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Teaching Overseas: Life’s Small Challenges

In the Nick of Time

Jeff Straub

Teaching overseas is a great opportunity, but it is not without challenges. These challenges abound in the wider world. Little things or big things cause discomfort to Westerners who are accustomed to conditions back home.

Last week, I mentioned waiting in line. This is a standard feature in some parts of the globe. Most people have no place to go and the local employees have few incentives to expedite service, so your patience will be greatly appreciated. Standing in line is just a part of the culture and complaining will only make things worse. Do not expect that things will change for the Westerner. If anything, it might get worse.

Personal space is a luxury that we enjoy in the West that may not be available elsewhere. No one cares how crowded things are or how overpacked the bus is. If there is a seat on the bus, people will take it, even if there is not enough room. There is always room on a bus for one more person—or several. The crowded conditions may mean that the things we consider common courtesies are ignored. If you think that you need to hold the door at the entrance to a building for other people, expect to hold it awhile. Another personal space issue is the distance between conversation partners. The distances may be closer than you are accustomed to and backing away may only invite your conversation partner to move a step closer to compensate. Crowds are just a normal part of much of the world. If you are prone to enochlophobia, you might have a tough time overseas.

While we at talking about crowds, another perennial global problem is pickpockets. Pickpockets are a major issue anywhere there are people gathered. I have a friend who lost $1,000 on an international trip! It happens, especially in very crowded places like subways, airports, or elevators. Overcrowded street cars, subways, public shopping areas, or tourist spots are prime targets for aggressive teams of pickpockets who can easily spot a foreigner by his bewildered look, camera dangling around the neck, and big smile. You will notice that few people make eye-contact with strangers. They walk past you like you are invisible. But if they are is looking to make a score, they can spot you in a heartbeat and slip their hand in your jacket or your wife’s purse, removing a wallet and exiting at the next stop before you realize you have been robbed. Or they might pass off what they have taken to another team member who slips away into the crowd unnoticed. So, stay alert to your surroundings. Keep your wits about you and do not carry unnecessary things with you when you travel. Because of this very real threat, I usually leave most of my wallet at home, carrying only the essentials with me. Why take your driver’s license, store credit cards, or your library card that you absolutely do not need overseas? Leave them at home. If something does happen and you lose your wallet, you will have less to replace.

Recently, a colleague suggested that I also write about restrooms overseas. The facilities come in all sorts of configurations. In many places, there is no place to sit. On the floor are spots marked for your feet. Or you may be forced to use a common restroom for both men and women with individual stalls—or not. There may be a person in the restroom who keeps things clean and that person may not be your gender. In many countries, restrooms are optional, even in larger cities. Do not be surprised at what you might see in public. You might need to carry a roll of paper with you. Sometimes, the facilities are not well maintained. In lots of places, you will have to pay to use the restroom, usually a nominal charge, but a charge nonetheless. You might even be glad to pay because the facilities might be cleaner.

We need to be careful about expressing an air of cultural elitism at the conditions in some parts of the world. In some countries, conditions are what they are because there is really no way for them to be otherwise. People are accustomed to things and they are not bothered, so why should you be?

Resist the urge to travel as an American. This attitude can be expressed by the condescending way we speak about the local culture, food, or circumstances of life. We may be proud of our heritage and think our home is the greatest place on earth, but it should not surprise us that much of the world feels the same way about their homes. If you have grown up in a culture without, say, a McDonald’s around the corner, you do not ever miss it. It should not surprise you that other countries do not celebrate the Fourth of July. Resist the urge in teaching and preaching to compare your host country to your home country. Do not make fun of the circumstances of daily living. Also, try not to use illustrations about things “back home” which your audience will have little or no understanding. An illustration falls flat if it requires more words of explanation to understand it than the illustration itself took to tell.

Finally, be careful about how you present yourself overseas. As a Christian from the West, you will likely have more than most of the world and you need to show restraint in how you manifest your personal prosperity. In many places, our hosts will give us their best, which may seem to us to be rather meager. A meal may seem rather ordinary to us but it may be a feast to your host. Courtesy dictates an expression of gratitude for the hospitality of others.

In this series of essays, I have offered some tips for the would-be Christian leader who has an opportunity to travel overseas to visit a mission field and minister. The opportunities are abundant and the rewards eternal. Bon voyage!


This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


Arise, O God, and Shine
William Hurn (1754–1829)

Arise, O God, and shine
In all thy saving might,
And prosper each design
To spread thy glorious light:
Let healing streams of mercy flow,
That all the earth thy truth may know.

Bring distant nations near
To sing thy glorious praise;
Let ev’ry people hear
And learn thy holy ways:
Reign, mighty God, assert thy cause,
And govern by thy righteous laws.

Send forth thy glorious pow’r,
That Gentiles all may see,
And earth present her store
In converts born to thee:
God, our own God, thy church O bless,
And fill the world with righteousness.

To God, the only wise,
The one immortal King,
Let hallelujahs rise
From ev’ry living thing:
Let all that breathe, on ev’ry coast,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

About Guest Author

This guest article has been published because an editor has determined its contents to be supportive of the values of Religious Affections Ministries. Its publication does not imply full agreement between its author and RAM on other matters.