To aid you with cultural shock and to help you avoid some of the more serious social faux paus you fall into, we have compiled a short introduction based on our experience with the most common culturally different norms and concepts. These points are not meant to be memorized or to make you feel nervous. People have been interacting across cultures for all of eternity. Our purpose here is, rather, to help you have an insight into the more subtle aspects of the culture that you will experience.
Tibetan ideas of what are embarrassing are quite different from many other countries. Most places have strict conversational content rules for what can appropriately be expressed between relatives of the opposite sex. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, or brothers and sisters, (especially in more traditional or rural areas) will not engage in public affection or talk about romantic relationships in each other’s presence. Such talk is itself not taboo. In front of non-relatives or relatives of the same sex it is quite acceptable.
Ideas of personal space are also quite different. Traveling as a foreigner people are almost expecting you to do strange things that they don’t understand. Don’t be alarmed if people stare or even approach you. People who feel friendly with you may engage in small gestures like putting a hand on your knee, dusting off your jacket, or grabbing your hand. If these types of small actions make you uncomfortable, just try to remember that no harm is meant.
In many nomadic areas lack of running water and cold temperatures have resulted in unique hygiene practices that you may not be aware of. The only people who share cups or cutlery are relatives, lovers, or very, very close friends. Stepping over any type of food or food implement is considered very unsanitary. Putting socks or shoes on the hearth is also a big no no!
Among your guides, drivers, and hosts you will likely meet very polite people. In Tibetan culture, a host insists that one continue to eat even after they have refused countless times. Though this is a sign of a polite host, many foreigners are prone to find the behavior pushy. If you find your bowl always full of food or tea, the answer is to stop eating. A finished bowl will be filled!
Ideas of wealth are another interesting consideration. In some countries one’s investments signs of wealth, while in other countries one’s personal relationships are paramount. In Tibet and across China the latter holds sway. The ability to assist one’s relatives and friends is very important. Aside from relationships, much personal wealth in Tibetan areas is kept in the form of rare stones such as amber or red coral. In some places a washing machine seems to be logical convenience because it will save hours in work. In many Tibetan places good connections are what will save you the most time, money, and afford you the most comfort. Additionally, splitting the bill is a source of embarrassment in these parts. If someone offers to pay for a meal, let them! You can pay the next time around!
If you are wondering about bringing gifts, your homestay hosts will not be disappointed if you have nothing to offer. But if you would like to impress them, some fruit, sunflower seeds, or candies will definitely be well received. Tibetan people often bring such edible gifts when visiting relatives or the homes of their friends.
Tibetan Buddhism is a unique adaptation to a global religion. While disagreements between different Tibetan Buddhist sects are common, Tibetan Buddhism does not have much of a history of zealous conversion. Religion is an integral part of people’s daily lives. If you are summoned to walk around a monastery it is almost certain that the person inviting you has no intention of preaching religion to you. People’s conception of religion and the historical development of this religion are drastically different from European histories. People are mostly unaware of philosophical religious differences that might make you wary of walking a korra, but rest assured that 9 out of 10 people have no ulterior motives.