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House-Sitting in Asia: A Cross-Cultural Guide

Welcome to the Cultural Differences & House-sitting series, which explores the many ways in which culture can impact Nomador members’ house-sitting experiences around the world. If you missed the first five articles in the series, be sure to check out the series introduction and first four country and region guides, which offer practical tips to effectively manage cultural differences as a house-sitter in France, Canada, Australia, and Latin America.

This is the fifth post in the series. It examines the specific cultural and situational considerations that might impact your house-sitting experience across Asia, and offers tips for having a successful house-sitting experience in the region.

Worth noting, this post refers to east Asia, not central Asia. House-sitting opportunities in central Asian countries are virtually non-existent, and we want to focus on providing the most useful information possible.

An Overview of the House-Sitting Community in Asia

As with the Latin American house-sitting community, the house-sitting community in Asia is largely (but not entirely) comprised of non-local participants, a fact that’s likely due to a combination of cultural, economic, and market factors:

  • People-to-people communities such as Nomador require a high level of trust, which varies widely across cultures both in terms of how it’s defined and how it’s built. In countries where house-sitting tends to be most popular (Europe, North America, Australia), people's attitudes toward trust can be broadly categorized as ‘benefit of the doubt’. In countries where house-sitting is less popular, local attitudes are generally more cautious, and people believe trust is created with time, effort, and a consistent track record. While trust varies widely across Asia, many Asian countries fall on the lower-trust end of the spectrum, making it less likely locals would invite a stranger to care for their home and animals.
  • Pet ownership is lower in Asia than it is in the United States or Europe, although this too varies widely by country. Pet ownership per capita in China, for example, is quite low, whereas the Japanese seem to love their cats and dogs, and India has one of the fastest-growing rates of dog ownership in the world. It’s reasonable to assume that as pet ownership increases, so might the need for house-sitters.
  • Asian countries tend to be more collectivist (as opposed to individualist), indicating tight-knit family and friend groups, with members relying heavily on one another. A good example of this is Japan, where it’s not uncommon for three generations of one family to live together in the same house. There’s simply less of a need for house-sitters because family members and close friends are available to help.
  • Travel habits vary across cultures, and have the potential to impact the house-sitting market. Whereas it’s normal for many global travellers to travel with their partner or spouse, Thais, for example, are more likely to travel with friends than a partner. If someone stays at home, there’s no need for a house-sitter.

Interestingly, a broad lack of participation in sharing economy businesses doesn’t seem to be a factor when explaining the Asian house-sitting market, as the region is taking off when it comes to consumption of locally-developed and international sharing economy services: 87 percent of Indonesians are likely to participate in a sharing community, for example, compared to about 66 percent globally!

Of course, Asia is a massive region with significant cultural, political and economic differences from country-to-country. What is true in Japan isn’t true in Thailand, and the same goes for countries across the region.

However, there are some general factors that shape house-sitting experiences across the region:

  • Generally, the most house-sitting opportunities are for foreign homeowners and in places that are most popular with expatriates. For example, in Thailand, the majority (but not all) of house-sitting opportunities are in in the Chiang Mai/Pai region, Bangkok, and in the southern islands.
  • Most house-sitting assignments in Asia arise from homeowners who need help looking after their pets, rather than those looking for help with a small business, such as a B&B.
  • Affordable labour rates in some Asian countries mean it’s not uncommon to hire locally-born helpers to clean and maintain a property. Be sure to ask a homeowner what’s expected of you in terms of interacting and managing local staff, if applicable, and know that many Asian countries have strict, unspoken ‘rules’ of social hierarchy that govern behaviour.
  • There is a diverse range of assignments in Asia, offering ‘something for everyone’ opportunities. From a rugged cinnamon plantation in Sri Lanka to a luxurious home in downtown Singapore, from an adorable cat in Tokyo to a family of large dogs in Laos, the diversity of assignments matches the diversity of the region.

Thailand is the Most Popular ‘House-Sitting Country’ in Asia

By far, Thailand is the Asian country with the most opportunities listed on Nomador, and most (if not all) opportunities are listed by non-Thai homeowners.

If you’ve been to Thailand, it’s easy to understand why there is such a large expatriate and foreign-retiree community across the country. Wonderful food, warm and friendly people, great cost of living, and a lovely climate...the list of reasons to love Thailand goes on and on (and on and on).

That said, not all is perfect in Thailand, and there are certainly a variety of factors worth considering before applying to a house-sitting assignment in Thailand.

For one, the country has become less politically stable over the past decade, and the 2016 death of the much-beloved and long-reigning King Bhumibol has increased political uncertainty somewhat. While this likely won’t impact your experience at all, it’s certainly worth being aware of.

