Culture Change, East West Cultural Differences, Cross Culture Business in Southeast and East Asia

What or who is actually an ex-pat or expat which is an abbreviation of 'expatriate'? While the term is commonly used to refer to a Westerner who resides in a 'foreign' country, it comes from the Latin 'ex patria'. Translated it means 'outside the native land'. This has appeared in Latin texts for more than 2000 years and refers to Roman soldiers who left their homeland to fight battles for the expansion of the Roman Empire. Anyone who lives away from their home country can be described as a foreign resident, expatriateex-pat or expat. The Thai government calls them aliens while the people refer to them as farangs or falang. Indonesians call them bule.

To be successful and happy as an expatriate it is important to recognise and accept that there are differences in the way of life between 'home' and a 'foreign' country. Study and research beforehand will be beneficial, but only time and the experience of living, working (or retiring) in one or more different countries will ensure settling into new environments and feeling almost 'at home' again. It is possible, usually after a period of adjustment.

There are wide areas of different thinking and different ways of reacting to and handling life's situations in other countries, both personal and in business. This definitely applies to Asia. In some parts it's more noticeable than others. Religion, faith and philosophy as well as traditions affect the culture of a particular country, or even a sub-area within that country. But for living in Southeast Asia, our primary area of coverage, it is important for 'an outsider' to be aware of the underlying cultural differences between East and West (including Christian) thinking, which all affect behaviour, culture, tradition and values in the various Asian countries. Japan has its own culture, as does China. There are similarities and differences without and within. China's traditional culture can also be at odds with both Buddhism and Confucianism, and there are differences between these and other religions including Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto, Sikh and Taoism.


From a Western perspective, back in the home country – maybe the UK or Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East or even an African country, while you were growing up, you subconsciously developed an ingrained sense of the 'way things work'. A common language gave you the ability to communicate effectively with the people around you – your family, friends, work colleagues and even with strangers in public; you learned something of your country’s history, people's habits, likes and dislikes, politics, religion, traditions; legal and judicial systems including your rights as a citizen; you learned about acceptable social behaviour within the family and tolerance of others’ actions; and many other parameters and facets of life. This understanding influenced your own behaviour, and what you expect of others.


You also have some idea of what people can or should not do without consequences – good or bad! You have certain rights and protection under the law. If you are accused of a crime or other transgression, you are (hopefully) entitled to professional defence.  In some countries (by no means all), so-called civil rights like freedom of speech allow you to voice your opinions – vocally or in writing, and freely draw support from others who agree with you.

And 'Away'

Living abroad, it doesn't take long to realise that many things that don't 'work' the same, especially when moving from 'the West' to 'the East'. Apart from different languages (and you will benefit greatly if you can learn to understand, speak or write some of them), each country has its own social systems and laws and ways of implementing them to resolve problems and disputes. You will find some of them strange and alien. There will be times when you feel alienated or uncomfortable because you realise that things are not the same as you think they ought to be.

This is what has become known as 'Culture Shock'. It may sound like a clichéd joke, but it's definitely not and every country in Asia has its own cultural traditions that need to be recognised and understood by foreign visitors, especially if they are spending extended time in any of these countries. The rules are usually easy enough to learn; the difficulty is understanding some of them when they are often in direct conflict with one's own ingrained habits!

Living in an environment with an unfamiliar culture can cause stress, anxiety or worse – mental or physical illness or even suicide in some instances. The term culture shock was first used by Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalvero (Kalervo) Oberg in 1954. It is the shock of experiencing an unknown or new culture. It is unpleasant because it is unexpected; it can also lead to a negative evaluation of one's own culture. Cross-cultural adjustment is the period of anxiety, distress and confusion suffered when entering a new culture. It can have effects on a person's emotions, intellect and behaviour. This adjustment can be divided into four main phases or stages of cultural shock comprising (1) the honeymoon or tourist phase, (2) the crises or cultural shock phase, (3) the adjustment, reorientation and gradual recovery phase and (4) the adaptation, resolution or 'acculturation' phase.

Acceptance is the key that unlocks the final door. The realisation of the need to adjust, or even reverse, ideas of handling particular situations. It comes in time! One thing is certain: it is far easier to accept the new order of things than try to change them. In fact you will save yourself a lot of frustration and mental anguish the sooner you are able to do this!

If you inadvertently or intentionally 'cross the line' by arguing with or upsetting your local work colleagues, friends, family or even worse, the authorities, you will eventually come off second best, although you might not think so at the time. Most Asians are tolerant with foreigners and accept strange habits and behaviour, not only when it might be to their benefit (e.g. money) but out of inbred politeness and restraint in front of others (face). Westerners should not take advantage of this. After all, they are guests in these countries and there are limits to any host's goodwill. As such they must try to abide by local rules and codes of behaviour. It would be the same if the situations were reversed. How tolerant generally are Western countries inhabitants with those of different nationalities, faiths, ideologies and backgrounds?

Some East-West Philosophical Differences

The Yin Yang symbol, seen by some as two fish swimming head to tail, is well recognised. Over 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Confucius explained this essence of Chinese culture in his classic work I Ching. Yin and yang refer literally to the dark and sunlit sides of a hill. Although Yin and yang could be viewed as opposites like male and female, hot and cold, black and white, sweet and sour etc., they are really complementary pairs, and life's mishaps and problems are caused not by opposing forces, but by disharmony or imbalances in the environment. Balance is essential for harmony.

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Another reason for basic philosophical differences existing between East and West and which applies to Thai and Lao people, is that many are followers of the prophet Buddha. Buddhism (like Confucianism) preceded Christianity by more than 500 years. Long before these ideologies, though was animism and this is still practised in many Asian countries. Animism is the belief that all things in nature, like trees, mountains, the sky, even buildings, have souls or consciousness; belief in an unseen supernatural force that animates and organises the universe. It is also the belief in a spirit than can exist separately from a physical body or person.

