What a little girl in Cambodia showed me about the harsh reality of volunteer trips

By Megan Wong

Heavy torrential rain poured down on us as the children ran around their school playground, which consisted of three mangled tires placed sparingly across the uneven field. As they skidded down what had become a mud slide, they hauled us along, all the while screaming with glee. All of a sudden, a tiny girl came leaping towards me, enveloping me in a hug; Sam and I had become fast friends on our first day at the school. Gesturing for me to follow, she grabbed my hand, laughing as we ran into the gathering room to dry off. Around me, I saw my classmates engaged in the same process, playing with the children they had formed connections with, while cleaning themselves up. Laughter and friendship were in the muggy air. I had never laughed, or smiled as much in a place than I had during that trip, especially fitting seeing as we were in the ‘land of smiles’. Looking around, I was in disbelief that we were already halfway through our trip.

I had completely fallen in love with the school and with each of the students, and with Sam especially. She was easily the most fascinating person I had ever met, adult or child. When we taught English lessons to the children, Sam constantly thrust her arm into the air, wiggling in her seat until one of us called on her. When we painted old tires to build a brighter, more ample playground for the school, Sam suggested color combinations, pointing at different palettes. When we played soccer together, Sam outran any of the boys, scoring goals and assisting her classmates tirelessly. I learned from the owners of the school, two Australian expats, that Sam was the youngest child of a single father in a family of six. Shockingly, it became my understanding that Sam’s mother had died giving birth to her. I would not have known this about her home life at all. The brightest ray in her whole class, she emitted a glow I had never seen in children in Hong Kong, children who had ten times what she had.
As I grinned hugely and waved goodbye to Sam, one of the teachers at the school approached me, tapping me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry to have to ask, but would you mind toning it down with Sam?” She inquired carefully. Furrowing my eyebrows, I did not understand what she meant. “Children at the school often grow attached to the visitors,” The teacher explained. “And it is hard for them to adjust when you all leave.” Having been raised in a family where I always played with my baby cousins, this was difficult to grasp. However, I grew to understand it. Because the children are not treated as affectionately at home, it was in everyone’s best interests to keep the attachment to a minimum. The children also are made to see many people, like us, come and go, even if they had grown deeply attached to the visitors.
Over the next leg of the trip, I did my best to play with the children as minimally as possible, and keep my distance. All in all, the trip itself was amazing; I was able to immerse myself into Thai culture, something I would not have had the opportunity of doing if the trip had merely been a sight-seeing tour. Although I still enjoyed the trip immensely, my attitude shifted completely: whenever Sam and I played together, all I could picture was having to say goodbye at the end of the trip and how much that abandonment would affect a four year old girl. Hence, if I could return, I would not go back to the school, or any other school, unless I was going to stay for good. I knew that it was extremely detrimental to the children’s emotional stability every time their ‘friends’ left them to return to their affluent lives elsewhere. I knew that it would do much more harm to them than any momentary good to me. I knew that the fleeting need to do my Samaritan duty would soon pass, but the psychological effects of such trips on those children were there to stay.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons

Megan is a freshman; she is currently undeclared but thinking about studying Business Administration or Communication with a minor in French. A native of Hong Kong, Megan loves living in big cities and exploring all parts of them. In her free time, Megan loves trying new places to eat in LA, spending time with her friends and family, and watching new TV shows.