Do people from outside Asia need to worry about language issues and barriers when living or travelling in Asia? It all depends on which country you’re going to and which places in that particular country. There is no need to worry when you’re going on a vocation, stay in the tourist areas and visit the sightseeing places where everyone goes, or when you have a package deal with a guide. There are even countries where guides are speaking a language as Chinese, Spanish and German.
When you stay in Thamel (Kathmandu), Pham Ngu Lao street or Bui Vien (Saigon), Khao San Road (Bangkok), or Pub Street area (Siem Reap), just to name a few, you won’t find language issues and it isn’t hard to get yourself around. Restaurants with Western menu cards and meals are everywhere. Agencies who help you with tours and taxi drivers speak the English language.
When you are staying outside those areas, life can be frustrating. Waiters in restaurants don’t speak a word English. Pharmacy employees don’t understand what you need. Taxi drivers just say yes but while driving they ask for a business card, otherwise they have no idea where to go. Asking someone which way to go is a waste of time. They have no clue but don’t want to say “I don’t know”, so they just point in a random direction. The list goes on and on.
I experienced this in most Chinese places that I visited, but many Thai and Vietnamese places are no different when you are staying or travelling outside touristic areas. This all doesn’t have to be much of a problem when you are open minded and patient, because most of the locals friendly and willing to understand and help you. On the other hand they can be skeptical with a foreigner in their area. Some of them might see you as a target because you’re western and therefore rich, They couldn’t care less what you want and there are more reasons to think of.
Of course, there are plenty of people with good intentions. Plenty of places where you will be the guest and therefore seen as a kind of god, but my advice is to always stay alert and follow your intuition. You won’t be the first one who found such a lovely, friendly and helpful local person whom later turned out to be the one who got away with your belongings, money, or even worse. As a show of goodwill you can try to speak a bit of their language, which will definitely be appreciated. One way to do that is through phrasebooks, which can help you a lot. Try this one for example.
Don’t be naive. Try to find out more about the place you’re planning to go. It takes time to settle somewhere and get accepted. It takes time to find out yout appropriate place for living in Asia or travelling in Asia.