As a devout Buddhist country with a strong and unique culture, there are also many opportunities to commit cultural faux pas in Thailand, and house-sitters should study up on the culture:

  • Appearance is very important in Thai culture, and being well-groomed with conservative, tidy clothing will go a long way in endearing you toward Thais. If you wear shorts or a skirt, consider making it a ‘modest’ length. Women should cover up their shoulders and wear conservatively-cut tops.
  • There are particular cultural beliefs related to the head and feet. The head is considered sacred, and you shouldn’t touch someone’s head or pass things over their heads. Conversely, feet are the lowest part of the body (both literally and figuratively), and doing anything with your feet other than walking or standing is generally rude. Keep your feet off tables and chairs, and don’t touch your feet in public.
  • Women should be careful not to touch monks or pass them anything.
  • Everyone in Thailand should show the utmost respect for the Royal Family; in fact, it’s the law to do so, and punishments for disrespecting the Royal Family can seem severe to non-Thais.
  • There is a strict social hierarchy in Thailand, and Thais generally accept inequalities among members of society as a fact of life. This plays out in small, everyday ways, such as lowering your eyes and head when passing someone of higher status, to not offering someone of lower status the wai greeting. If you’re expected to interact with locals for home maintenance, etc., these rules of hierarchy will shape your interactions.

Beyond these standards of how to behave in Thailand, it’s also worth considering the following practical matters before accepting a house-sit in Thailand:

  • The use of peanuts in Thai (and much Asian) cooking and sauce is ubiquitous; if you have a severe peanut allergy, consider researching this in more detail to ensure you can manage.
  • The long-popular ‘visa run,’ to extend a Thai visa by leaving the country for 24 hours or several days, is becoming more and more difficult as the government cracks down on the practice. Be sure you’re able to get a visa for the entire duration of the house-sit.
  • The rainy season varies by region, but more or less runs from May to October, with the latter half also being the wettest. Flooding can be an issue during the rainy season, and it’s worth asking the homeowner about local flooding trends if the house-sit falls within summer and early autumn.
  • In northern Thailand, November to April is burning season, and air quality can be an issue for those with respiratory problems.

 

House-Sitting in Other Asian Countries

While Thailand is by far the most popular country for housesitting in Asia, opportunities in other countries come up as well. Within the Nomador community, house-sits in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and India seem to be the second most common group of countries, followed by Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia, Laos, China, South Korea, and Japan.

Before you say ‘yes’ to a house-sitting opportunity in these other Asian countries, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how cultural, political and economic differences might shape your experience.

As with all of our guides, we have defined culture as the behaviors, circumstances, and norms that are true of most of the people, most of the time. While it’s impossible to avoid generalizing, we have tried our best to provide a high-level overview of factors that might be applicable to house-sitting situations, while also acknowledging that individual personalities, regional differences, and ethnic diversity play a large role on behaviour and expectations.

Religion

Asia has a range of religious beliefs, with many countries and their cultures being shaped by one dominant belief system. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity are dominant in countries across the region, and have a varying degree of impact on the country’s cultures.

  • In some of the most developed Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Singapore), local religious beliefs and practices likely won’t impact your house-sitting experience, beyond providing an interesting window through which to learn about the country and connect with locals.
  • In the southeast Asian Buddhist countries (such as Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand), and the predominantly Muslim countries (such as Indonesia and Malaysia), religion may dictate styles of dress and modesty, male-female interactions in public and private, and attitudes/laws related to alcohol. Depending on your own situation, you may want to ask the homeowner how religion could impact your experience: for example, a single woman who is expected to oversee a local male worker during a house-sit.
  • In Hindu areas of India, cows are considered sacred and you’ll likely have to forego eating beef during your stay.
  • Religious beliefs may play a role in a culture's attitude and laws related to LGBT people. While many big cities in Asia are considered to be generally LGBT-friendly, laws and attitudes vary across the region, and it’s worth checking current local practices before committing to a house-sit.

