Coming to Terms with the Label "International Volunteer"
I never imagined myself as an international volunteer. Even to this day, as I write to you from Nongkhai, Thailand, the label seems just as foreign as I am. International volunteering carries with it two stigmas. First is the view that glorifies volunteers for “helping” and “saving” international communities. From this volunteers can develop a superhero complex, thinking they possess unparalleled knowledge and perspective. Then there is the more critical view of international volunteering that diminishes the experience to multiple cultural mistakes that will inevitably be interpreted as rude or offensive. As a volunteer, having little to no experience with the country’s language and culture, you will be slowing down the community’s natural productivity with your questions, inabilities, and general ignorance. International volunteering can be controversial and I imagine this contributes to my resistance in accepting what I undoubtedly am, an international volunteer. However, I wouldn’t be serving internationally if I didn’t believe in each perspective, even if only just a little bit.
I’ll admit, at times, I am very needy. I need help navigating around the small town of Nongkhai, I need patience as I stumble over my broken Thai, I need forgiveness when I unknowingly cross my legs at a funeral service, I need laughter to remind me of the simple joys, and ultimately I need, what everyone needs, love. It takes a village to support a volunteer, and luckily, I have just that. A community filled with tour guides, cultural translators, comedians, and open hearts. Their love was immediate and it is unconditional. My experience may be unique, but it’s a reality that developed from the presence of trust and acceptance. I often questioned my community’s love, especially in my first month. It made no sense to me. They didn’t know me yet, I hadn’t done anything, and yet they were giving me everything. Slowly, I started to realize that when the community saw me, they saw every volunteer who had come before me. The volunteers who they had supported, built relationships with, and loved, were all reflected in me. It’s because of their trust in these volunteers and in the Good Shepherd Sisters that I was immediately welcomed. Just as I committed to them, they committed to me.
The community that I live and work with is directly impacted by HIV/AIDS. Many of these individuals have faced discrimination in the workforce, within their families, and in daily life. I spend the majority of my time assisting an income-generating project, Hands of Hope, which offers dignifying work, a fair wage, and a supportive community. There are many layers to my role, but my main contributions are communicating with customers, maintaining our online presence, and photo shopping product images and logos. In these ways, I am able to fill a need. However, it is not these tasks that I use to measure my impact. The truth is, the community would survive without me, the project would continue on, but I’ve learned to relish in the small moments I’m able to have with each individual. I feel the most useful when I make someone smile, when I can acknowledge their talents, and when we can share a meal, laughing when our noses start to run from the spice. Acceptance and kinship mean so much more to this community than anything I could do on a computer. I’ll admit, for all of their efforts, they aren’t getting much in return. I’m not saving lives; I’m just witnessing them.
In witnessing the limitations of the body and the challenges of loss, this community has developed a connectedness, binding them to one another. The first funeral I attended was for the grandmother of one of our youth. I was only 2 months into my service year, but this youth was already very special to me. I never need language with her, somehow we always know without speaking. I remember being very nervous, that day, hoping I could remember all the appropriate cues in the ceremony. We kneeled, prayed, and family members were called to bring up gifts to the altar. In a haze of confusion, I heard my name called and suddenly I was being led to the altar. The names of our other community members followed and soon the altar was surrounded. In this moment, I realized this was her family and even in times of hardship we remain united. It didn’t matter if I got everything right or if I spoke perfectly, all I had to be was present and sometimes that’s enough.
Like most extremes, finding a middle ground between the two perspectives on international volunteering, is closest to the truth. I’m not “helping” to the magnitude that is often depicted, but I also carry with me a humbleness and an awareness of my limitations.
"It is well known that I had neither riches, nor talent nor external charm, but I have always loved, and I have loved with all the strength of my heart.” - Saint Mary Euphrasia
Written by Lauren Magee
Hands of Hope
Thailand Community, 16-17