This is the final part of Michelle Yeh’s volunteer trip to Cambodia where she built homes for the locals.
To feel something from the act of giving is to show that you’ve received something in return. And to show that you’ve gained from giving is one of the best gifts you could give to a community that you gave to.
At that time, I did not understand what those words meant. Looking back, I realize that it was there in that rice field under the midday sun, that I learned one of the most important lessons about giving. Giving is a two-way street. Volunteer work is not a simple give-and-take transaction where volunteers give, and those that they help, take. What you give is usually physical-visible to all those around you. What you get is usually hidden-unseen by everyone but you. However, that does not make one more valuable or profound than the other.
It is not all about you, the volunteer, and how much of a difference you make on others; it is also about how much of a difference you allow others to make on you. This was when I realized that my self-questioning and subsequent sadness was rather self-centered. In my confusion, I did not once think about what the community had given me, only what I could not give to them. Despite this reality, my own self-awareness meant I was one step closer to being more mindful of my role as a volunteer.
After those reverberating comments, we drove to the building site and completed the rest of the remaining houses. On this second building day, I tried my best not to focus on how bad of a job we were at building the houses, and paid attention to the collaboration between the students and the local families.
It seems paradoxical, but instead of focusing on what we could do for them, I tried to focus on all that they offered us. I looked on as a friend of mine, who was obviously struggling to hammer in the last of her nails, was approached by one of the local men. Without exchanging a single word, they started working together: him hammering the nail halfway giving her a strong foundation, and she finishing the nail with a subtle smile on her face.
Seeing the joy on both the faces of my classmates and the Cambodian locals when we finished twenty-four houses made me realize that a volunteer experience is about community.
Although my volunteer experience cannot by any means be universally applied to all experiences, there is one uniting quality that makes it noteworthy. When you have a volunteer experience that touches you on a visceral level, which makes you question the very foundation upon which you base your actions, such an experience changes how you approach giving regardless of what kind of experience it is. In that aspect, my experience was universal.
Crying in that Cambodian rice field changed how I approached giving. In hindsight, I’ve learned that many of my past endeavors in volunteering and philanthropy were carried out with the attitude that my sole and highest purpose was to help people. Never did I consider that the community could help me as well; nor did I find it in myself to be humble and open enough to let the community change my perspective. My unknown assumption that an underprivileged community is only there for you to save-that it does give you back as much as you give to them-was, quite frankly, rather ignorant.
The local Cambodian people were more than the remnants of a post-genocidal era, who needed that help and attention of the first world. It seems obvious, but they were people with unique life experiences who could offer new outlooks on the world.
My volunteer experience gave me the ability to learn, grow and self-reflect through the act of giving. I tapped into a level of introspection that I never knew existed. Such is a gift that cannot be quantified in houses or donations. Such is a lesson that cannot be taught in a classroom or through a book.
It’s been two years since I went to Cambodia and each year since, I’d see the groups after me go on their trips. I would see the influx of new profile pictures depicting smiling orphans on my Facebook newsfeed. Ironically, these photos would be interrupted by articles questioning the good of voluntourism. The recent conversation over the contentious pros and cons of this new type of volunteer work often calls to question the ineffectiveness of inexperienced volunteers. It is true that there are individuals who, unfortunately, go on voluntourism trips and do not take anything from it, not making much of an impact on the community or themselves.
However, it is still vital to give people that chance to be impacted by the reciprocity of giving, to learn how to grow from giving. Enacting change is more than how many people or things you can impact. It is also about developing such agents of change, nurturing better volunteers to be critical thinkers: not only leaving the world better than we found it, but also leaving better people to inhabit it. Volunteerism is a two-way street and we should not forget that volunteers are to gain as well.