Each of the ASEAN member countries has its own unique identity, such as a love of tea, which permeates simple cross-cultural manifestations. A greater exchange on several fronts is expected to take place with the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.
by Chris Mayya.
“I would love to travel to many countries and learn about their people and cultures.” Thus a teenager in Myanmar once expressed to me his aspiration.
Although many young people I meet in Asia love to inquire about the countries I have traveled to, what intrigued me most was this teenager’s interest to “learn about people and cultures.”
An ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community is one of the goals of the ASEAN Community vision. The establishment of the community is expected to increase tourism and business travel within ASEAN nations in the next few years, resulting in a greater socio-cultural exchange. But understanding the socio-cultural factors of any country requires a deeper insight than what is visible on the surface.
Just as it is not possible to accurately understand American culture based solely on how Hollywood represents it, so the very soul of cultural and social identity of any nation lies not so much in its folktales, festivals, and traditions, but in the seeming trivialities of everyday life.
This is why travel and work in other countries enrich one’s understanding of other cultures and lead to an appreciation of one’s own. Here are some unique everyday peculiarities I have observed that have given me insight into the socio-cultural fabric of the ASEAN communities of today:
“Mai Pen Rai” (Thailand)
It may seem like just another phrase, but this simple expression represents the Thai people’s attitude towards life. “Mai pen rai” is a phrase that can be used in multiple situations to express any of these sentiments: “Never mind,” “It’s OK,” “Don’t worry,” “You are welcome,” “Not a big deal,” etc.
In most social situations Asians are, as a rule, less confrontational than their Western counterparts. Preserving harmony takes priority over expressing oneself or getting to the truth. So “mai pen rai” may be at times an attempted deflection from the course of discussion, especially if it involves a difference of opinion. However, do not hastily jump to that conclusion.
At a deeper and more sincere level, a “mai pen rai” attitude to life is the goal of all practicing Buddhists. In all challenging and complex situations, it is the philosophy that helps them to develop greater resilience to life’s conditions and to take things with equanimity. It’s a “letting go” process.
Personally, I like to interpret mai pen rai as “Take it easy” or “Just chill!” Try it—especially when you are stressed out.
When in Laos, Do as the Laotians Do (Laos)
While Westerners may shy away from bright and colorful clothes, these are quite common in many parts of Asia. The women in Laos don the customary “sinh” (silk dress), and it is common also to see men with a colorful band or strap tied to their waist.
What’s In a Cup of Tea? (Malaysia)
A good friend of mine in Malaysia loves to take me out for a late night supper at some local food court whenever I visit him. Included in the supper could be Malay–Indian or Chinese tea.
It is common in Malaysia, and in other parts of ASEAN, to see locals socializing with friends and family over a cup of tea, during the day and sometimes at night. Asians, in general, tend to consider their family and their circle of close friends as their “insurance” in difficult situations of life. So instead of waiting until Thanksgiving or Christmas to pay their “premiums,” they seek more frequent means of keeping in touch. Even before the advent of Starbucks, it was common in parts of Asia to socialize over a cup of tea. And now with the addition of coffee as a fashionable beverage to sip while connecting with companions—yes, Starbucks does deserve some credit for this innovation—more and more ASEANs are appreciating this facet of their culture.
Going Beyond Rice and Noodles (Philippines)
Rice and noodles form the staple of the ASEAN diet. Yet what is baffling to the tourist is the variety, shapes, and colors these rice and noodle dishes take in different parts of ASEAN. The Philippines are a hub in Asia when it comes to food. The local cuisine in the Philippines has both Asian and Western origins. It is quite common to see Spanish empanadas alongside local fare.
Do You Speak English? (Singapore)
Singapore is a melting pot of languages, as its local English dialect borrows words from various tongues. Here’s a quick glance at some commonly used Singlish words:
- “Ang moh” is a Hokkien word that means “foreigner” (similar to “farang” in Thailand)
- “Boleh” is a Malay word that means “can” or “possible”
- “Lah” or “Leh” are adaptions from Malay or Hokkien words and are now considered native Singlish; these words have no specific meaning but are commonly added at the end of many phrases
- “Sotong” is a Malay word signifying “forgetful” or spineless, like the squid
- “Ta Pau” derives from a Cantonese word that means “take away” (referring to food)
Check out Singlishdictionary.com and the Wikipedia Singlish dictionary if you are traveling for the first time to Singapore, lest you inadvertently offend someone by inquiring, “Do you speak English?”
Interesting to Explore, Sensitive to Tread On
Religion is an integral part of the ASEAN countries that draws many Westerners to explore practices or to visit monuments. Buddhism and Islam (the major religions in the ASEAN nations) have adapted certain uniquely ASEAN rituals and practices. I am always struck how in countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar nearly everyone—even small children—expresses what seems to be an instinctive respect for those in monastic robes. On the other hand, government efforts to curtail the influence of religion are also prevalent, particularly in countries where some form of military rule exists. But where democracy prevails, such as in the Philippines, the church plays a major role in politics.
In most ASEAN nations, the practice of religion and politics does not meet Western standards of democratic freedom. But historically these have been significant cultural factors, at times nurturing but also at times stifling individual expression. Travelers are cautioned that flippant references to religious customs or opinionated comparisons between Western and ASEAN democratic models are considered rude and intrusive. The proverbial wisdom of avoiding these two subjects in casual conversation seems to be universal!
Preserving ASEAN Socio-Cultural Identity
Overall, ASEAN culture is quite multi-faceted, and each country has its unique identity. But with the increasing effect of mass global culture, preserving local socio-cultural identity has become a priority for ASEAN leaders. Thus the main goals of ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community are “to forge a common identity” and “to nurture human, cultural and natural resources for sustained development in a harmonious and people-oriented ASEAN.”
Regardless of the outward changes brought about with interspersing with Western culture, the core of ASEAN member countries’ culture has remained untainted over the years. Phrases such as “mai pen rai” and “lah” and other linguistic idiosyncrasies, socializing over tea or supper at the food court, the particularities of religious practice—all are strands in the region’s socio-cultural fabric. By observing the seemingly mundane and trivial during your visit to the ASEAN region, you can get a profound glimpse into its people and culture.
More information: www.asean.org