So, I've finally begun the work on The Little East (aka the sequel to A Murder of Mages) in earnest. Without delving too deep into spoilers, it deals with investigations in the sub-neighborhood generally referred to as The Little East, which is kind of Maradaine's equivalent to Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy and Little Ukraine all rolled together.
Except not exactly, because none of the foreign cultures that are enclaved the Little East are really equivalent to Earth cultures. Not exactly.
And that's the big challenge I've given myself with this book. I need to depict these cultures as their own thing, unique to my world. If readers start going through and going, "Oh, these people are just Japan with the serial numbers filed off" or something like that... then I've done something wrong.
So, how do I accomplish that, exactly? One way is by trying to avoid any cultural buzzwords that will immediately but a specific culture in mind, especially in combinations. You might be able to get away with "silk" or "paper lanterns" without evoking China, but put both together, and that's where your readers will go.
The other thing I try to do is give each culture some unique element or feel that doesn't directly evoke any real world culture. For one culture, for example, there's a caste system that involves dying the hair specific colors.
How do you evoke new cultures in your worldbuilding without making it feel like a copy-and-paste job?