What Is It REALLY Like To Be A Volunteer? – Part Four

After you have finished reading the previous 3 blog posts, you probably have a sense of what life is really like as a volunteer.  If not, after you have read my blogs from May to December, you probably have a lot more sense. If not, keep reading. LOL!

Over the past (nearly) 8 months, I talked to different volunteers. Here’s what they said:  

‘I extended for 6 more months.’

‘I want to get out of this city.’

‘I shouldn’t have extended for 6 more months.’

‘My visa is extended until next year but I will not stay here for that long.’

‘I like it here. The people here are very nice.’

‘I think when I look back, I will feel proud of myself.’ Check out the story here.

At one farewell party, the students were playing a song, ‘see you again’. I looked at the volunteer and said with a wink, ‘hey, see you again’. She responded very quickly, ‘never.’ She then explained, ‘no money.’ Check out the story here.

At another farewell party, I asked the volunteer how he felt. He said, ‘I didn’t feel much a few days ago but today (he was leaving at 11am the day after the farewell party), I felt… “it’s all over” as he said that, he then looked around the village as if he was trying to remember the whole place and the people. Check out the story here.

‘Before I came, people kept telling me, “they have beautiful smile! You will love their smile!! You will love them!!” No, I hate the way people do things here.’  

‘I have so much time here.  I have nothing to do. Look, I am here. Use me!’

‘I’m still figuring out what else I can do. I have so much free time.’  

With coronavirus (COVID-19), the volunteers have even less to do. Or maybe, I should say, they can’t do much.

I had the same problem in Cambodia – I had nothing to do. I was so free that I asked for more responsibilities but I was told my job was to teach English, nothing else. Even I had many ideas to improve the first village, not all of them could be done. Only one idea was adopted which was to plant more trees.  The thing is it was a bit hard for me to do anything because I was alone. I couldn’t speak Khmer and the only staff in the first village can’t speak any English. He had to think hard to utter a few English words (by the way, he’s a university graduate in Cambodia). The idea of growing more trees was actually the management’s idea too. The staff finally grew some trees before I left the village.  When I said ‘finally’, it was because the management told me they had been pushing the staff to do this for a long time (around two years).

So, I can totally understand why one volunteer said ‘I don’t like the way people do things here.’

Most volunteers are very enthusiastic and want to do more to help improve the lives of the local people. However, in reality, most of the time, we found ourselves very free (in Cambodia. I am not sure about other countries). I began to realize, after I moved to the college, that the management or the host probably didn’t want you to work so much. They just wanted you to enjoy your life there.

I had the same problem in Cambodia – I had nothing to do.

The fact is, when you are happy, they are happy.  When you complain or when you say you want to do more, it may ruin their plans and so they don’t know how to handle it. As a volunteer, you are supposed to be there to help, not to create problems. So stick to whatever you have initially committed and enjoy your life there. Remember, you are only there temporarily. 

If you really can’t stand the way the local people do things, stay calm. Let out your negative emotions through writing a journal or talking to other volunteers. You can learn from them. Take this chance as a learning exercise.

That’s what being a volunteer is really like – learn their culture. I am not just talking about their temples, like Angkor Wat, but also, their working culture and attitude. 

Remember, you are only staying there temporarily.  And remember, as I said in my previous blog, changes don’t happen overnight. It takes time. By staying there and spending time with them together for a while, you will change them, in a subtle way.  Likewise, they will change you, in a subtle way.

That’s what being a volunteer is really like – learn their culture. I am not just talking about their temples, like Angkor Wat, but also, their working culture and attitude. 

The next thing for a volunteer to do is to be introspective all the time. I had some bad experiences but once I realized if I was the one who was at fault, I’d correct it right away. It may still be a bit late for some people but it was better than not doing anything.

It’s hard to communicate with the local people if you don’t know the local language, the etiquette and culture so patience is required too.

If you are volunteering in Southeast Asia or Asia in general, they have this ‘face’ issue. What it means is that, you need to show respect especially to people like the senior and those who hold senior positions in an organization. Give them ‘face’, that’s how the local people put it.  It doesn’t really matter if it is an NGO or a non-NGO. This ‘face’ thing is deeply rooted in the culture.  Hm… it’s a little bit like ‘pride’ or ‘ego’ in a way.  Again, patience – it’s a virtue anyway.  No confrontation. Go with the flow.

