This is a continuation of the story of Michelle Yeh’s volunteer trip to Cambodia. In the previous post, Michelle learned that building homes is no easy chore. This chapter begins after several of her classmates started a contest to hammer in nails quickly, leaving the future home-owner to hammer back in each crooked nail.
After that incident, some part of that obliviously hopeful girl within me dimmed. I started to question the impact that we had on the Cambodian community and wondered if our presence was more counterproductive than helpful. I wondered how many nails the family members had to pull out because we did such a poor job hammering them in.
As the day finished and half of the houses were built, we retreated back to the hotel to ice our sore hands and prepare for our last day of building. Waking up the next day tired from the day before, I did not think too much about what was to come and expected the day to flesh out like it did the previous. However, after an hour’s van ride with my fellow project leaders, project supervisor and the Tabitha Foundation Cambodia local representative, we arrived not at the building site but at a large expanse of land.
Our project supervisor, without letting on what was going on, asked us to walk into the field. As we walked single-file down the dirt path, we noticed on our left, lush green rice fields and on our right, barren dirt. We continued walking into the rice fields until we stopped at a collection of small signs. This was when our project supervisor told us where we were.
We were standing in the rice-fields of the families whom we helped build houses for. Part of the funds that we raised was directed towards irrigating their rice fields. With this knowledge, I looked down at the collection of small signs and read “Tabitha-Cambodia donated by…” and saw my name on one of the six small white signs.
My immediate response was shock, which then turned into confusion and then some twisted form of happiness and content. The rapid progression of flashing emotions then culminated in the flow of unstoppable tears. Some part of me enjoyed seeing my name, another part hated that I did. I remembered the three boys. The past few days made me question my volunteer experience and whether or not what I perceived as help was actually helpful. The fact that-despite feeling as though I did not impact much-there was still a tinge of happiness when I saw my name, made me doubt my reasons for volunteering.
Did I actually care about this community, this community that I’d only ever experienced through Wikipedia pages and online articles until a few short days ago? Am I volunteering for my own selfish desire to feel significant? Perhaps the only contribution I’m making is to the tokenism of volunteer work that is so often found with ‘voluntourism trips’. Will I just be another ‘with-a-cute-orphan-from-a-third-world-country’ profile picture on somebody else’s Facebook news feed? I started to wonder if all the volunteer work and philanthropy that I had done was just a convenient following of a systematic progression of events set forth by people before me. Perhaps my hopefulness and belief in enacting change in a few days of house building was only misguided idealism.
I felt embarrassed that I once thought I could change the lives of those whose experiences and livelihoods were bloodstained by years of history within the span of two short days.
Naturally, the sight of a sixteen-year-old girl crying at a sign in a rice field is not one you see everyday. Startled by my outburst, my supervisor and the Tabitha local representative took me aside. When I apologized for my reaction, the local representative and my supervisor-rather indignantly-told me never to apologize for being emotional, especially in a situation like this.
They told me never to feel ashamed for feeling the effects of giving. They told me that in their long experience with this school tradition, they’ve seen countless families be emotionally touched by the sight of their new homes. However, to see a volunteer go through a similar experience was not as common. They-to my surprise-were very glad and understanding of my emotional outburst.
This concludes part 2 of Michelle’s story. Next week Michelle talks about what she learned about the act of giving!