Five Useful Tips For First-Timers In Asia

Asia can be a magical place to visit. You’ll find that many of the cities, and even a lot of the places in the countryside, have been visited by the trappings of modern life, but at the same time, the continent retains plenty of its traditional cultural roots. It’s a place full of curious juxtapositions of life as it was and life as it is, but for a first-time traveler to Asia, there are some key things to consider before you pack up your things and book that flight:

It’s Going to Be a Long Flight

If you’re traveling to Asia from Europe or the US, you’re looking at a flight time of about 7-15 hours (or sometimes more), depending on where you’re coming from and where you’re going to. That, my friends, is a long time to be cramped into a seat with the fat guy snoring and taking up your armrest on your right and the talkative midlife-crisis on your left.

The best thing to do is, figure out which seat you like best (not just window, middle, or aisle!), minimize the amount of stuff you need to put under the seat in front of you, get some good noise-proof headphones and put a few movies on your computer or tablet. A lot of times you can even watch movies for free on your device with or without connecting to paid inflight WiFi—just make sure you’re using a VPN so that the server you’re accessing can only see limited personal information from you. Otherwise, you might make yourself a big target to hackers, which could really ruin your vacation!

You’re Probably Going to Visibly Be an Outsider

Unless you have Asian ancestry, remember that you’re going to stick out in Asia. If you’re a six-foot-tall man, you’re going to tower above the average Asian.  So obviously if you’re a tall woman, you’ll be even more noticeable.  If you have blonde hair, you’re going to look foreign amongst the predominantly brown- or black-haired Asian population. If you’re not that great at using chopsticks to eat rice, you’re going to stick out in a restaurant full of people who have been using chopsticks their whole lives.

The thing is, very few people will mock you for standing out like this. In fact, you’re more likely to find that many people are curious about you, especially children, and you might be approached by people looking to practice their English. Although you may initially be embarrassed by the stares you receive, you’ll come to be accustomed to and possibly even amused by this.

You Might Feel Perpetually Lost

If you know any language that uses the Latin alphabet, you don’t need to know French to be able to read a map in France. Sure, you may not know the real pronunciation of the words, but you can read the letters and sound them out in your own language at least. Unfortunately, this is very, very difficult in many places in Asia, where many countries use either characters or script (China, Thailand, etc.) or Cyrillic (Russia and Mongolia).

The best thing you can do in these cases is to equip yourself with a GPS prior to your arrival and/or download a few navigation apps, especially those that don’t require network connection, on your phone. If you’ll be visiting a country that censors apps and websites, such as China, your VPN could help you even beyond protecting your information when you access public WiFi networks, since it’ll allow you to access any site or app regardless of location-based restrictions.

Get Used to Eating “Weird” Things for Breakfast

…or for any meal, for that matter. Now, in terms of cultural literacy, calling these things “weird” is a bit rude, but expect to be exposed to foods or eating customs that you aren’t used to. Coming from many places, maybe it’s a bit odd to be eating noodles or dumplings at 7 a.m. Not so in China. And get used to eating parts of animals that you may not be used to either—things such as chicken feet or even sheep eyeballs. Sometimes you may not even know what you’re eating!

It’s not just foods either; you might encounter strange drinks as well. In the Central Asian steppes, for example, countries such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, you may find yourself offered airag or kumis (fermented mare’s milk). The first time you try this, you might wince at the taste, but it’s an important cultural institution in many of these places and to turn down an offer might be considered mildly offensive. Be prepared to drink up!

You Might Just Change the Entire Course of Your Life

Seriously. There are people who come to Asia for a short trip and find themselves never leaving, or only leaving briefly before returning. Even if you’ve decided to travel to Asia for a month or two and then return home, you might realize at the end of that time that you still haven’t gotten your fix. See, everything that makes it difficult to live in Asia also makes it charming and unique and exhilarating. When you wake up that first morning and see a bunch of street signs in a language you can’t even read let alone understand next to a tall monastery with some monks sitting out front in front of a modern skyscraper, you’ll be hooked.

The thing is, getting over tiny speed bumps such as the discomfort of eating noodles for breakfast or asking directions—that’s easy. And once you’ve managed to see past those things and really immerse yourself in the unique culture that you find yourself in, you’ll find it difficult to convince yourself that you need to return. Who needs grad school or that boring office job or that mundane day-to-day living anyway? You could be out exploring and experiencing.

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.