A Little Thought…Showing Respect in Asian Culture

Everywhere I’ve been in Southeast Asia (SEA), people have so much respect for each other, especially if you’re a kid and you have an adult in the family, you have to show a lot of respect. And even if you accidentally come across an adult and you don’t even know them ( they’re just some stranger) you still have to show respect! Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “Oh, everybody probably just holds the door for each other or asks if they need assistance.”

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Women pray silently to Buddha inside of Wat Umong.

But it’s much more than that.

Have you ever seen somebody holding their hands together like they’re about to pray and then bow? Well, that’s called a wai and it’s to show respect toward the people around you. For example, say a monk (the bald men with beautiful orange or red robes on) is on a daily stroll and is walking towards you and you need to show respect, what do you do?

A Buddha sits inside of a cave in Hpa'an.

You wai  the monk by putting your hands in a praying position between your eyebrows and bow so that your body is at a 90 degree angle. This is just one way to show respect toward other people, including holy monks. But, the wai you have to do is different depending on the person’s status or age. What I mean is, you put your praying hands against different places on your body depending on the person’s status. Your chest is the lowest place, and between your eyebrows being the highest. You don’t only wai monks though, you can wai the cashier at a grocery store if they wai you first (and you’re a kid), your teacher, you can even wai your own grandparents.

Tourists interested in the humongous Buddha inside of the temple Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai.

Another way people in SEA show respect toward each other is by serving the oldest person at the table first. So, if there are two kids at the table with their mom and grandma, the grandma gets served first! This is true even if she ordered a meal with the most food, or the kid’s meal is sooner, the grandma has to at least get her rice served first. The order would go from grandma, mom, and then the two kids.

There are other ways that people show respect, but these are the two major ways that I saw everywhere in SEA when I looked close enough at everything around me.

Before coming to SEA, I thought respect meant something different. I thought it meant minding your elders, being nice to other people and mostly just listening when somebody is talking to you. But after going to Southeast Asia, it showed me that there is more to respect than holding the door for somebody or carrying their groceries. I mean, I’m not saying that isn’t showing respect, but I feel like Asians show more respect in their daily lives than Americans.

Nats protecting a temple in Mingun, near Mandalay.

Being in the United States again, I am trying to bring some of Asia’s respect culture back here with me, perhaps by giving the silverware that was handed to me first to my grandmother at the dinner table because she is older than me, and things like that. Now, I don’t think will wai to her though, that would just be awkward and I don’t think she would even know what I was doing!

Asia and the United States definitely have some different ways to show respect, but either way, I’m glad everywhere I go I can see a respectful attitude among the people because with it, it makes a very nice world.

A statue of Buddha that has been paid a lot of respect in the ancient temples of Bagan.

About Ana

I've got heart and soul, and stories waiting to be told. In 2011, I first left the US and was homeschooled from Southeast Asia by my aunt for 6+ months. Now, I travel with her in the summers and share my stories here. I've visited 7+ countries and counting! "Wherever you go, go with all your heart" — Confuscious

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