While Southeast Asia might be well-trodden with many budget-conscious young travelers exploring beautiful tropical beaches and vibrant bustling cities in countries like Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, only the most intrepid venture into South Asia. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Maldives constitute this region that is home to a population of 1.4 billion. A heady concoction of diverse cultures, religions, and languages, South Asia can at first seem daunting to even the most well-traveled of visitors.
The region is also home to half of the world’s poor, so there are plenty of opportunities for you as a volunteer to contribute to various causes and bring about positive change. You can volunteer in the fields of education, healthcare, female empowerment, technology, microfinance, tourism, agriculture, development of SMEs, and sustainability, among others.
My opinion is that as a guest, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your choice of attire does not offend the cultural sensibilities of locals, even if you may not agree with them.
As a first-time volunteer in South Asia, you should be prepared for its unique challenges; bureaucracy and corruption abound, familiar creature comforts are not always available, language barriers are a reality of daily life, and the way to get things done is not always straightforward. But keep an open mind and you’ll come away from the experience feeling a special appreciation for the warmth, hospitality, kindness, and resilience of the people who live here.
1. Dress Appropriately and Conservatively
The long-standing debate over your right to dress as you like and the need to conform to social expectations is one that sometimes sneaks its way into the question of how to dress in a foreign culture. My opinion is that as a guest, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your choice of attire does not offend the cultural sensibilities of locals, even if you may not agree with them.
Modest clothing helps you to blend in with the locals, avoid unwanted attention, and makes them feel comfortable enough to let you in. This is especially true in certain parts of South Asia that are not used to western tourists such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and rural India.
In Muslim countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Muslim-majority parts of India, women keep their arms and knees covered. In more conservative areas, they might wear loose-fitting clothes and always have a headscarf on. While you might not need to do this, you may have to cover your head while visiting places of worship.
Swimwear for women is taboo on public beaches in these countries (except for the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and parts of India frequented by tourists such as Goa) but is not a problem in hotel pools.
In cities in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives, you’ll find the attire to be modern, both due to the presence of tourists and relaxed cultural norms. In villages and small towns it’s usually more conservative.
2. Learn Some of the Local Language
In India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, very few locals speak English outside of the main tourist areas and metro cities. As such, communicating with locals in small villages and towns can be almost impossible unless you try to learn some of the local tongue.
If you make a genuine attempt to learn basic words and phrases such as those used to greet people, ask questions, get directions, or make small talk with locals, you’ll see that it helps to break the ice and paves the way for new friendships. It also makes you look savvier and street smart, especially when haggling at a market or navigating public transportation on your own.
If this is your first time in South Asia, the images of extreme poverty and human suffering that you may witness on a daily basis in countries like India, Bangladesh, and Nepal might be overwhelming.
A few words in Bengali helped me stand up to a particularly rude rickshaw driver in Dhaka who, slightly taken aback by my basic Bengali skills, at once changed his behavior and lowered his tone.
Locals are usually proud of their language and it makes them happy to see a foreigner try to learn it and use it in conversation. Other than it being an excellent opportunity to learn a new skill, the language bloopers you make as a beginner make for great dinner table stories.
3. Be Thoughtful When Facing Extreme Poverty
If this is your first time in South Asia, the images of extreme poverty and human suffering that you may witness on a daily basis in countries like India, Bangladesh, and Nepal might be overwhelming. You’ll see that people live and sleep on the street, young children and the elderly beg for money or food, arms outstretched towards you, and amputees at traffic signals display their disabilities hoping for alms. It will be both heartbreaking and confusing.
You’ll question your own privileges and want to make a difference. But refrain from impulsively handing out money to beggars; often, they are caught in a web of begging rings that are organized almost like a business.
The ring is led by a tout who recruits young children and buys them from very poor families to add to his team of beggars. Your naïve act of doling out money to a beggar might be one reason why he is unable to escape a life of begging. Instead, find a local NGO that accepts donations and works to rescue beggars from such rings and rehabilitate them with the help of employment and education.
If for any reason, you want to document the poverty conditions in the country, exercise good judgment and do so without objectifying the poor or their lives. Ask for permission, as you would of any other person, before taking photos or filming videos.
