Living Abroad

Part of the adventure of an overseas project is living abroad. You are thrust into an environment with a culture that may be totally different from your own.

The scenes of men washing their feet outside of mosques (Turkey), strangers constantly smiling at you (Thailand), or cows freely roaming the streets (India), seem bizarre at first, but you'll probably adjust to them quickly. It gets more interesting when you become involved in the day-to-day situations such as eating, touring, shopping, etc. Some tips:

  • Read the guide books such as Fodor's Online, Frommer's Online, and Lonely Planet Online. However, realize that they can't really prepare you for all the nuances of daily life abroad.
  • Accept the culture. There are probably very good reasons why things are done the way there are, and you're not likely to change it.
  • Simple observation is an excellent guide. If your hosts eat with their hands, get used to it, and try to follow suit. If locals don't drive at night in the countryside, you shouldn't either.
  • When in doubt, a sincere question to your hosts will probably solve your dilemma.
These pages offers comments on a few areas that are appropriate for advisors and volunteers on international projects.


Depending on the area of your project, there may be branches of major chain restaurants such as McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King, Wendy's, Domino's Pizza, Dairy Queen, and Starbucks. Together, these chains have over 100,000 stores worldwide.

Most advisors and volunteers are more adventurous and try some of the local cuisine in restaurants recommended by their hosts. However, a word of caution: no matter where you go, the cuisine will undoubtedly be different than what your stomach is used to.

We love Indian food, but the Indian food served in India is richer than we find in restaurants at home. In Calcutta, our hosts knew that, and asked the chef to prepare our food in the “low-fat” style. Unfortunately, even that amount of fat was too much for us, and we developed the annoying “Delhi-Belly.” A few Pepto-Bismol's later, we were as good as new.

You might find that the food in some areas is predominantly fish or vegetarian. You may find that they serve your customary food, but it is horrendously expensive because it is “ethnic food” in that country (the $50 hamburger in Japan is legendary). Just take it in stride, and pack a good antacid “countermeasure.”

If you are a vegetarian or have other voluntary dietary restrictions, be sensitive that people in other cultures might not understand your preferences. A volunteer in Nicaragua attempted to convey her preference to eat only vegetarian food to her hosts. Meat was very expensive and only occasionally served, and her hosts wanted to serve it to show their hospitality. Turning down meat voluntarily might have been an insult, so she told them that she had a “dietary restriction.”

For a discussion of food and water safety, see the Health on the Project page.

Legal Issues

The laws of your home country do not follow you abroad! While in another country, you are subject to its laws. Any protection that you think is afforded by being a citizen of your home country, or by your consulate within another country should not be relied on.

It's unrealistic to try and learn all the laws of your destination country, but here are some typical problem areas:

  • Antiques. Many developing countries now have laws or customs restrictions which limit the purchase or export of culturally significant antiques. This is often a judgment call by all concerned, but if you buy from a reputable dealer, you will probably have fewer hassles in this area.
  • Taking photos. In government buildings or around public transportation sites, photography is often prohibited for security reasons.
  • Prescription medications. Which medications require a prescription and which are considered “over the counter” differs from country to country. Carry copies of written prescriptions for as many medications as possible.

House Staff

You might find that house staff is common in your destination country. It might be due to the low cost of labor, or to a “social contract” for the well-to-do to employ as many people as possible.

In Zimbabwe, we not only had a maid and a cook, but also a gardener! In Calcutta, our host had a staff of 35 to care for his family of four. The concept of house staff, as well as the protocols involved, took some mental adjustments on our part.

We found that, while we were always friendly with house staff, we would not be their friends. The class lines would not allow that. We also came to realize that many of the house staff took tremendous pride in their roles. They believed their roles were to make our lives easier or more efficient, so that we could do our jobs better.

Some guidelines:

  • Tell them what you would like, and ask them if it is possible.
  • Be sensitive to asking for things that they do not know how to do. If things “come to a halt,” it may be that they do not want to do something incorrectly and be embarrassed.
  • Consider how they can help in your project. In Zimbabwe, we held some business meetings in a large room of the house where we were staying. The staff rose to an amazing level of efficiency and formality, with many “Sirs” and “Madams” filling the air.
  • Be aware of subtle (and not so subtle) suggestions that they may make. At a breakfast meeting in Thailand, Clint met the business associate on time, but Vera was delayed. Clint asked to see the menu, and, after a long pause, the waiter suggested that he could “bring some toast and tea while you wait for madam.”
  • The cost of the house staff is usually included in the project or lodging fee, but ask your host about the tipping policy. Is it weekly? What is an appropriate amount? In addition to cash, which is always welcome and needed, at the end of our stay, we gift particular pieces of our wardrobe to specific house staff as a thank you.


Your friends would hate you if you came back from your international adventure with no souvenirs for them! So as soon as you get to your destination, start surveying the stores or markets so you'll know what is available for purchase and where to buy. And since international projects tend to be longer in duration than tourist visits, you'll have time to comparison shop and buy near the end of your stay.

You will likely find a wide variety of shops. Most tourist areas have high-end stores that have high-quality merchandise and offer services such as credit cards and shipping. Almost all areas have markets and bazaars where locally made crafts can be purchased inexpensively.

Negotiating a price tends to be far more common in developing countries than you may expect from your home country. Ask your hosts for guidelines: which stores will negotiate, which have fixed pricing, and how a final price typically compares with the initial asking price. They may say something like “if the shopkeeper initially asks a particular price, you can usually get it for 60% of that price.” In this case, your first counter-offer to a stated price might be a little less than half of the initial price.

Another negotiating tactic is to buy in multiples, thus getting them to drop the per-item price on a “bulk purchase.” If the price isn't coming down, start walking away and you may instantly see a counter offer. If the price still isn't what you had in mind, a simple “No, thank you, I think I will pass” is acceptable. However, once your offer is accepted, it is considered poor form to walk away from the deal.

One concern may be if a store offers to ship items to your home. After an intense negotiation, you might be leery of trusting that a vendor will properly pack and ship an expensive piece. While we can't vouch for every situation and problems can arise, we believe that these problems are the exception and that most vendors are trustworthy and reliable (although not speedy) when it comes to shipping items.


There are no universal rules about tipping. In some places, tipping is an insult; in other places, not tipping is an insult. Your host and tourist guide should have reliable information on the customs and what amount is expected. Keep a ready supply of change or small bills with you to take care of tipping.

You may find you have a tendency to overtip. This happens easily in a country where the exchange rate make things very inexpensive by your home standards. However, excessive tips may have unexpected results.

We were tipping a driver what we considered a reasonable amount, in light of the fact that he was available to us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In fact, our daily tip almost equalled his salary. The unintended result was that he felt under pressure to be available instantly at all times, so we discovered after a few days that he had been sleeping in his car outside our hotel.

Accepting Gifts

You may be offered a gift by your hosts or clients on a project. This is not a universal custom, so do not expect it. Be careful not to create any situation that could be misunderstood as your suggesting such a thing.

If you are offered a gift, accept it with grace and gratitude. Unless the situation is extraordinary, do not turn it down. If you feel the gift is inappropriate, seek the advice of the staff of your field organization.


Discussing politics is a dangerous topic with clients, hosts, or other acquaintances, unless you keep it to strictly non-partisan and non-judgmental comments. The perspective and historical context of people in developing countries is completely different. They may have been exposed to a completely different set of information on political situations. Add a language barrier to the cultural barrier, and you can risk serious problems on you project because of your perceived political views. Stay strictly away from criticism, finding fault, or taking sides in any way.


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Site Version 1.75 - Last updated Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 9:44AM PST on host Saturn
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