Do's and Don'ts for Volunteering in Asia

by Aura Farrando

The time has finally come; you are going to Asia for an unforgettable volunteering experience! The months you will spend helping others will be rewarding, fascinating, and life-changing. Asia is a wonderful and exotic continent; from India to Vietnam and Nepal to Malaysia, there are endless places to discover. If you decide to volunteer in Asia, you will never regret it.

Gold buddha statues
Respect the culture of your host-country.

However, the culture shock is real, since every country in Asia has different traditions. If you don’t know the conventions, some faux pas in Asian countries can take you to misunderstandings. No worries! With this short guide, you will never take a misstep while volunteering in Asia (or at least you’ll reduce your chances!).

Dont’s While Volunteering in Asia

Learning the gestures you shouldn’t do in Asia is not just a way to avoid uncomfortable situations; refraining from some signs and moves is a matter of respect for your new country and its culture.

DON’T - Touch people on the head, not even children.

Spirituality is very important in Asia. Heads are considered the most sacred body part, where the spirit is believed to reside. It would be rude, and even an insult, to touch someone there. This also applies to children. So what in Western countries can be considered an affectionate gesture, is a no-go in Asia. Bare this in mind if you are working with children during your volunteer program in Asia for when you interact with kids or organize games for them.

DON’T - Point at people with an index finger or the soles of your feet.

One of the most unconscious missteps you might take in Asia involves pointing at people the wrong way. In Asia, it is rude to point at someone with the index finger. Instead, make a closed fist with the thumb pointing at the person you want to signalize. In a similar way, it is rude to beckon to someone with your palm upwards and moving your fingers toward you; instead, you should extend your hand with the palms down and curl your fingers to your body. You should also be careful with the soles of your feet because they are not supposed to point at people; in holy places, it is absolutely taboo to have your soles facing an altar.

Children covered with bright paint during Holi in India
Participate in traditions and festivals whenever you have the opportunity

DON’T - Shake hands or hug.

In most Western countries, it would be rude not to shake hands with people you just met. In some “warmer” countries, like those in Latin America or the Mediterranean, it is even more common to kiss on the cheek when you are introduced to strangers. In Asian countries, especially if they are predominantly Muslim cultures, like Malaysia or Indonesia, it might not be appropriate to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. Self-introductions are also not common in places like Thailand, so you should wait to be introduced to new people. If you are unsure about how to behave, wait for the other person to extend the hand to greet you. In India and Hindu-tradition countries, the most common way of greeting is the Namaste, where you have to press your hands together and smile, with no touching is involved.

Never take these salutations as rude, Asians are actually very hospitable and kind people!

DON’T - Refuse food invitations.

During your volunteering in Asia, get ready for a mouth-watering foodie experience of new flavours and textures. In Asia, food is not just a way to nourish oneself; it’s also a big, social deal. In most cases, it would be considered rude to refuse a food or drink invitation, so you should take at least a bite of what they offer you. Do some research on the food etiquette in the country where you’ll be volunteering in Asia before leaving to make sure you know what to expect. This will hopefully help you avoid inconveniences and you will learn how to behave at the table, or on the floor, where you will most likely eat.

You also have to consider the religion of the place you decide to volunteer in. For example, in Muslim countries, it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring alcohol to a dinner and you should avoid ordering pork. In the same way, never mention eating beef in India because cows are holy. Some sweets will always be a good present for your host family in Asia though!

Bowl of noodles and beef
Don’t refuse offerings of food; be brave and try everything.

Do’s While Volunteering in Asia

The wonderful multiculturalism of Asia comes from a rich heritage of history, legends, and religions. Every little detail in their behavior holds the roots of a country. Learning their demeanors will help you understand the culture and integrate into your host country.

DO - Eat with your right hand.

In many Asian countries, it is common to eat with your hands. If you really want to integrate yourself into the culture and have an authentic food experience, I would suggest you try eating with your hands as soon as possible. It’s an art to learn how to properly eat with your hands and not finish with rice up to your elbow, but it’s really fun either way!

Just keep in mind that you are not supposed to eat or even touch the food with your left hand in many countries. The reason for this custom is that left hand is considered unclean, as is the hand used for hygienic purposes and also to remove your shoes. It is also rude to touch people with your left hand, offer gifts, or pick up money with it.

Eating with chopsticks is also common in many Asian countries, like China or Vietnam. Learning to catch your rice and noodles with them will be challenging and delicious!

Downward view of women wearing white sandals
Check the dress code before you go.

DO - Remove your shoes before entering a house.

The main reason for this custom is because it’s clean. In order to avoid taking the dirt and bacteria from the streets into the houses, it’s better to keep shoes outside. Hygiene aside, this is a tradition in Asia and keeping your shoes inside a house would be disrespectful. Most Asian countries are also really hot, so it’s really comfortable to walk around the house barefoot and as you will be wearing sandals or flip-flops you will be able to remove them super easily!

DO - Avoid public displays of affection.

In Western countries, it might be common to hold hands with your partner or kiss in public, but you have to be extremely mindful about this in Asia. Nowadays, some countries are more relaxed. But if you want to avoid uncomfortable situations, is better to refrain from any kind of intimacy in public. In some countries, like India, this doesn’t apply to men, as it is common to see friends holding hands, hugging, or showing affection in public.

DO - Wear appropriate clothes, especially in temples and religious places.

This applies mostly to women. In most Asian countries, it’s not appropriate to show your shoulders and knees. Even if it’s really hot, you should try wearing t-shirts instead of tank tops, along with loose trousers or long skirts instead of shorts, to avoid many awkward looks (and feelings of disrespect). If you work with locals or in closed communities, far from big cities, you must acknowledge and adhere to the dress code even more closely.

Dress is especially important in temples and religious places. Religion is essential to everyday life in Asia. You will smell the incense before you can see the colorful Hindu temples and the adhan (call the prayer in Islam) will catch your attention five times per day. If you visit mosques, women are supposed to cover their heads and leave their shoes outside. In Buddhist and Hindu temples, leave your shoes outside too, and cover yourself to show respect.

Man and woman holding hands at a wedding ceremony
Honor and respect traditions while volunteering abroad.

DO - Be open-minded and respectful of other cultures and religions.

This is the most important thing you should do while volunteering in Asia. Some Asian traditions might be shocking to you or a bit disconcerting at the beginning, but you should always be respectful of the customs of the places where you decide to volunteer in Asia (or anywhere in the world).

Keep your mind open and a attitude positive, and you’ll see the unique social interactions in your host country as the best way for you to learn and improve yourself. Just take your time to adapt to the new culture and enjoy the new and challenging environment, because it will enrich you forever.

Volunteering in Asia will be one of the most transformative experiences of your entire life!