Before I left to volunteer in Cambodia, someone asked me why I would pay money to do work overseas. And when phrased like that – it seems counterintuitive – to work and save money, only to spend that money to do more work, only this time, overseas.
But how I wish that all of you were there with me.
This was undoubtedly one of the most challenging (if not, THE most challenging) undertakings that I have ever done.
And with taking the risk of sounding like the ultra travel snob – I hope that all of you will consider undertaking a trip like this too.
(i) Empathy Always
In one of my earlier videos, I talked about empathy and how that all your actions should stem from that.
But empathy is never easy to achieve.
As humans, sometimes we have selfish streaks, where we believe that our perspective is the only perspective of worth.
That our struggles are the only struggles that matter.
But, nothing helps you achieve a state of empathy any better than living the lives of others.
And this tension between my personal understandings and the reality of others never hit home harder than my 1st day in the Cambodian village.
I mean, we see pictures and footage of third world countries plastered over social media.
Share this, hashtag that, 1 like 1 prayer – that sorta shit.
And once you’re done there, you can close that tab, scroll down, turn off.
But when you’re on the ground, there’s no opportunity to just shut off. And there were most definitely moments where I wished I could.
The living conditions were unreal – the air was thick with the smell of feral animals (dogs and cows especially just roamed the streets), rotting food and fecal matter.
Large families were crammed into tiny living spaces.
There were no road rules – the roads were just one giant lane – a messy free for all.
Surrounding areas had large, filthy and stagnant bodies of water.
Water that the surrounding communities are dependent on for daily life – it was either deep green or murky brown. (oh, and families of mosquitoes occupied these spaces, which made malaria a very real issue)
We stayed in this village for the following week. And I struggled to adapt for sure.
Not even playin’ – I got incredibly sick after we left the village.
Maybe I’m just a cur (male word for dog – however holds the same connotation as bitch cos #feminism) but it was tough shit.
But having lived their life for a week, I come away with a greater appreciation for what struggle looks like and feels like.
Yes, we all struggle, but its important to be empathetic to the struggle of others.
Maybe then, will we be more willing to ‘pay to help’ the plight of others.
(ii) Humble Yourself
Coming off that last point, when I say willing to help the plight of others – I don’t mean going to volunteer with some saviour complex in your head.
Ego and pride, cannot exist within the condition of empathy.
Empathy means humbling yourself.
And if we had arrived at the village with any hint of ego or pride, the work we did made sure that we were humbled by the end of the week.
We had arrived at the village, expecting to do some teaching at the local orphanage. However, none of that came to fruition.
Instead, we were put to work. This included:
~ making compost
~ shoveling gravel
~ paving roads
~ cutting grass with a scythe (I’ve never appreciated a lawnmower more, and I’ve low key never mowed a lawn)
*I’ll talk more about the work in a future piece
At first, I was upset, because this was not what I had signed up for.
For the first three days, I didn’t see a single child.
For the whole week, I didn’t teach at all.
I just felt like I wasn’t contributing or achieving anything.
But like the last piece, all that was required was a shift in mindset.
This experience was all about what I could offer the community, rather than what experiences the community could offer me.
And once I had internally understood that, I realized that I was a mere cog in the functioning of the wider community.
For example – lending my hands to literally cut grass in the laundry area with a knife simply saves time, thereby allowing the people doing laundry to access their workspace quicker.
Its as simple as that.
And look, nothing is more humbling than doing hard labour in 35degree heat and 70% humidity.
Especially if the people you’re working with do this shit for a living.
Everyday, 24/7, 365.
(iii) Recognise Your Privilege
And after all this, I think that I was more grateful for two things:
~ the fact that I’m alive
~ the fact that I was lucky enough to have been born in Singapore and to have moved to Australia
The people that know me, know I harp on about this stat – 1 in 400 trillion.
Those are the odds for any person TO BE BORN.
Those are not the odds for being born a male or female.
Those are not the odds for being born in the USA or Australia.
Those are not the odds for being born during the day or night.
These are the odds for being born, AT ALL.
From sperm and egg, to the beautiful miracle of childbirth.
1 in 400 trillion.
The people that lived in this village understood this.
Maybe not like literally.
But intuitively for sure; they sure live like they do.
With no phone or internet or proper basic facilities.
Drive a tuk tuk for a dollar. Give a massage for two.
They dive into filthy pools of water to catch fish, to provide for their families.
They wake up at 4am to go to the market to sell their produce.
Our contact, Mr Pean literally planted 40,000 trees across the village to improve the surrounding ecosystem.
They understand that they have one life, and with the bare minimum, they are living to make the most of it.
Do you get it yet?
Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.
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