Scenic, technologically advanced, and culturally diverse, Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most interesting places to live. With a wide variety of ancient cultures and a selection of the world’s largest bustling mega-cities, Southeast Asia combined an old world tradition and modern world convenient atmosphere in a way that few regions can compete with.
But beyond the skyscrapers and temples, there’s a great deal of nuance and strategy to living in Southeast Asia, particularly for retirees and expatriates that are new to the region and its cultures. From traditions that need to be observed all the way to the national psyche and its influence on work and living, living in Southeast Asia can require a little bit of careful practice and study for those that plan to reside in the region for the long term.
With just a bit of work, you can learn to live in Southeast Asia like a local would, and in turn pay local prices for many things and enjoy a social circle that extends a great deal beyond that of the standard expatriate. From making friends to buying houses, read on to learn more about living in Southeast Asia as a retiree or expatriate.
Southeast Asia is a region that’s steeped in tradition. Even the region’s most modern cities, such as Bangkok and Singapore, have hundreds of years of religious and social customs that can make normal life quite confusing for expatriates. With some small changes to your routine, however, you can thrive in this new environment.
Firstly, it’s important to remember that the culture of most Southeast Asian nations is vastly different to that of the Western world. The culture in North America, most of Western Europe, and Oceania is one of independence and individuality. Life has a distinct focus on you as a person, and relatively little focus on humanity as a greater force in society.
This has created the Western individualist culture – a culture that’s propelled many countries to economic success. While thinking about yourself and your needs might seem normal to an expatriate from a Western country, it’s very different from the culture in most Southeast Asian countries. There, collectivist culture is the norm, and the needs of the majority are frequently placed ahead of those of the individual.
What does this lead to? A culture that emphasizes cohesion and group bonding, and in some cases, a small degree of groupthink. While Western culture emphasizes the importance of individual rights and the ability to stand up to anyone, Southeast Asia has a cultural focus on group cohesion, ‘face’ culture, and the benefits of the group.
As a result, community projects are built around the needs of the greater society – a phenomenon that may seem unusual for Western visitors and retirees. Family is of extreme importance to Southeast Asians of all nationalities, and it’s not uncommon for an entire family – distant relatives and all – to share a single place of residence. Overall, the culture of ‘me’ that’s prevalent in the West is not valued in Southeast Asia, and is even aggressively dismissed as something selfish and dangerous.
This cultural difference can lead to some clashes between expatriates and locals. For example, an important part of collectivist culture is ensuring that groups remain in a comfortable setting when socializing. Creating tension within a group – at least in the public eye – is an extreme violation of cultural norms and will quickly result in the ‘troublemaker’ being excluded from the group. In Southeast Asia, disputes are settled in private, and never in front of crowds of unknown people.
Another cultural issue for retirees in Southeast Asia is the region’s focus on keeping indoor environments clean and sterile. In Western cultures, it’s normal to wear your shoes or sandals inside a home. In Southeast Asia, however, doing so is an extreme violation of the sanctity of someone’s property, and will result in you being dressed down and complained about, whether in public or in private.
Southeast Asia’s business culture is vastly different to that of the Western world, and although relatively few retirees in the region are interested in starting their own business, learning about the local chain of command and corporate culture is important for understanding how processes – particularly professional services – work.
Unlike the Western world, in which feedback is frequently solicited from lower-rank employees, Southeast Asian companies – whether public or private – place a greater level of importance on seniority and rank. As a result, higher-ranking employees are rarely questioned on their thought process or their merits of their decisions.
While this can result in some inefficiencies when compared to Western countries, it also allows business to make quick, simple decisions. As a result, don’t be surprised if you have trouble getting real answers from a company that’s working with you – a service provider, an electrical company, and so on. Often the lack of clarity is a result of the corporation not wanting to embarrass someone high up the chain of authority and cause him or her to lose face in public.
In simple terms, the greatest way to view the cultural differences that will affect your life in Southeast Asia is simply to acknowledge and understand that they are ‘different.’ When confronted with a situation that wouldn’t occur in the Western World, remember that you’re not in the West, and that processes are different there.
Like all cultures, Southeast Asian culture – and the various micro-cultures that are found in each of its many countries – has its upsides and downsides. While a great deal of retirees and expatriates grow frustrated and disillusioned with the cultural differences between Southeast Asia and their homeland, the ones that thrive in their new surroundings understand that the world can’t be perfect.
With this mentality, you’ll find that living in Southeast Asia is a simple, rewarding, and fun experience. As the saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The countries of Southeast Asia are welcoming to visitors and rewarding to those that follow their cultural norms. For an enjoyable experience, it’s best to ‘do as they do.’