In some recent readings, I have discovered that being raised in a Western nation, when I attempt to think about the Orthodox church I bring with me certain presuppositions and concepts which may be unhelpful towards understanding it.
Because I know so little about the Orthodox church, I don't really know what these unhelpful presuppositions I may (or may not have) are. Would any of you know of some examples that you could share?
I may not be the best person to answer this - this question may be better handled by someone who was another faith before becoming Orthodox.
From my observation, I would make one point, which is both a response to your 1st question and an aid to the problem you state in the first sentence of your second question: one cannot fully understand what/how/why/who/etc. the Orthodox believe without experiencing our lifestyle - i.e. it makes more sense if you attend a number of Sunday liturgies, attempt to follow our fasting regimen, read some of our saints' books. If you try and "wrap your head" around the faith, you'll find it to be very difficult. Our faith, like our worship, is both an exercise of the nous
(Greek for "reason", also used to describe the rational brain) and of the senses. Even if you have no plan to convert, the best means of understanding is to find a local Orthodox Church and take about a month or two and attend, speak with the priest, read a few books, and try to fast when appropriate.
 Because nearly all of the things I have learnt as a result of your replies are new to me, it is not easy for me to understand them, even though initially I may have thought that they made sense, only to have more questions upon thinking about them some more. So I hope you can be patient with me and help by providing additional points for me to think about on some of these questions...
Specifically, so far from what I have read the Orthodox practice of prayer to the saints is not the same as worship, but one of intercession. The reason behind this is the belief that those in Christ are not dead and so they can intercede on our behalf.
Some examples from the Scriptures were provided where God healed people at the prayers of others.
The difficulty I have as I think about this practice is that whilst I understand the reasons provided behind the practice of prayers to the saints, I can't help but think that it is an extrapolation of prayers for others (who are still living in the flesh) recorded in the Scriptures, the validity of which I am not convinced.
Perhaps this is due to my view of what prayer is - communication with God and no one else (which may not be an entirely correct understanding of prayer).
You could make prayer a means of communication with God and no one else, but that would be limiting yourself. Through examples like what were given before, and others (like the raising of the dead man who was tossed on the bones of the Prophet Elisha, the countless miracles wrought by God using Moses as an intercessor, etc.), God has shown that He will
(a) Listen to our prayers that are brought through an intercessor, and
(b) Act by using the intercessor as an instrument of His will.
One of our fundamental presuppositions as Orthodox is that we cannot make the journey to God as "loners." God created us as social beings, and He created us to be interdependent. Our salvation is therefore tied to a certain degree to the community around us, and theirs is to us. It does not mean that one cannot achieve salvation despite
the people around them, but it stands to reason that our spiritual well-being as individuals can and will be enhanced if the people around us are doing well spiritually.
Keeping this in mind, then, it only makes sense to not only pray for others that are in your company, but also to enlist the help of others to pray for you. We as Orthodox understand that because death is no longer a barrier (thanks to the Death and Resurrection of Christ), we are still connected with those people who have lived righteously throughout the ages, and who are still now part of our community.
 Another question I have is regarding the use of icons. I realise this may be quite a controversial topic, so I want to begin by saying that I know the Orthodox church only worships one God, and that the use of icons is not "worship".
What I would like to find out is how this practice was started, and what its basis is. Additionally, because I am not aware of the first Christians recorded in the Bible having practiced this, I would like to know when this was first practised (as far back as we know).
I realise one of the reasons I have difficulties with the concept of veneration is because I come from an ethnic Chinese background. Though our family has never practised ancestor veneration, we are quite aware of the fact that many Chinese people practice ancestor veneration (burning incense, asking the ancestors to intercede on their behalf), and to some extent I have the concept of "ancestor veneration" in the back of my mind when I think about prayer to the saints and the use of icons.
I am not saying these are the same, though I hope you understand the perspective I am coming from as I seek to understand more about the Orthodox church.
Thank you for the background information. I don't know how much you are familiar with Taoism, but if you are, then you may want to read Christ the eternal Tao
, which makes connections between ancient Taoist belief and what we know about God. As Orthodox we believe that sometimes cultures get a glimpse of Christ without direct Christian revelation, and we are called to show them that the person/god/etc. that they've believed in all this time is actually Christ (this is what St. Paul did with the Athenians and their "unknown god).
Now, back to your question. Icons were actually one of the earliest elements of the faith to begin. While in Judaism graven images of God were not permitted, they did have images of the Cherubim and the angels in the Temple in Jerusalem. What changed with the Christians is that they saw the Son of God with their own eyes: Jesus was a real person, and they were able to make icons of Him to aid them in their prayer and strengthen them. The catacomb Churches are filled with iconography (albeit icons that are simpler than what we have now). As the Church grew, you begin to see the proliferation of icons within her. It was a controversial topic even for us.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council dealt with the issue of iconography when it came to a head. It affirmed the place of icons as aids to worshiping the true God. We believe they are helpful as windows to His saints, activities, and His Son; as tools for teaching in an age when books were harder to come by; and as means of focusing the attention on heavenly things in Church.
When we use the windows analogy, think of this: photographs of family members who have passed on. We look at the photographs to remind us of who they were; we use them to tell stories about what they did, and how they interacted with us; and although we love them, we don't love the photograph itself - we just use it to bring the image to mind and, through the picture, re-express our love for the person depicted.
I've got to run. Sorry for the shortened responses.