What we talk about when we talk about volunteerism

We call ourselves volunteers.

Driven by the compassion for the unfortunate, the responsibility as global citizens, and perhaps an innate appetite for adventures, an intense itch to know the world, we embark on a service trip to a piece of unacquainted land.

In two or three months’ time, we worked closely with a group of people who suffered or are suffering from poverty, violence, inequality and who are basically victims of human’s inhumanity. We teach or serve in other ways.

Upon returning, we seemed to be different. Friends were surprised – “Hey! Why are you so tanned?” Parents were worried – “Alas! You must have lost kilos!” In response to that, we shared with them a bagful of amusing episodes and touching moments. We talked on and on until at one point, we noticed the bewilderedness or even impatience on our interlocutors’ faces. A bit embarrassingly, we cleared our throat and concluded, “Yea. That’s it.” We come to realize the fact that the everydayness we were so attached to actually meant little to others. We thus urged them to see and experience it by themselves. It sounded exactly like the conversation after a holiday in foreign places.

So, what are we talking about when we talk about the volunteerism—the overseas, short-term service trip? Sometimes I have an impression that it is like a form of morally superior tourism and we volunteer-tourists might have as many egoistic reasons as altruistic ones. I guess there is no need to redundantly list out the altruistic accounts. What are the egoistic ones though? For example, while volunteering, unlike being in a competitive environment where we constantly feel the pressure of outperforming the others, we find ourselves in a community that calls for our help and gives us unconditional positive evaluation. In this sense, we could say that one volunteers for carefreeness or the sense of feeling good about oneself.

It has been much debated whether “pure” and “warm-glow” altruism exists or not. Biologically it does not make sense to help others because this does little to secure our own survival. Yet there are seemingly countless examples, which, at face value, seem to indicate altruism in the animal world as well as human society to contradict this perspective. It is indeed a tricky question and here I have neither ambition to reach a definite answer nor intention to discuss it in great length.

The point I am trying to make is that overseas vol- unteering is no nobler than other holiday options such as doing an internship in investment banks or learning a new language. We can be kind, helpful and compassionate to whomever around us in whatever settings, if we wish.

Luxi took part in MOEI Thailand 2011 and was teaching English in Mae La Oon refugee camp. Since then, Burma has become a keyword of her life. She is also a founding member of Connecting Myanmar. 

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