What is volunteering anyways?
March 6, 2018
Justin Lau, our Research and Fundraising Manager, details his first overseas volunteering experience and airs his view on volunteering.
It was almost ten years ago in Phnom Penh, but I can still remember how uncomfortable it felt to walk along the path that had so recently been home to the Cambodian genocide. I can still remember the qualms I had when interacting with a kid who was drooling the whole time and how I felt ashamed of myself afterwards. I can still remember thinking about living a ‘pleasant’ middle-class life in my home country and having the ‘luxury’ of doing volunteer work once in a while.
The unease continues to linger to this day. It is a somewhat common feeling for first-time overseas volunteers, who arrive fresh-faced, excited, and ready to save the world. To be in a new environment with a different language and culture can be jarring. My first volunteer abroad journey should not be seen as a negative one, however. My time as a volunteer helper in some of the local primary schools in Phnom Penh forced me to rethink some of the fundamental assumptions of our life, and shaped my current life in ways that I could not have imagined when I first stepped foot in Cambodia.
‘Because I want to help the poor people.’ ‘I volunteer because their lives are so tragic. They need our help.’ ‘Volunteering allows me to meet new people around the world.’
These are common assumptions or expressions about volunteering, whether at home or abroad. It is often thought of as a one-way street, of the volunteer giving to the community and locals and getting nothing in return. The mind-set often elicits critiques from those depicting volunteering work as ‘doing well of poverty’- a sense of ‘feeling good’.
Against these critiques, Soulcial Trust embarks on a project exploring the lived experience of overseas volunteering. Volunteer work, we suggest, is way more complex and a two-way journey that involves collaboration between locals and volunteers. Volunteering does not guarantee you a ‘happy’ or ‘feel-good’ moment. Through interaction with locals, nevertheless, volunteering compels you to reflect on life and ponder the wider root causes of various pressing social issues. It widens your perspective in valuable ways and challenges your assumptions.