Recently I went to China, Hainan (more specifically Changsha and Haikou) for two weeks (16 Sept – 29 Sept) and did volunteer work. The first half of the trip was like how many of you would perceive volunteer work to be. We went to a primary school and taught them English, sang songs with them and played games. At the end of being with them for 6 days, we parted with teary eyes and empty promises of coming back.
When we went back to the hotel, I had a void in my heart like I’ve done more harm than good. It was like a feeling of “it would have been better if I didn’t come” sort of thing. Now, it’s not like my team and I went there and totally emotionally scarred the kids for life or anything but there was something more.
The thing is that the kids were very attached to us, the minute we came the kids would run up to us and start randomly shouting about playing with them before the DIY bell rings to signal them to go to class. We could only be there for a mere 6 days and yet the kids had become so attached to us. We leave with heartwarming cards and gifts but there is probably no chance of us ever seeing each other ever again. I wonder if getting them attached and leaving after 6 days while another batch of students come 5 years later doing the exact same thing.
The kids don’t forget. My older brother went to the exact same primary school 5 years ago and the Primary 6 children still remember that faithful day and the children said they missed those volunteers. I asked them if they were sad they would never see those volunteers from 5 years ago and they said yes but then they said: “life goes on”.
Well, in Chinese.
I think it’s fine that we didn’t really impact their lives to the point that they had a life changing experience and would live a totally different life. They would attend classes and learn English from a local, listen to whatever music they hear and play skipping rope at the side. However, we are a memory to them and I believe that we have done something helpful.
We installed laptops for them because the computers that were installed years ago were washed away from a typhoon. We taught them how to sing a song called 小幸云 (xiao xin yun) and that there are millions of people out of China that is so different from them, those who don’t know Chinese, those whose skin colour are dark, those who are very tall and that Singapore has pretty much all of those people.
Volunteer isn’t about “impacting lives and changing the world” but it’s about giving a pleasant memory to the people you are helping and making that few days a little more brighter for them.
Listen to their needs before helping because sometimes, the need you are seeing is not the needs they actually have. You may think the villages live in poor condition and build a house for them but after you leave, the villagers take it all down and store the wood somewhere because they don’t need a house.
The elderly in Singapore don’t always need canned food or rice. They don’t always need medical help and are not always wheelchair bound. There are those like that, which is true but what if all they need is for you to sit down, listen to them complain about how hot it is, listen to them gossip about the perverted uncle living two blocks away, listen to them talk about life lessons.
We need empathy in volunteer work. If you don’t have empathy and are doing volunteer work to build your resume, to feel better about yourself, to get rid of the negative feeling you have because you pity the people you are “helping”, I suggest you get out. Don’t volunteer. Don’t even think about it.
Unless you exercise empathy, get out of volunteer work.
You don’t belong in volunteer work.