multiple East Asian cultures, this has connotations of death and funerals.
At Japanese funerals, according to FluentU, a bowl of rice with two chopsticks upright is left for the deceased. In Chinese culture, the two chopsticks sticking up are said to resemble incense sticks burned at temples for dead ancestors.
While I knew better than to do this while visiting Asia, I watched other travellers and expats make the mistake in front of other East Asians. It was very uncomfortable.
12. It’s considered rude to tip in Japan, Singapore, and some other Asian countries.
Tipping is ingrained in American culture – but that’s not the case everywhere around the world.
For many in Asia, tipping is seen as rude because workers should do a stellar job as a point of pride, not because you’ve offered them extra cash. This is true in Japan and Singapore, though it is changing in some Asian countries as foreign tourism becomes a more important pillar of the economy.
When I visited Tokyo in 2017, I tried to give my taxi driver from the airport a tip. At first he kept handing the money back, thinking I had miscalculated the fare or misread the bills. When realised I was trying to tip him, and he rather curtly shooed me out of the car. I learned later that by trying to hand him extra money, I was insulting his work ethic.
13. For people working in the tech industry in China, it’s typical to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
Before arriving in China last April, I had heard rumours of the so-called 996 culture, which means that tech workers – and increasingly, young people in other industries too – work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.
One way of looking at it is that 996 is China’s version of Silicon Valley’s hustle culture, put in overdrive.
As I was visiting China to report on the tech industry, I found myself sucked into this lifestyle very quickly. Interview subjects were often looking to meet at their offices well into the evenings or on Saturdays. If I wanted to get the stories I was after, I had to adjust to their schedule.
By the time I left China after six weeks, I was exhausted from the work schedule. I can’t imagine doing it for years. Some tech workers in China are starting to push back, with mixed results.
14. It’s common for Chinese workers to take a two-hour lunch break starting at noon that includes a nap in the office.
A few times early in my visit to China, I tried scheduling interviews in the middle of the day. It was a bad idea, and I didn’t get any takers.
Lunch breaks in China for office workers start at noon sharp and typically go until 2 p.m. That’s not to say people are eating that entire time. Rather, most will take a 30-minute nap in the office to recharge before the rest of the day.
It’s a strange thing to see in action. When I visited the Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou around midday, I found all the lights off in the office and nearly every person with either an eye mask and a blanket or a special pillow for sleeping on their desk. Some employees even roll out camp beds and sleep under their desks.
15. When you’re sharing a meal in East Asian countries, the proper move is to fill the glasses of everyone else at the table before filling your own.
While the specific customs can differ dramatically by country – and you should research those specifics before you visit a place – in general it is considered proper to pour drinks or tea for each person in your party before yourself.
In some places, like Korea, it is considered improper to ever fill your own glass: You fill others’ glasses and wait for someone to fill yours.
While I quickly learned about the custom, I admit I forgot from time to time, particularly when I was out drinking with a table of new friends. I have found that Asians tend to give foreigners some leeway for mucking up customs, but better to not mess it up at all.
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