Latin America and Asia Contrasted

During my 12 years living abroad, I've traveled to or lived in several Asian countries: Thailand, Qatar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, South Korea, Japan and others I've forgotten.

But I'm leaving for Latin America. Here are my reasons why.

Being a Westerner, Asian culture is simply too foreign for my tastes. There has been Western influence in some countries, particularly Thailand, which is one reason I, and so many other Westerners enjoy living and staying in Thailand. There is both Western and Thai culture in one place.

And Western influence can certainly be seen throughout Asia: French influence in Laos and Vietnam, British in Hong Kong and Singapore, Portuguese in the Macau enclave and Spanish and American in the Philippines.


But the fact is, the gap between Western and Asian culture remains quite wide in many important areas.


One contrast is the concept of harmony. Harmony is important in Asia and is known as “Wa” in Japan and “feng shui” is an ancient Chinese system used to create harmony with the environment to gain peace, health and good fortune.

Most Asian cultures place a high value on balance, harmony and order. Group interests come before the individual. It is important, if you want to succeed in living or doing business in Asian society to not upset the harmony of the group.

The individual in Asia, in a government or business situation, will not be able to make an important decision on their own; they will need to consult with the group, to get group backing beforehand.

The group will reach a consensus, creating harmony within the group, before progress can be made. Reaching this consensus takes more time than would be necessary in a Western setting, where the responsible individual has been authorized to make decisions on their own, based upon pre-set guidelines.

In Asia, “group think,” is dominate, as opposed to individualism in a Western setting.

These differences, Western individualism and Asian group mentality can offer lead to clashing, and the Westerner is the one that will need to adapt, because Asians not going to change their ways any time soon.


Which leads into the difference between how Asians and Westerners deal with disagreements. Asians tend to avoid confrontation at all costs. Westerners usually don't have a problem with confronting a problem head on, getting all the issues out on the table, finding a solution and moving ahead. Disagreements are not considered a personal issue.

However, once the group has made a decision and "harmony" is established, anyone seen as disagreeing with the decision, regardless of any unforeseen problems that arose, (unforeseen by the Asian group, not the Westerner) will be considered disrupting the harmony. A Westerner, while in Asia, will need to adapt, not the Asian.


Another area of contrast is emotions: Asians, in general, won't reveal their emotions. They consider it a sign of weakness to show their feelings, particularly in business dealings. Consequently, it is always not easy to determine how the personl you are dealing with feels about the topic under discussion.

On the other hand, Westerners tend to show their emotions more readily, what they like or dislike, and often with their facial expressions. Westerners are more open. Except in closer personal settings, Asians tend not to show their emotions, and are thus more "closed."

When dealing with Asians, Westerners have to learn to keep their emotions under control.

In Thailand, I’ve often seen Westerners raise their voice when things are not going their way. This would often make me cringe and feel embarrassed for that individual. Raising ones voice in Thai culture only makes things worse. Although they won’t show it outwardly, Thai people respond negatively to this type of behavior.

Critical Thinking

Another important area of difference is the thought process: Asians are linear in their thinking, going step-by-step, dealing with one issue at a time. When disagreements arise, say over contract terms or meanings, Asians tend to see things one way. There is a tendency for them to not see how other issues affect the issue under consideration.

This contradiction – being concerned with harmony and yet not recognizing the relationships of the issues – can be a source of great frustration for the Westerner, as he can see the cause and effect relationship very clearly, while the Asian remains oblivious to the very same interconnections.

This inability to see these relationships may be because Asians have difficulty thinking in the abstract, thinking "outside the box." (see Asians Can't Think by Satoshi Kanazawa) .

Once in the South Korean airport in Gimahe/Busan, I chatted with a German ship engine engineer sent to Korea to iron out contract disputes with a large South Korean ship building conglomerate. He related to me, how much he hated coming to Korea. "Koreans," he said, "insist everything go their way. They don’t see how one thing they want to change affects other things. They don’t see the add-on affects of what they are proposing and how it affects the agreed upon costs. They make unreasonable demands and give nothing." I could sense the stress in this young German sent on a thankless mission.

