You really can get by in a country by knowing three words: Hello, goodbye, and thank you. Even then, you don’t need to learn that much. What you really need to be aware of in a foreign country though are moreso the things that you don’t say. While I would recommend learning more of a language if you’re staying in a foreign country longterm, if you’re just traveling through a place, this is how you deal so you don’t accidentally offend the locals. At least in Asia.
Body language is invaluable. Hand gestures, pointing, and acting things out with your body will help you through almost any situation. So far I’ve traveled through Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea, India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. With the exception of Hong Kong and India where I encountered a lot of people who spoke English, in all of the other countries I’ve been to, that hasn’t been the case. Also, since I can speak Mandarin Chinese, my times in China have been relatively easy. When I get frazzled though, my language skills escape me and I have to resort to body language anyways. During my last travel adventure 3 years ago, I basically could barely verbally communicate with locals, unless I was in a very tourist area where people know at least some English, for the entirety of my 9 month stint abroad.
In fact, when I got back to the U.S. I was so used to not being able to communicate verbally with people that when I was going through passport control, I was surprised that I could even understand much less respond to what the officer who was checking my passport was even saying to me.
Some gestures are basically universal but here are some things to keep in mind if you’re going to be traveling through Asia.
Don’t point. I try to avoid pointing with my index finger. Pointing is considered rude in some countries so when I point, I try to use my whole hand to gesture towards things.
Don’t touch people’s heads. In some Buddhist countries, your head is considered sacred, so touching someone’s head, even little kids, is a no-no. In Vietnam, this doesn’t seem to be a problem but countries like Thailand and Mongolia, you shouldn’t touch people’s head.
Don’t point your feet at people and especially not at images/statues of Buddha. Feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest parts of the body. So don’t point your feet at someone or show the soles of your feet to someone. Where I’m living in Vietnam this doesn’t seem to be an issue but it’s definitely an issue in other Buddhist countries. Also, don’t put your feet up on tables or chairs. In Mongolia, if you kick or step on someone’s foot, make sure to offer them a handshake.
Take off your shoes when entering temples, someone’s house, and sometimes shops. Pay attention to the people around you. If there are shoes outside of a shop, you should probably take your shoes off too. I always take my shoes off going into anyone’s house.
Use both hands. This is not the case everywhere but it’s generally friendlier to accept things using both hands. Or even shaking hands using both hands. If you’re going to use one hand though, make sure it’s the right hand as the left hand is considered dirty.
Things having to do with food (and gifts). Don’t eat snacks unless there’s enough for everyone. It’s rude to eat in front of people if you don’t have enough to offer to everyone. It’s also rude to refuse food and drink. Even if you don’t want to eat it, just accept it, even if you’re not going to eat it. Or decline very very politely. You have to strike a balance. Don’t be overeager to accept offers of food and drink, but don’t be indifferent either.
This goes with gifts as well. It seems contradictory, but whenever you accept gifts, you have to play the “Oh no! I can’t accept this” game, even though you know you will. I’ve had years of practice with my Chinese family to master this skill. For example, the constant fights over who will foot the bill. If someone offers to pay you have to fight them a little bit even though you know they’ll end up paying. Otherwise you’ll come off as greedy and ungrateful. Even with gifts, you have to say no a few times until they insist a few times and then you very gratefully accept.
Of course this list isn’t exhaustive and it really depends on where you go. Just observe what the locals do around you and follow suit. I usually follow the above list though unless I see people doing otherwise. One thing that I’ve learned from all my experiences traveling is that no matter what you do, you’re going to feel like a fool. A lot. Get used to it. Embrace it. Learn from your mistakes (and successes), be brave, and get out there.
The fastest way to make friends is by playing sports since this doesn’t require a whole lot of speaking. When I backpacked through Asia for 9 months I always carried this feather-hackey-sack-shuttle-cock thing that you kick with your feet and busted it out whenever we had down time at a bus station, train station, park, etc. Locals would always come join our game. Even now if I’m feeling bored, I will walk around the university campus until I find a group that’s playing and ask to join. People so far have been more than willing to have more people join their game.
Playing soccer here in Vietnam has been a great way for me to make friends as well. Other sports that are very popular here in Vietnam are volleyball and badminton. Tra Vinh also has a ton of billiards halls too if that’s your thing. In China, I LOOOOVED playing ping pong with people. People like pool in China too. Once I was playing pool in China with a friend and some Chinese boy started watching our game and eventually started playing with us. It’s random encounters like that, that really make my travel experiences better.