4. Understand the Role of Religion and Tradition
In South Asian cultures, religion plays a very important role in people’s lives and is intertwined with almost every other aspect of life. You’ll see its effect not only during major festivals and celebrations, but also in the local dress, food choices, and daily routines. You might not understand, agree with or participate in local traditions, customs, beliefs, superstitions, and religious rituals, but you must respect them.
When being introduced to a member of the opposite sex, it's best to wait for them to reach out for a handshake instead of initiating one yourself.
If you’re curious about them, you may ask questions as long as they’re not offensive or intrusive. Most locals will be happy to include you in celebrations and explain the significance behind certain customs and beliefs.
This level of cultural immersion can be an interesting experience; nothing compares to the feeling of being covered in gulaal colors during a Holi celebration in India, joining a family in their Eid celebrations, or listening to the chanting of Buddhist monks for the first time in a monastery in Nepal.
5. Know Local Social Etiquette
It's also important to know about the local social etiquette. Below are a few basic behaviors that you should adhere to:
General behavior and gestures
Be mindful of your general behavior, body language, and gestures. It’s rude to point your feet at someone (or religious idols and imagery) while seated, point at someone using your index finger, touch someone on the head, or hand money or other objects with your left hand.
Interaction between men and women
The rules of social interaction between opposite sexes might not be the same as back home. It’s important to be aware of this difference so that you neither offend nor feel offended in social situations.
When being introduced to a member of the opposite sex, it’s best to wait for them to reach out for a handshake instead of initiating one yourself. Instead, you might be greeted with folded hands, or a slight bow of the head accompanied by placing the right hand close to the heart, in which case you must reciprocate the same way.
Reaching out for a hug is a no-no as physical contact between men and women in South Asia is not as casual as it is in Western cultures. Even so, don’t be surprised if a member of the same sex unexpectedly scoops you up into a hug!
In conservative Muslim households, men and women may dine separately. In both traditional Muslim and Hindu households, men who are not members of the family might not actually see the faces of the women of the household, hidden behind a veil.
Invitation to local homes
While volunteering in South Asia, you’ll probably receive at least one invitation to a local’s home to share a meal with the family. This is the ultimate sign of respect in South Asian culture. In India, there is a Sanskrit phrase Atithi Devo Bhava that translates into ‘The Guest is Equal to God’. Whenever possible, you must accept such an invitation, whether it’s for a cup of tea or for a meal.
As challenging as it seems, a volunteer program in South Asia can be a life-changing experience that encourages you to look within and find previously unknown strengths.
In India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, you’ll be offered tea throughout the day while visiting homes and offices. While volunteering in Bangladesh, I sometimes found myself drinking five to six cups of tea a day because I’d visited as many offices.
As a guest, it’s a good idea to carry a small present to show your appreciation. This could be a gift for the children or woman in the home, a household item, or confectionary. Don’t bring something that’s very expensive or beyond the means of your hosts as that can make them feel burdened to reciprocate.
Always remove your footwear before entering a local’s home as walking barefoot inside is common in many South Asian cultures.
In some countries, you may be welcomed with a small gift, which you should accept to honor your hosts. In Nepal, a white or cream silk scarf known as khada may be placed around your neck to welcome you.
In South Asia, it’s common to be seated on the floor cross-legged while dining. In India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan, the food may be served on a stainless steel plate called thali. In South India, traditionally, meals are served on a banana leaf.
While cutlery is used in most modern settings, in traditional homes, you may find that your hosts do not use cutlery and instead use their fingers to gather and mix the food into bite-sized servings before scooping it up to eat. This might feel strange at first, but whenever possible follow the example of your hosts so as not to offend them.
Wait for your host to begin eating once the meal is served. Second and third helpings almost always appear on your plate in spite of polite No, Thank You’s. This is inevitable; serving a foreign guest is a matter of great pride in their culture.
Take the Time to Learn
As challenging as it seems, a volunteer program in South Asia can be a life-changing experience that encourages you to look within and find previously unknown strengths. You’ll learn brand new skills that would look good on your resume while making a real contribution in a part of the world that needs it.
Most of all, through the doubts, hesitation, and few uncomfortable moments, you’ll learn to look at the rest of the world in a new light and not solely through the lens of Western civilization. As a foreign volunteer, the insight you get into local cultures is perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of your volunteer program in South Asia.