Culture Shock. It’s looking for a toilet but finding a hole in the ground. Walking across the street in the middle of traffic and believing that traffic will stop. Traveling everywhere by tuk-tuk or longboat. Eating food from a street cart and praying to God you don’t get food poisoning.
Culture shock could be anything depending on how sheltered you are. If you’ve never left your home town, then literally anything outside of it will shock you because that’s all you know. To me, it’s anything in a foreign country that makes you scratch your head.
I’ve never been to Asia but I lived in Hawaii for over 4 years which I would argue is very similar. The island is populated by mostly Filipino and Japanese people, so I figured the cultural norms I had gotten accustomed to were a good preview of what I would find in Asia.
Hawaii made me a certified pro at riding mopeds and using chopsticks which are definitely useful skills, but other than that it was not a good preview of what traveling in Asia is like.
As a white man who’s spent most of his life in America, there are a lot of things about the Asian culture I loved, a few things I didn’t, and a mountain of shit that downright confused me.
If you’ve never been, this is a list of things that might leave you stuck, mouth open in a state of culture shock.
1. Burning Trash
All of you climate change activists – take note. While we’re busy building landfills and piling our collective garbage into massive, ungodly mountains, Asia solved the trash problem long ago with one simple solution: burn it all.
For the first 2 months, I couldn’t understand why there were random fires all over Thailand. Every time I took a motorbike outside of the city it looked like all the farmers’ crops were on fire. Smoke billowed up from the trees with frightening regularity.
Then I saw the practice up close in Hue, Vietnam. People from across town gathered in front of their homes every single night at around 5:30 PM and held a townwide trash bonfire. Residents set up a barrel or a steel cylinder on the sidewalk in front of their homes or businesses and straight-up burned all of their garbage.
Sure, it makes everything smell like death for a solid hour and I’m pretty sure I heard the Earth screaming in pain, but I like to take the Charlie Kelly worldview and think all of the smoke is traveling to space where it becomes stars.
2. You Poop in the Shower
I don’t mean literally. You’re not pooping in the shower then waffle-stomping logs down the drain.
In most bathrooms, even in nice hotels, the shower is located less than a foot from the toilet. There’s no curtain or separation, just a drain in the middle of the floor.
That means when you shower the entire bathroom is drenched. The toilet, sink, the floor, everything. This especially sucks at crowded hostels when you have to use the bathroom after somebody and you’re trying to poop on a soaking wet toilet. I get that the design makes the bathroom easy to clean but at what cost?
I never realized how much I love my toilet and my shower being separate until I went to Asia. I encountered some traditional American bathrooms here and there but most of them looked like this.
3. The Cover Bands Are Awful and Everywhere
There are few things I love more than a terrible cover band. They’re entertaining no matter what. I’m either drunk and singing along or sober and enjoying the slow-motion train wreck on stage.
Throughout Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, every touristy/western bar or night market had a cover band performing….interesting renditions of classic hits.
To truly appreciate how bad/good these bands were, you have to understand that none of the lead singers spoke English. They just kind of clumsily mimic the words of each song. It’s like when I tried to sing along to the radio when I was a little kid even though I had no idea what the lyrics were. If you’re not paying attention it sounds like a song you know but if you listen closely at all it’s gibberish.
Another thing to note is every band performs the same 10 songs. In Pai, Thailand, I listened to this guy’s entire set only for the next performer to follow him and perform the exact same set only much worse. I couldn’t get enough. For some reason, bad cover bands bring people closer together than good ones. It’s something to laugh about instead of sitting in silence appreciating the music.
I learned that Thailand really loves the Red Hot Chili Peppers (or they think white people do which…true). At the night markets in Chiang Mai, there were 5-7 bands performing every night and all I heard was RHCP.
In Cambodia, they’re big fans of hip-hop and have mostly female singers perform. There’s nothing funnier than seeing a tiny Cambodian girl singing Nicki Minaj and throwing the N-word around with reckless abandon.
