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Cultural Customs

Knowing the following customs may save you embarrassment or grief during your next trip abroad because things are done differently in different parts of the world.

The unthinking or insignificant gesture or act may be meaningless to you because you live in North America. But abroad it may be a rude or offensive display. Or worse, illegal. Here are a few cultural do's and don'ts. If you know of or have experienced others, send them to us. They will regularly be added to the list.

Saudi Arabia:
  • Observance of any other religion is forbidden.
  • Non-Muslim services are illegal.
  • Displays of bibles and crosses are forbidden.
  • Non-Muslims cannot travel to Mecca and Medina, sites of two holy mosques of Islam.
  • Do not take photographs of religious processions or women.
  • Don't pack alcohol in your luggage, chances are it will be confiscated.
  • Smoking cigarettes in the street is in bad taste -- especially during Ramadan when the practice is illegal.
  • Religious police, known as mutawwa'iin, enforce standards.
  • The religious police harass, accost or arrest foreigners for improper dress and drinking alcohol.
  • Women should wear ankle-length dresses with long sleeves, an abaya head covering or headscarf.
  • Women should not wear trousers in public.
  • Women must be met by their sponsor to enter the country.
  • Women can't drive vehicles or ride bicycles on public roads.
  • Women not accompanied by a male relative may not be served at restaurants.
  • Women who socialize with a man who is not a relative may be charged with prostitution.
  • Dancing, music and movies are forbidden in public.
  • Men and women may not mingle in public, unless they are family or close relatives.
  • Homosexual activity is a criminal offense. Those convicted may be sentenced to lashing and/or a prison sentence.
  • Private Saudi citizens may harass, pursue or assault foreigners they think violate conservative customs.
  • The penalty for the possession or consumption of alcohol is severe. Convicted offenders can expect jail sentences, fines, public flogging and/or deportation.
  • The penalty for drug trafficking is capital punishment. Saudi officials make no exceptions.

  • India
  • While dining in India, always use your right hand to accept or pass food, even if you are left-handed.
  • Before eating, wash your hands and rinse your mouth.
  • Most Hindus are vegetarian and many do not drink alcohol.
  • Sikhs and Parsees do not smoke.
  • Muslims do not eat pork and orthodox Muslims do not drink alcohol.
  • Remove shoes before entering any temple and ask permission before you photograph people and places.

  • Singapore
  • Remove your shoes when entering a temple of mosque.
  • Smoking is prohibited in public places, including taxis. Offenders may be fined up to $500 in Singapore money.
  • Singapore has strict laws and penalties for a variety of offenses that might be considered minor in the United States or Canada.
  • Jaywalking, littering, spitting plus importing and selling chewing gum can result in fines or other penalties.
  • Singapore imposes a mandatory caning sentence on males for vandalism offenses. Caning may also be imposed for immigration violations and other offenses.

  • Japan - Visiting temples and shrines

    Here are the most important steps and manners with respect to visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan.

  • Behave calmly and respectfully. Show your respect by making a short prayer in front of the sacred object. Do so by throwing a coin into the offering box, followed by a short prayer. Traditionally, you are not supposed to visit a shrine if you are sick, have an open wound or are mourning because these are considered causes of impurity.

  • At some temples, visitors burn incense (osenko) in large incense burners. Purchase a bundle, light them, let them burn for a few seconds and then extinguish the flame by waving your hand rather than by blowing it out. Finally, put the incense into the incense burner and fan some smoke towards yourself as the smoke is believed to have healing power. For example, fan some smoke towards your shoulder if you have an injured shoulder.

  • At the purification fountain near the shrine's entrance, take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to transfer the water directly from the ladle into your mouth or swallow the water. You will notice that quite a few visitors skip the mouth rinsing part or the purification ritual altogether.

  • When entering temple buildings, you may be required to take off your shoes. Leave your shoes on the shelves at the entrance or take them with you in plastic bags provided at some temples. Wear nice socks.

  • Photography is usually permitted on the temple grounds. It is forbidden indoors at some temples. Watch for signs.
  • Japan - Eating Rules
  • Blowing your nose in public, and especially at the table, is considered bad manners.

  • It is considered good manners to empty your dishes to the last grain of rice.

  • Talking about toilet related and similarly unappetizing topics during or before a meal is not appreciated by most people.

  • Unlike in some other parts of East Asia, it is considered bad manner to burp.

  • After eating, try to move all your dishes back to the same position they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting your chopsticks on the chopstick holder or back into their paper slip.

  • Rice: Hold the rice bowl in one hand and the chopsticks in the other. Lift the bowl towards your mouth while eating. Do not pour soy sauce over white, cooked rice.