That reminded me of what I heard Flippinos say on one of my many stays in the Philippines : "Korean are takers. At least the Japanese give something to the Philippines. The Koreans only take." In El Nido, Palawan, Philippines, one Swiss business woman, when I noticed the lack of the Korean won on her list of currency accepted for exchange, said, "I don't want the Koreans' money."


Another contrast is most Asians are ethnocentric; which can be a good thing, for Asians.

While Westerners have been conditioned to accept the idea that "all people are created equal," they aren't, and Asians are under no false set of beliefs. Japan is a racially homogeneous society, and South Korea, even more so.

This racial centricity means making friends within Asian society a difficult if not impossible task for Westerners, and can lead to some lonely times spent in the region. Most local “friends” Westerners make in Asia are with those individuals who have spent a certain amount of time in a Western country, and have adopted at least some of Western culture as their own.


Another problem for outsiders in Asian is the difficulty of learning the languages. Mandarin Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for Westerners to learn, as it is a tonal system, with different word inflections used to determine meanings of words. These tones are often impossible to hear by Westerners without years of total immersion. There are also over 40,000 word-symbols, 2500 which are commonly used and must be memorized for basic fluency.

The Thai language is also tonal and a challenging language for Westerners to learn to speak, read or write fluently.

Japanese is a difficult language to learn because of it has one of the most complex character systems in the world. Japanese writing is mish-mash of three different systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji and also incorporates Arabic numbers and Roman letters at times.

Learning Japanese words is also challenging. Whereas a fluent English speaker can get by with roughly 3,000 words, Japanese speakers need to know 10,000. But even an average Japanese magazine will use 30,000. The US State Department gives students three times as long to learn Japanese compared to French or Spanish.

Starting a Business

All of these difficulties bring us to the next virtually insurmountable challenge facing Westerners in Asia: starting and running a successful business. Unlike countries like the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia, where one can see flourishing Korean and Chinese markets and businesses, one does not see their counterparts in Asia.

There are few, very few, foreign individually owned business in South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc. Yes, one does see foreign business run by foreigners, but the owners almost assuredly had to marry a local native. Further, their customers, their source of revenue are almost always other foreigners, either expats or tourists.

Foreigners, large retailers like Tesco and Costco excepted, do not set up - say a retail outlet - to sell imported products to the local population. One reason such a business would fail, is that, despite what one hears about "free trade," globalization, and the international market place, most Asian countries have strict controls on imports. Any product that will hurt the local national economy or employment is not allowed in, without high import duties.

Visitors to South Korea, for instance, will see virtually nothing but Korean manufactured Hyundaes and Kias. Very few Fords or GMs are driven on the streets in Japan. Asians will buy local products over imported products, thus supporting their own fellow countrymen, before they will buy a foreign made imported good.

An obvious exception to this rule is Thailand. Many Western products are manufactured (mostly by corporations) in Thailand for domestic consumption and export. But even there, most foreigners must marry a local, and in all cases have no more than 49% control over the business or any property they "own." One often hears foreigners who married and opened a business or bought property in Thailand bemoan the fact that their 49% soon became 1% and then 0%.”

Condominiums are an exception. But with a condominium, the owner doesn't own anything, except the right to live within the walls of his condo. A local retains control the land and the building.

Latin America

In contrast, Latin American countries are much more closely related to their Western counterparts when it comes to property laws. One reason for this is the colonization of so much of Central and South America (the Philippines fit in here too) by the Spanish.

The Spaniards, from Western Europe, brought their culture, their customs, their legal systems, their architecture, their language and for better or worse, their religion to Central and South America. The Portugese did the same in Brazil. The influence of Christianity, (and Roman Catholicism) distinctly a Western concept, is prevalent over the entire Spanish speaking Americas, from Mexico to Argentina.

There are few Buddhists in Central or South America. Or Buddhist temples. Or Hindus and Hindi temples for that matter.