Health & Sanitation

Regional and cultural variations in safety, sanitation, and environment vary massively, and can impact humans and animal health differently. One need only consider the difference in health and sanitation between downtown Seoul and rural India to understand the vast range of situations. Outside house-sitting assignments in the most developed countries of Asia, you may wish to speak to the homeowner about:

  • Water Safety: Whether tap water is potable, whether pets drink tap or purified/bottled water, and whether you need to do anything special to disinfect fruits and vegetables for eating.
  • Street Food: Many Asian countries have wonderful street food, and it’s possible to enjoy street food safely if you follow good habits in choosing which stalls you frequent. When in doubt, ask the homeowner for recommendations.
  • Plumbing: Plumbing and pipe systems in Asia are generally not built for toilet paper, and toilet tissue needs to be thrown in a trash bin, not flushed. Confirm this with the homeowner, lest you cause plumbing problems during your stay.
  • Toilets: Many toilets throughout the region are squat toilets, not western-style sit-down toilets. Even in Japan, which is famous for its fancy toilets with multiple bells and whistles, it’s not uncommon to find squat toilets in the countryside. While many expats will likely have western-style toilets in their home, if you’re at all concerned (or have knee problems!), be sure to ask.
  • Mosquito-Born Illness: Mosquitoes are a concern across much of south Asia for Dengue Fever and Malaria. Take proper precautions throughout the region.
  • Pollution: Pollution is a problem in many cities, which is worth considering if you have any respiratory problems. If you’re concerned, you can check real-time air quality around the world online.
  • Natural Disasters: Many parts of Asia are prone to earthquakes, and it’s important to be aware of what to do if you experience an earthquake while housesitting. Vastly different building construction across countries means the correct response -- hiding under a table or in a door, or leaving the structure entirely -- could differ, depending on where you are.

Attitudes Toward Animals

Local attitudes and reactions toward animals vary widely across the region, and could impact your house-sitting experience in a variety of ways.

When living in Taiwan, for example, we observed many Taiwanese love small dogs, but can be leery of large dogs. If you’re pet-sitting a large dog in Taiwan, this cultural attitude might limit where you can take it.

Further, stray animals are common throughout many Asian countries, and can present a hazard to household pets in terms of communicable diseases and bites/scratches. Be sure to chat with the homeowner about any specific precautions they recommend.

Transportation Infrastructure

Transportation varies significantly across countries in Asia. Whereas Japan is famous for its bullet trains and the labyrinthine Tokyo metro, Vietnam is equally famous for its seemingly chaotic motorcycle traffic!

As many countries in Asia rely on share-taxis and motorcycles to get around, rather than government-run public transportation, it’s important to ensure your travel insurance covers riding on motorcycles before setting off.

Cost

Whereas a domestic beer will set you back about US $6 in Singapore, you could (but we don’t recommend) drink 6 beers for the same price in Ho Chi Minh City. Cost of everyday items varies significantly across the region, and it’s worth considering whether your wallet can manage a house-sit before you committ. Price of Travel is a good resource for planning your Asian house-sitting budget; it recommends budget travellers to Tokyo have at least US $66 per day (including cost of accommodation), whereas those in Chiang Mai, Thailand can get by on $18 per day!

Tips and Final Thoughts About House-sitting in Asia

We hope this guide is helpful, and as always, would like to provide some practical tips to help you find the best house-sitting assignment for you. These are very similar to the tips we provided in our Latin America region guide, and should help you identify how cultural differences might impact your experience.

  • Be honest with yourself about what you’re comfortable with, what sounds stressful, and what special considerations you need to consider. If you’re terrified of motorcycles, you might want to steer clear of Hanoi; if you’re allergic to peanuts, Japan might be a better bet than Thailand; and if you have asthma, steer clear of burning season in certain areas of Asia.
  • Ask the homeowner how cultural attitudes and religion might impact your experience during preliminary discussions, so you can be prepared for unique differences.
  • When applying to a house-sit in Asia, you might be introducing yourself to a homeowner who comes from anywhere in the world. To be safe, use ‘business casual’ language that’s not overly formal, nor overly familiar. Keep your communications focused on their home and pets until you know more about their needs.
  • Consider the season and the weather of the house-sitting assignment, and ask if there are any specific requirements for pet and home care unique to the time of year.
  • Of course, be sure to check visa requirements before you apply, so you can be sure you’re able to cover the entire duration of the house-sitting assignment.

As you’d expect with a region that’s as large and diverse as Asia, there’s a range of factors to consider, and endless opportunity for a wonderful experience. While we certainly hope you’ll read-up on country-specific cultural practices before your flight lands, we hope this regional guide has been a helpful start.  

As always, we’d also love to hear your thoughts and questions about house-sitting in Asia.

 


Katie Matthews
Wandertooth.com

As full-time travellers, Katie Matthews and her husband Geoff frequently housesit as a way to gain a deeper interaction with different cultures, meet like-minded people, and spend some time with furry animals. They have been housesitting since 2013, recently settling in Budapest to focus on their business creating travel-themed adult colouring books and writing their travel blog, wandertooth.com. Holding a Master's of Arts in International and Intercultural Communication, Katie has a keen interest in how culture shapes communications.

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