  • Sushi: Pour some soy sauce into the small dish provided. It is considered bad manners to waste soy sauce, so try not to pour more sauce than you will use.
    • You do not need to add wasabi into the soy sauce, because the sushi pieces may already contain it, or may be eaten plain. However, if you choose to add wasabi, use only a small amount so as not to offend the sushi chef. If you do not like wasabi, you can request that none is added into your sushi.
    • In general, you are supposed to eat a sushi piece in one bite. Attempts to separate a piece into two generally end in the destruction of the beautifully prepared sushi. Hands or chopsticks can be used to eat sushi.
    • In case of nigiri-zushi, dip the piece into the soy sauce upside-down so that the fish enters the sauce. A few kinds of nigiri-zushi, for example, marinated pieces, should not be dipped into soy sauce.
    • In case of gunkan-zushi, pour a small amount of soy sauce over the sushi piece rather than dipping it into the sauce.
  • Sashimi: Pour some soy sauce into the small dish provided. Put some wasabi on the sashimi piece, but be careful not to use too much as this will overpower the taste of the fish. Dip the sashimi pieces into the soy sauce. Some types of sashimi are enjoyed with ground ginger rather than wasabi.

  • Miso Soup: Drink the soup out of the bowl as if it were a cup, and fish out the solid food pieces with your chopsticks.

  • Noodles: Using your chopsticks lead the noodles into your mouth. You may want to try to copy the slurping sound of people around you if you are dining in a noodle shop. Rather than being bad manners as Westerners are often taught, slurping noodles is considered evidence of enjoying the meal.

  • In case of noodle soups, be careful of splashing the noodles back into the liquid. If a ceramic spoon is provided, use it to drink the soup, otherwise, lift the bowl to your mouth as if it were a cup.

  • Kare Raisu (Japanese style curry rice): Kare Raisu and other rice dishes, in which the rice is mixed with a sauce (for example, some domburi dishes) may become difficult to eat with chopsticks. Large spoons are often provided for these dishes.

  • Big pieces of food (e.g. prawn tempura, tofu): Separate into bite sized pieces with your chopsticks (this takes some exercise), or just bite off a piece and put the rest back onto your plate.

  • Customs and Culture for the Business Traveler

    Yasuhiro Uetani, president of Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts, North America states that the first step in business relationships is to develop respect and trust with your associates. Take time to learn the customs and culture of your Pacific Rim business destination. The possibilities are limitless when strong relationships are forged. Respecting the local customs shows a sincere interest in developing a meaningful business relationship and can result in greater success.

    The First Impression

    • Asian cultures tend to honor formality as a sign of respect, so addressing your host correctly will enhance a first impression.
    • Call the host by his or her surname, together with a title such as "Director Wang," or " Chairman Cheng." Avoid the Western tendency to become too friendly too soon.
    • Asians generally accept the western custom of shaking hands, but do not mistake a weak handshake or lack of eye contact as a lack of assertiveness.
    • The Chinese greet one another with a nod or slight bow.
    • Rank is important and highly valued. The first person to enter the room is the head of the group. Americans should follow this protocol to avoid confusion.
    • Do not interrupt your Chinese host during a presentation. Wait until he/she is finished before posing questions.

    Gift Giving

    Gift giving shows good manners and respect in many Asian cultures. Gifts indicate that you are interested in building a relationship.

    • In Malaysia or Hong Kong, a business contact does not expect a gift. In China gifts are exchanged once a relationship is established.
    • Despite the transition from British to Chinese rule in July 1997, Hong Kong's business customs are not expected to change.
    • The wrong gift or gift wrap can insult the recipient. A bottle of premium liquor is appreciated in China and Thailand but disfavored by Muslim cultures and religions as in Malaysia or Indonesia.
    • A clock wrapped in elegant white paper is a thoughtful gift in America. In Hong Kong or Malaysia, clocks symbolize the passing of time (i.e. death) and black and white indicate mourning.
    • Do give knives as they represent the severing of relationships, this is especially true in Singapore.
    • Always give and receive gifts with both hands and do not expect gifts to be opened in your presence.

    Small Talk

    While Americans enjoy a lively political debate, discussing politics is a sign of poor taste in most Asian cultures.

    Small talk is a common way to launch successful business meetings and is customary in many Asian countries. Topics include family, health and the local cuisine. Discussing television and sports is also a good way to break the ice.

    Body Language

    • In most of Asia, shoes and feet are considered "unclean."
    • In Malaysia, as in many Asian countries, it is offensive to sit cross-legged pointing the soles of your feet toward your hosts. To be safe, always sit with your feet on the floor.
    • Avoid pointing with your index finger. Instead, gesture with your whole hand, palm down.
    • Never touch your hosts head, or pass objects over it, particularly in Thailand, where gesture taboos abound.
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