A Broad Volunteering Abroad

As you may have guessed, I am the broad mentioned in the title of this post. I won’t say exactly where I am because it’s not particularly important to the point of this article, and I think I finally shook the CIA off my tail, so I’d like to keep it that way. Suffice it to say I’m in a developing country with a complicated relationship to the United States and I am not the only white, female do-gooder present.

I’m here for a few different reasons  (it would be a lie to say the food here wasn’t a primary motivator), but mostly because I have summers off and wanted to spend my time purposefully while enhancing my language skills and learning more about a different culture and place. There are a lot of students in my public school classes from this country, and there aren’t enough bilingual ESL teachers; I’m working towards being both bilingual and ESL certified so I can work better with the students and their parents, some of whom speak no English at all.

I’m currently in a Masters in Teaching program in the United States, and one of the things we like to do in the education system is problematize. We problematize and problematize and very infrequently do we come up with answers or solutions for these problems. Problematizing has its place – no doubt about it. Important questions get asked and, sometimes, things get changed. But traveling to other countries and spending a lot of time in this country in particular is impressing upon me a sense of just how good we have it in the US. After being in schools here that don’t have a single decoration or poster on the wall – not to mention a television, speaker system, or smartboard – I feel so grateful for the resources we do have. I feel grateful that teachers who protest are allowed to do so without being shot at or disappearing altogether (okay, fine, I’m in Mexico). When we’re sitting in class probematizing Tim Tebow’s “Night to Shine,” which potentially marginalizes special needs kids by sending them to a prom of their own (rather than encouraging their peers to attend the regular prom with them) it’s easy to forget that most countries don’t have these programs at all and kids with special needs either go to special schools or just don’t go to school, period. Forget prom.

I’m under no illusion that the US is perfect. But here’s the thing – people aren’t perfect. They are far, far from it. It’s always been terribly ironic to me that the very same liberals who mock conservatives for believing humans aren’t the product of millions of years of mammalian evolution are also the first to fully expect humans to transcend animal behavior. But we are animals – highly intelligent animals capable of empathy and learning, sure – but animals nonetheless. Our evolutionary tendencies to aggression and domination have not subsided in the face of our modern need to live as a cooperative society. We can safely expect that our deep suspicion of out-groups, our fight over resources, our need to obsessively stratify each other into hierarchies, will continue.

That being said, we’re doing well enough in the US – a huge country with a hugely diverse population – that we can quibble over whether “special-needs” or “neuro-diverse” is the least offensive term for the kids at Tim Tebow’s prom. We can worry about the little things because we have the big things, like mass-scale corruption, malaria, and starvation, mostly taken care of. Recognizing this doesn’t make me want to stop the struggle to make the US better, but I do think about this a lot, and it puts things in perspective when I’m feeling discouraged by the slow pace of progress in the US.

Armed with this perspective, I was sitting in a large and beautiful park a few days ago when a man walked up to me and asked what I was reading. He was carrying a book detailing the continued mistreatment of Guatemalan citizens by the multinational corporations that plow their way into poor countries with the help of corrupt politicians, bulldoze the ecology without any thought of the people who actually live there, and generally exist in a total disregard for human welfare. Light reading. He sat with me and talked for about an hour. He was local activist from an indigenous ethnic group that attempts to engage in productive dialogue with a large ex-pat community that is slowly creeping in and making the city more expensive and less livable for locals.

No question about it. The ex-pat community in any developing country causes problems for locals. A simple Google search turns up a variety of articles on the topic. This guy had some major and legitimate complaints, and according to him, a section of the local indigenous population feels that the response to these complaints was violence. At this point, it wasn’t clear to me whether he was trying to send a subtle message directly to me, or just conveying it as part of the conversation, but either way the message was this: Ex-pats and visitors from the US die from time to time in what looks like accidents, but these accidents are actually orchestrated by local indigenous people and the ex-pats should watch their backs. A quick bit of Google research shows that ex-pat deaths in Mexico mostly occur due to suicides and car accidents – both of which are pretty hard to fabricate – so whoever feels like violence is the response isn’t highly active at the moment. But it was an interesting perspective to include.

He then suggested that the current marginalization and oppression of the indigenous peoples is a direct product of the Spanish invasion, which is true, and continues to be caused and exacerbated in part by his country’s relationship with the US and its tourists and ex-pats, which is also true. He then invited me to remove the words “teacher” and “volunteer” from my vocabulary and only refer to myself as “learner” and “watcher.” Even better, remove myself from the country, take everybody from the US with me, and leave the locals to solve their problems for themselves. Then we shook hands, he thanked me for listening and not jumping up to call the police, and he left. I asked him for his name and information so we could keep talking, but he said, “I don’t ask you for your name, and I won’t give you mine.” Okay. Fair enough.

