Thick Skin

Thick Skin

Through the years, as an international student an expat, I needed to be thick-skinned; someone who doesn’t easily get offended. There is no international standard to differentiate between teasing and bullying or a healthy sense of humor and a practical joke. What seems to be acceptable and friendly in one culture may be offensive in another. After all, if you don’t take yourself very seriously, it shouldn’t hurt so bad.

Let me share with you my experience to clarify my point. I mean to give you a chuckle and possibly something to learn. Some of the examples may make you feel bad for me but I want you to stay focused on the main point, how to behave and act during awkward moments.

  1. SWISS PRISON: In 2015, an Ethiopian pilot hijacked the plane he was flying and took it to Switzerland. According to Swiss law, his act could have sent him to a Swiss prison for 20 years. A day after it happened, I was in our university cafeteria sitting with fellow lecturers. One westerner colleague said, “Ebenezer, is living in a Swiss prison better than living as a pilot in Ethiopia?” OUCH! I could not defend the pilot’s action; I had to be thick-skinned and let it pass. The reality was that the pilot had mental health issues. In the end, the Swiss sent him to therapy sessions instead of prison.

  1. MORE PRACTICE: In 2007, when I was an international student in the Philippines, a friend of mine and I rendered a song which we thought went very well. Some classmates in the audience exclaimed, “More!, More!” We thought they wanted us to sing more; but they continued, “More Practice!”

  2. BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER: In the same year, I was looking for a room to rent. I heard about one place. I visited the site, talked to the owner, and arranged a date to move. When I went there again, the wife told me they had given the room to their relative. When I reminded her about our deal, she replied: “Mr. Ebenezer you need to understand that blood is thicker than water." Meaning, relatives are more important than customers. Though her explanation was disappointing I didn't take her words as the nation's mindset. I have met many others in the Philippines who thought Jesus’ blood was thicker than anything. I eventually found another place owned by a person who believed in the THICKER blood.

  3. AMPALAYA: I can not confidently talk about the whole of Ethiopia, but where I grew up, there was no bitter gourd. Bitter gourd is the most bitter fruit; some say it is a vegetable. It is also known to have several health benefits. I came to know about bitter gourd when I went to the Philippines. They called it ampalaya. In Manila, people commonly speak Taglish. It is a mix of Tagalog and English. If you hear a new word in Taglish, it may be difficult to tell if it is an English or a Tagalog word. I thought ampalaya had the same name in English. After I moved to Thailand as a lecturer, I mentioned it in one of my classes. I confidently referred to it as ampalaya. In that class, I had a student who studied in the Philippines for a couple of years. She educated me, “Sir, ampalaya is Filipino, it is bitter gourd in English.” If you see yourself as a student-educator, you expect to be educated by your own students. Students actually respect you more for your openness to learn more.

Lessons Learned

  • You will never be beyond the reach of correction or teasing. No social status or higher level of education can shield you.

  • You don’t always need to defend yourself. You can win through learning if it is a correction, and by letting it go if it is teasing. I mean, you win peace of mind.

  • “Never explain―your friends do not need it and your enemies will not believe you anyway.” ― Elbert Hubbard

A right balance between assertiveness and tolerance is the key to a healthy social life. Keep in mind that being thick-skinned differs from tolerating abuse. Abuse should be addressed, not tolerated. There is a fine line between a practical or derogatory joke and abuse.

There is time to be patient and let it pass and there is time to stand for your right. Christianity is not about taking in abuse and pretend as if we weren't hurt. Jesus taught that we need to turn the other cheek if we are slapped on one. It is meant to teach us that mistreatment shouldn't make us vengeful but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't stand for our rights. Jesus stood up for his right when it was the appropriate thing to do. When he was presented in front of the high priest accused of false teaching, one of the officers standing nearby slapped Jesus because he didn't like the way Jesus was talking to the high priest. Then Jesus replied, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what was wrong. But if I spoke correctly, why did you strike Me?” (John 18:23).

There is time to tolerate; and there is time to stand up. The wisdom to know when is what we need. If the meditation of our hearts is influenced by the Word of God, if our thoughts are refreshed by quickening of the Holy Spirit, if we can feel the presence of the Lord on our path, then the wisdom to choose alternative actions comes naturally.


What is your usual reaction to teasing or jokes about you? How do you handle them? What should be the reaction of Christians to abusive relationships (friendship, love relationships, family relationships, etc.)?


What kind of wisdom would you like to ask from God in your social relationship?