I’m sure the singing improves greatly if they’re playing local music but I wouldn’t want them to. Their attempts at American pop music are more enjoyable than the original songs.
4. It’s like America in the 1950s When it Comes to Smoking
Baby Boomers would still feel right at home in Asia. What with all the irresponsible pollution, smoke-filled restaurants, and racism.
I tried to quit smoking right before I traveled to Asia and foolishly thought I had enough self-control to avoid cigarettes. Once I landed it took 48 hours before I folded like a lawn chair and went right back to my pack a day habit.
I realized the only thing I truly missed was smoking in bars. And honestly, cigarettes should be allowed in every bar, we’re all there to poison ourselves anyway. The happy hour beer+cigarette combo is the perfect ending to any day.
And I regret nothing. Smoking is awesome when cigarettes are $0.80/pack and there’s no social stigma attached. Everybody I met in Asia, local or backpackers, smoked. I’m not exaggerating.
No judgments, no being quarantined in some awful, tar stained room, smokers still have rights over there, unlike women.
5. Cell Phone Service is Phenomenal
I posted this to Instagram from a place that barely had roads.
For $8 in Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam, you can get a SIM card with unlimited LTE data for 30 days (S/O Mobifone). And you will never, ever lose service. Not in rural areas, not even traveling through Ha Giang which is one of the most remote parts of Vietnam.
And you barely even need it. Every establishment has fast, free WiFi and they encourage you to use it. As a digital nomad working on the go, it’s a godsend. Every time I was on the go I could hotspot my phone and work from wherever.
America, what the fuck? My experience made me realize just how bad Verizon is raping me on a monthly basis. I pay $100+ for OK service and data caps yet Asia is enjoying $8/month perfect cell service in subway tunnels. Capitalism is really fucking annoying sometimes.
6. No Tipping
Every restaurant is like McDonald’s in that you don’t have to tip
Not having to tip is the ideal way to enjoy a meal. There’s no pressure to tip or “tip shaming” tablets that ask if you want to at 15% every single fucking time I buy something. Why do I need to tip somebody for pouring me a cup of coffee?
Tipping in Asia is non-existent and can be viewed as insulting in certain cases. I tried to tip my tattoo artist and when he refused I thought he was being humble. That was until I tried to leave the extra money on the counter and he screamed “NO” as he marched towards me and forcefully put the cash in my pocket. I was in a state of culture shock but in a good way.
It got me thinking, the tipping culture in America is a testament to the evil genius of business owners. Instead of paying their employees a living wage, Restaurant owners have somehow convinced us that we’re responsible for paying them. And we all do it, because we’ve all bought into this ridiculous system.
We need to stop perpetuating this system and force these greedy cunts to pay their employees. We’re literally financing their cheapness.
Fuck tipping culture, Asia does it the right way and they provide way better service.
7. Driving is Like Being on Fury Road
I thought driving in Honolulu was bad but that was merely a warm-up. I went to the epicenter of bad driving, a place where every driver is Asian, and it’s as crazy as you’re imagining.
Driving in Thailand was my first taste of insanity. Most people there pay attention to red lights and if you’re on a motorbike there’s no such thing as traffic, just cut lanes and in between bumpers until you arrive.
Vietnam was the epicenter of insane driving. Nobody gives a fuck about safety or traffic signals. People fly through intersections without warning and get within millimeters of each other on the road. It’s scary but somehow it works beautifully. I saw no car accidents the entire time I was there and judging by their driving habits I should have seen one every block.
Also the drivers are honking at each other constantly as if to say “HEY I’M ABOUT TO DO SOMETHING RECKLESS TRY NOT TO HIT ME LOL.”
Feeling like your vacation is too boring and predictable? Take a motorbike taxi. Not only are they dirt cheap, but it’s like riding a rollercoaster with life-or-death consequences.
8. The Entire Country of Japan Will Give You Culture Shock
Visiting Japan is like visiting another planet. I was in culture shock every single second I was in that country. I’m writing a whole post about it that I don’t want to spoil but suffice to say if you go to Japan you will be in culture shock the entire time.