Respect them.

Speaking of going with the flow, most of the volunteers (or foreigners) face another common problem. That is, most of the time, they don’t know what is going on.  An English teacher that I met in Mongolia, the French volunteers that I met in Cambodia and I, myself all had this experience.  The local people will arrange something but because of their language and communication skills, most of the time, the foreigners have no idea what is going on. Like me, I didn’t know about the long holiday in September to October and I was suddenly told not to go back to the first village.  This is a classic example but there are a lot more. I have heard many complaints related to this. However, they are not serious. I guess the volunteers are used to the uncertainties, ambiguities, knowing nothing about what’s going on…, so go with the flow.  

Very interestingly, most of the volunteers don’t feel homesick. In my case, other than dealing with uncertainties and learning new things like a bit of the local language and the culture, etc., most of the time, I had to move from one place to another so there was basically no time for me to feel homesick.  Other volunteers I met were the same.  But they all started to feel homesick a week or days before they left Cambodia. They’d start thinking about their own home, food and one even told me, the way her own people worked.

Very interestingly, most of the volunteers don’t feel homesick.

But there was one thing I really missed. You have probably read it many times in my blogs written at the time when I was in the first village.  Civilization, that is.  LOL!

My room in the first village. It didn’t have any curtains at all when I first got there. The windows are all wooden windows. When you close them, the room will be all dark. When I said wooden windows, I meant the windows are made of wood, no glass panels. So I bought the curtains. I bought some more curtains to cover the wooden walls as well. There is a reason why I put the photo of my room here. Take a closer look at the structure of the wooden walls and get ready for the next photo.
I have mentioned a few times to my friends about the terrible odour in my room. It turned out it came from the pigeons’ poos. The little pile in the photo is just the tip of an iceberg.  They accumulated every day.  Well, you go to the toilets every day, don’t you?  The pigeons live on the roof of the wooden house I stayed at. As a wooden house, you can expect to see gaps between the planks. So, there you go, the poos dropped from the roof to my bedroom. The management only asked me if I was scared of pigeons but he didn’t think of getting rid of the pigeons which was the root cause. The previous management actually built a bird house in the complex but somehow it wasn’t used or the pigeons never flew there. Now, the pigeons build their nests on the roof. There is also a hole in the ceiling in the living room. Sometimes, the big pigeons would fly inside the house through the hole in the ceiling.  One even flew directly to the shower room. I had to guide it to the main door. LOL!

I think it was because I moved around so often that I didn’t realize loneliness had crept in.

I thought I had never felt lonely. But when I think back (see? always be introspective), I realized that when I was in the first village, I kept texting my friends and inviting them to come over to visit me, just to visit me, nothing else. That’s a sign but I didn’t know it back then.  

Imagine, you only teach 3 hours a day.  What are you going to do for the rest of the 21 hours other than sleeping?  So, to keep myself busy, I took online courses and got 2 online certificates. I was starting a third online course before I moved to the college but once I moved to the college, I didn’t text my friends anymore. First of all, there were other staff whom I could hangout with and secondly, I was only staying there for around 3 months so there was no need to text my friends anymore.  I had a better time over there. When the college interviewed me, nearly the first thing that the director told me was ‘of course, you won’t be working alone. You will be working with other staff.’ Then he introduced me to the lecturers.  I felt so much better!

I thought I had never felt lonely. I moved around so often that I didn’t realize loneliness had crept in.

The conclusion is, when you take up a volunteering job, ask if you will be working with some other people. Check if you will be alone. It can be very lonely even for a person who likes to be alone.

Before I close, I’d like to say:

Always look back and be introspective. You will find that you have probably gained more than the local people, whether your experience was a good one or a bad one. You will have changed in some way.  

At the end of the day, you will realize that both the volunteers and those people who interact with the volunteers are all beneficiaries of volunteering.




At the college. I gave my students an exercise.

2 thoughts on “What Is It REALLY Like To Be A Volunteer? – Part Four

Leave a Reply