I put my book down and sat on the bench for a long time, thinking about this conversation. I thought about it for the next few days and I’m still thinking about it. It is grossly ironic that people from the US spend their whole lives living in relative privilege and often working hard to deny those privileges to others – and then retire in a country that the US is actively antagonistic towards, simply because the weather is great and their retirement goes farther. I’ve met a lot of these people, because some of them are involved in the work I’m doing. They’re all pleasant people, and most of them are heavily involved in important volunteer work themselves. But I’d bet my left butt cheek that almost every one of them was a NIMBY during their time in the US. It’s evident in their behavior and they language they use to to unconsciously separate themselves from the people around them.

NIMBY, if you don’t know, is an acronym for “Not in my backyard” – a particularly pernicious form of racism and social stratification used by those who believe themselves to be perfectly liberal. Affordable housing? Yes! Awesome! Just don’t put it here – I like my neighborhood the way it is, plus a new building would block my sunshine a little. Better funded public schools? Yes, of course! But I don’t want to pay more taxes because I already pay a lot, and anyway, my kids go to private schools. You get the idea.

I sincerely strive not to be NIMBY myself, but my very existence necessarily means I’m blind to my own behavior. So where does that leave me? Do I pack up my bags and go home? Don’t even bother to help, because whatever “help” I might give is given with an intruder’s perspective, and might not actually be that helpful? I was seriously troubled by that notion for a couple of days and paid close attention to my own activities and interactions during my volunteering that week.

Later, when I was at an orphanage playing with a group of rowdy three-year-olds, things became a little clearer for me. The kids there desperately need to be touched, played with, held, and otherwise generally treated as the babies they still are. I may be a gringa who struggles to understand Toddler Spanish, but I can snuggle and tickle and wrestle with the best of them. I’m not these kids’ parents, and I’m not a nanny from the country they live in, but these kids don’t have the luxury of those things. They don’t have the luxury of warm homes with loving and capable parents who are going to give them a healthful food and a good education. I can’t give them those things either, but I can – for a few hours at least – make life a little more pleasant and enhance their English vocabulary just a little (whatever cultural complaints we can levy against English taking over as a primary language, the truth is that, especially for kids in marginalized environments like this, speaking English goes a long way towards future job opportunities).

I can’t kick the whiny, entitled ex-pats out of the country. I can’t uncorrupt the government officials who make deals with the corporations that take land and pollute water. I can’t sit down every volunteer that comes into the country and lecture them on the political and racial environment that they’re working in and make them cautious and sensitive. The broader political, environmental, and social situation is something I have no control over. But I can teach English, and I can play, and I can do both of those things well. You’d have to be a blind and deaf to watch the kids at the orphanage play and read with the volunteers and not believe they were taking some good out of it.

And I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make. Are white US volunteers in another country, who don’t speak the language and don’t understand the culture, preferable to locals having the power and resources to solve the problems themselves? No. Is a world where English is the universal first language, to the detriment of respect for local traditions and dialects, an ideal situation? No. But, again, those ideal situations don’t exist. Reality is what we’re left to deal with.

So I’ll do what I can do. Rather than getting frustrated and feeling like things will never get better, I can put my shoulder to that proverbial wheel and do what I do, with as much grace and understanding and humility as is possible. I can hear that activist’s perspective, as well as the other problematizing that happens when white people move freely into others’ space with intentions to “help,” and empathize fully with it, and still believe that it is possible for me to be helpful in his country. I can regularly reflect on my own behavior and seek ways in which it might improve. The bottom line – the need for help exists in areas that I am especially equipped to be helpful in, so I’m going to put my self-doubt aside and get busy.

On a completely unrelated note, I just poured Coco-Puffs into my bowl (you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take the America out of the girl) and saw a few tiny ants crawling around inside it. Waste of Coco-Puffs is a cardinal sin and I’m sure if I take out the Coco-Puffs to look for the ants, the ants will have disappeared inside of them. Coco-Puffs and ants for breakfast it is. Yee-haw!

 

One thought on “A Broad Volunteering Abroad

  1. You are doing the best you can, and as an insider I respect and admire that. You do not represent the entire US population, and neither should you bare the entire blame of your people. If that was the case, I should hate all Spaniards, past and present. But I don’t. Thanks for making a difference, teacher.

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