Spanish Pillars

The architecture, the language and the religion, (with the built in laws) are three dominate pillars of Spanish influence that help make the Western expat feel more at home in Latin America than in Asia. Americans, and Europeans who have traveled to Spain, are familiar with Spanish architecture. The Southwestern United States has many examples of Spanish style homes, for example Texas and California.

Anyone who has tried to learn to speak Chinese, Thai, Korean or Japanese, will tell you that Spanish (of the Romance family of languages) is the easiest of the lot to learn.

Culinary Differences

Another aspect to take into account when comparing the differences between Asian and Latin countries is food. Westerners might find it easier to adapt to a breakfast of flour tortillas, beans, fried eggs, fruit and coffee for breakfast, than to say, kimchi, seaweed, fish, rice and tea.

Learning Spanish

Traveling in Latin America is much easier when it comes to language. Spanish is understood from Mexico to Argentina, which includes countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Venzuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Chile. A traveler in Asia goes from Japanese, to Korean, to different dialects of Chinese, to Vietnamese, to Laotian, Khmer, Thai, Malay, Burmese and many others.

Think of how many phrase books one needs to travel in Asia.

Purchasing Real Estate

Owning land in Central and South America is much easier and legally secure than in Asia. For example, rights of foreigners to own land in Ecuador is built into the Ecuadorian constitution. Any foreigner in Ecuador with a valid visa is guaranteed by the Ecuadorian Constitution the same legal rights as Ecuadorian citizens, with one exception, voting.

Colombia is another South American country with property rights favorable to foreigners. Just like in the United States, for example, perpetual fee simple ownership of real property is permitted.

Costa Rica and Panama obviously have foreigner friendly laws on their books when it comes to property ownership. The evidence for that fact can be seen in the large number of Americans (and Europeans) living in both countries, much to the chagrin of the locals, who now have to bear the higher land and housing costs that come along with the influx.

The same can be said for Mexico. Lake Chapalla just south of Guadalajara, Cabo San Lucas on the Baja Peninsula and Playa del Carmen are examples of locations where foreigners have moved in and drove up local property prices.

With the exception of the Philippines and Thailand, there are few equivalent expat communities anywhere in Asia. This may be because, of all the countries in Asia, the Thais and the Filippinos are considered the friendliest people.

Friendliness Factor

Friendliness is a subjective term and is often dependent on the behavior of the traveler. That said, I’ve never heard anyway say how friendly the Koreans were, or the Vietnamese. I know that is not politically correct to say such things in public, but that is the reality. On the other hand, several countries in Central and South America are known for the friendliness of the locals and their acceptance of outsiders. Costa Rica is often mentioned, but there is also Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, Chile and Argentina.

Pace of Living or the "Manana" Factor

This contrast in friendliness - or unfriendliness – might have to do with the pace of living in the different regions. Life in Asia, South Korea in particular, is much faster than in Latin American countries. People in Asia tend to be in a hurry, with little time for others, especially foreigners. Add ethnocentrism aand the language barrier into the mix, and a Westerner can be a lonely fresh water fish in a salt water environment. 

Cutting in line, for example, is very prevalent in Asia. If one is in a hurry, then butting in line is acceptable. Lines are for others, those not in a hurry. The problem is, everyone seems to be in a hurry. I’ve seen some major traffic snarls in Korea due to the fact that some drivers tried to sneak in after the red light, ended up blocking the intersection for the traffic with the green light, and then no one wanting to let the other person go first.

Latin Americans tend to take a slower approach to living; if things don’t get done today, they might get done “manana.” But then again, they may not. This slower pace, unless adapted to, can lead to frustration when trying to get things done. Asians are generally better at doing what they say they will do when they say they will do it. In Latin America, with a few exceptions, being late for an appointment is the accepted cultural norm, but not for foreigners, who are expected to be on time. A Latin American arriving late for an appointment will rarely apologize.

I’ve traveled in every Central American country except Panama. I lived and managed a hotel on Corn Island, Nicaragua, and am planning to visit both Panama and Colombia as I write this.

I’ll give an updated report once I’m there and let you know whether I long for the “leeks and onions” ("noodles and rice") of Asia or am glad to be back in Latin America again.

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