A Journey to Discover Culture and Recent History in Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and India

Reflections on Asia



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12th-century marvel, that is Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple

Vincent St. Thomas / Shutterstock.com

 

In late 2014, my wife and I embarked on a trip to the other side of the globe to visit Southeast Asia. This story is not so much a travelogue of the sights to be seen, but my impressions from the various places we visited.

Several cultural motifs stuck out that were more or less common throughout Southeast Asia. The first is the notion of reincarnation. The passing of a loved one is the most traumatic thing we incur in this life, and their approach is to remove some of the pain by believing that we all come back to live again, depending on how we have led this life. This has a second virtue of helping to encourage good behavior during this life.

Another motif was the modesty of dress. Virtually all of the women wear long sleeves and skirts, regardless of the heat. This is partly protection against the sun, but also seemed to reflect their attitudes towards public display. The newspapers and tabloids were similarly restrained, especially when compared to those in the United States.

Ultra-modern bullet train of Tokyo 

Vincent St. Thomas / Shutterstock.com

 

The other thing that caught me completely by surprise was how many people, young and old, wore surgical masks — perhaps 20 to 30 percent. Pollution in Tokyo wasn’t that bad, but people were still masked. Our guide said it was a mixture of not wanting to breathe in fumes or to inflict germs on others.

Another common feature was the avoidance of hand contact. Instead, people clasped their hands in front of their chest and bowed. Our guide shook my hand when we met, but then bowed and said that was more appropriate.

Yet another interesting commonality was the dislike of the Chinese. We felt truly welcome everywhere, which was somewhat surprising given our nation’s recent history with Vietnam and Japan. But our guides were universal in expressing personal dislike of China and its tourists. It seems to be a combination of Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea (which the Vietnamese call the South Sea) and an apparent tendency of Chinese tourists to be pushy.

But each country we visited had unique features worth recounting.

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