Buddhism provides a spiritual structure which influences many aspects of the daily life of its followers. Buddhists see time as circular rather than linear. They are taught about reincarnation and fate or karma. Simply put, karma refers to the notion that what happens to someone in 'this life' is due to their behaviour and actions towards others in 'past lives'; these actions dictate what fate will befall one in the 'next life' on earth and what pain and suffering one must endure.


Because of this belief, Buddhist Asians tend to endure the the pain and suffering of 'this' life simply by accepting what life brings. They feel what happens is inevitable and there is no point in trying to alter things they believe cannot be changed by human intervention. In many cases, this gives some people little motivation to try to improve their lives and make changes for the better. They conveniently forget the 'future life can be better' concept. Western thinking is geared more towards anticipating risk or potential problems before they arise. Asians rely more on luck (fate). If someone is injured or even dies in a possibly avoidable accident, they weren't careless, negligent or taking unnecessary risk or putting other lives in danger, they were just unlucky that day! It was 'decreed'.

Here are the personal observations of the differences in emphasis between Eastern and Western cultures made by an Asian Christian cleric now living in the West. Some might disagree with the generalisations as in some societies they may not be altogether true:



Live in 'time'
Value rest and relaxation
Passive, accepting
Accept what is
Live in nature (part of nature itself)
Want to know meaning
Freedom of silence
Lapse into meditation
Marry first, then love
Love is silent
Focus on consideration of others' feelings
Learn to do with less material assets
Ideal: love of life
Honour austerity
Wealth or poverty: results of fortune
Cherish wisdom of years
Retire to enjoy the gift of one's family
Live in 'space'
Value activity
Assertive, confronting
Seek change
Live with nature (co-existing with nature)
Want to know how it works
Freedom of speech
Strive for articulation
Love first, then marry
Love is vocal
Focus on self-assuredness, own needs
Attempt to get more of everything
Ideal: being successful
Honour achievement
Wealth or poverty: results of enterprise
Cherish vitality of youth
Retire to enjoy the rewards of one's work

Heart of Lao page gives more insight into the Thai and Lao Buddhist mindset.

Honesty & 'Truth'

Another difference between Western – Judao/Christian (also Islam) thinking is the concept or interpretation of 'honesty'. In the West, although it's not always adhered to, the truth is real and very important. In some Eastern cultures, truth is at its best something to be searched for and at its worst, irrelevant (compared to Western perspective). For example, with regard to Chinese or Korean history, the Japanese will say that they have different views of events. Westerners can accept there are different opinions, but facts are facts even if there is some uncertainty or disagreement as to what those facts are.

Style vs. Substance

Westerners living in some SE Asian countries will start to notice basic differences in mentality, interests and 'intellectual' discussion. Thai and Lao people have very astute observational skills, but most are are not focused on things that Westerners consider significant. They rarely anticipate events, often failing to consider in advance the driving force that could precipitate an accident or a potential future development; one that might later have great significance in their lives. They are more interested in viewing the results of a road accident, blood and dead bodies, than pondering on what might have caused it, or even less, how it might have been avoided. 'Face' (how you are perceived by others) is everything.


One area worth mentioning is problems, arguments, disagreements, disputes, even crimes. In the West we have laws and judicial systems to take care of the more serious ones. We also have old adages and expressions like 'taking the bull by the horns', 'a problem faced is a problem solved', 'speaking your mind', 'not mincing your words', 'facing problems in the eye', 'not being afraid to speak out', 'telling it like it is', 'calling a spade a spade', anticipating problems and analysing them afterwards for 'cause and effect'.

A good number of those concepts and ideas that might seem natural and logical to Westerners, or the 'right thing to do', can be almost the direct opposite of how Asian minds think or react when life is not running as smoothly as it might. In case of dispute, Asians usually go out of their way to avoid direct confrontation or argument, often resorting to what Westerners would call lying – 'white lies' or worse, hiding their feelings behind what appears to be a genuinely friendly smile, or just simply silence. Thoughts remain unspoken, but inner anger builds up nevertheless as Asians are sensitive people, and they will respond, but not at the time and possibly not in the way a Westerner might expect.

Family ties are the 'king-pin' – a singularly important and integral part of Asian culture generally. Far more so than in the West, where this has become less apparent in many societies. Asian women, especially, value their children and own family more than their husbands (whether Asian or foreign).

In matters requiring arbitration and or redress between families, local solutions at community level are sought and imposed before resorting to judicial or legal ones. Legal ones often result in a worse situation or a more expensive solution, so in some ways there might be good reason for this in certain countries in Asia. But fairness and justice take on different meanings within the Asian context too.

The best advice that one who has lived in the East for some time can give is: be tolerant of local thinking; make an effort to accept 'the Asian way', even try to emulate it. Even when you desperately want to get your point of view understood, try to see things from the opposite perspective. When provoked, 'bite your tongue' and contain your anger. Smile even though your jaw might crack with the effort! There are probably other ways to solve the problem, difficult as that may seem at the time, especially when frustration, anger and misunderstanding seem to surround you. There is probably nowhere where it's as important to 'keep your cool' as in Asia.

Learning the language helps a lot in understanding the people and will be an asset in many aspects of living, socialising as well as doing business with the locals. Visit our language learning and talking dictionaries pages.

East-West 'cross-cultural' friendships and relationships can be extremely successful as long as both partners make the effort to understand and accept the differences in each other's culture and traditions. Human nature makes us all think 'our way' is best. This is not necessarily true!


Other related pages: The Heart of Lao and World Religions.










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