From the practical to the downright odd, superstitions in different Asian countries are not only very common and diverse; they are also something to take into account when exploring Asia. As an integral part of local culture and history, superstitious beliefs and practices have been passed down from generation to generation, intersecting not just with common etiquette and faith, but also even policy and infrastructure.
While following these superstitions isn’t absolutely necessary for the average traveler, learning about them will help you better understand local culture and avoid some potentially embarrassing situations. After all, there’s no harm in respecting these practices, and it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry!
Lay your chopsticks flat
In many parts of Asia, one of the most crucial cultural taboos is sticking your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. Although it might seem convenient or even natural, the image resembles incense sticks offered to deceased family members in countries like China and Japan. In other cultures, traditional funeral rites also include offerings of food to the dead with standing chopsticks. Either way, it is important to lay your chopsticks flat on top of your bowl or on the table when you are not using them.
Choose gifts wisely
When giving gifts to your Asian friends and family, be wary of cultural meanings tied to certain gifts that are considered unlucky. The Culture Trip shares that giving clocks as a gift is closely tied with funeral rituals and a lack of time. Shoes might be interpreted as the end of a friendship or any relationship, as someone might walk away from you. Handkerchiefs are considered as parting gifts as they may mean that the giver will make the receiver cry. In addition, although it’s normal for those from Western countries to give alcoholic beverages when visiting other people’s homes, it’s best to avoid doing so in the Islamic countries.
Avoid the devil’s own luck
Numerology is also a very powerful factor in Asian superstitions. While 13 is seen as a lucky number, four and nine are considered the opposite because of the way the numbers sound in some Asian languages. Lottoland explains that the Chinese word for the number 13 sounds much like the words “increase” or “growth.” On the other hand, the words for four and nine sound like “death” and “torture,” respectively, in both Chinese and Japanese. This is why most high-rise buildings will have a 13th floor, but no 4th or 14th, and why it is also considered bad to give gifts in groups of four. To invite good fortune, go for numbers with eight in them.
Bypass photos of three
If you’re traveling in threes, don’t be surprised when you get funny looks when asking to get your photograph taken together. In many Southeast Asian countries, it is believed that a person posing in between two friends in a photograph will be the one to pass away first. This morbid belief might prompt you to grab a fourth person, but that will be considered unlucky too, as explained in the superstition, above. So it might be best to take photos by pair rotation or stick to solo selfies.
Note the importance of firsts
In shops across Asia, it is considered bad luck for the first customer of the day to not buy anything from you, as this bodes badly for business the rest of the day. The same goes for the first day of the month or of the year. This is why it’s good to head out and shop early for extra leverage when bartering. As explained in one of our previous HI Travel Tales posts, “Spending money in China: how to shop, bargain and tip,” spending money in China is an art form, and you should be prepared to bargain whenever you can.
Careful where you point
Pointing is considered a rude gesture in many Asian cultures, but it’s important to pay attention to what you are pointing with and to what. Never let the soles of your feet or shoes point toward anyone in Thailand and avoid pointing to the moon when you’re in Taiwan, no matter how pretty it might seem in the evenings. The former is considered incredibly rude to anyone you may accidentally point at, while the latter means that a monster will come to kill you or cut off the back of your ears in your sleep. If indicating a direction is necessary, Asians will always use a full palm with fingers touching together as the gesture. We find it lovely, to be honest.
Never open your umbrella indoors
Another popular belief across Asia is opening umbrellas indoors, which is tantamount to letting it rain bad luck on you and on the owner of the home or business. This is because umbrellas are used to shield you against rain, and when used indoors, can be interpreted an insult to sun gods.
Plan your bad hair days
Lastly, getting a haircut in Asian countries might require some additional planning. Indian barbershops tend to be closed on Tuesdays to keep with Hindu traditions and beliefs, while those in Thailand are usually closed on Wednesday.
Do you have any other superstitions or beliefs to share for travelers exploring Asia? Use our comment section below!