Post-GROW Reflection by Juliana Madzia
I’m writing this as I ride along in the GreenBus, past the colorful coffee shops lining the streets on the outskirts of town, past the reservoir where Jayla’s bike chain broke and we almost got attacked by a herd of buffalo, past the last signs telling us that we are in Mae Sot and onto the highway that will take us through the Thai countryside into Chiang Mai. The GROW internship part of this trip has ended; from here on out it will be all tourism and travel and fun. Here I will reflect on my internship and my biggest takeaway from the entire experience: that avoiding the clichés of volunteering abroad can be more difficult than one might think, regardless of how much thought and planning are put in prior to beginning the work.
Before leaving for Thailand, we had multiple conversations about what we did and did not feel comfortable doing, from an ethical perspective, while we were with SAW. We read numerous articles on the dangers of voluntourism, the white savior complex, doing work abroad that we wouldn’t be qualified to do in the United States, etc. The problem was, it was difficult to get detailed answers from our partner contact, ATL, when we asked specifically what we would be doing during our internship and what we could do to prepare. He mentioned that he would like for us to help with teaching English to young students at the SAW school, but the way he brushed past it so quickly made it seem like it would be a minor part of the internship, something that we might do for an afternoon or two with the assistance of a qualified teacher. We tried our best to press for more details, but we just weren’t getting them.
When we sat down with ATL in Mae Sot to make our internship schedule, we learned that what he really wanted was for two of us to teach English to 3rd and 4th graders and three of us to teach classes to SAW’s GED students in whatever subject we felt most comfortable with. We told him that we had no teaching experience or certification, that we weren’t sure if we felt comfortable teaching independently considering these limited backgrounds, but he just kept saying, “It is okay, it is okay.” In his mind, because we were American college students who have graduated from high school and completed several years of college, we were more than qualified for the roles that he wanted us to take on. Ultimately we felt that the best choice was to follow through with what he was asking us to do, but to make sure that we were continually discussing what we were doing with him and with one another. This strategy worked out well, and we all found the teaching to be one of the most rewarding parts of the internship. The times when the students laughed at the way we tried to explain certain concepts to them, the excitement that all of us felt when our students understood something new for the first time – these were the occasions during which we felt most connected. These were the occasions during which we felt like our work as GlobeMedders really mattered.
Another time that I experienced this kind of dissonance between what I believed I should be doing based upon my prior conceptions and what felt like the proper thing to do at the time was when ATL asked us to go to the SAW Safe House. The Safe House is a place where children who are in Mae Sot without their parents (because they are orphaned or because they fled to Thailand without the rest of their family) live under the supervision of SAW staff. The children living there right now range from one year old to eighteen years old. ATL supervises a similar house, the Children’s Crisis Center, but he often goes to the Safe House to play with the children. After work one day he told us that he was going to take us with him so that the children could get to know us. My mind began to whir with thoughts of all the articles I had read and conversations I had had about why it’s so harmful for Americans to go play with children for an hour on one occasion and then disappear from the children’s lives forever. I think that ATL instantly saw the hesitation on my face because he started looking sad all of a sudden and said, “Juliana, you don’t want to go play with my kids? They all will be so happy to see you.” What was I to do in this situation? If I didn’t go, I would be disappointing ATL, who had done nothing but good for us since the second we arrived in Mae Sot. If I did go, I would be going against everything I believe about what students should and should not do when they are volunteering abroad.
I continued this internal battle as I slowly began to follow ATL down the street, and soon I was walking through the door of the Safe House before any sort of real decision about the situation could be made in my mind. A crowd of kids came running toward me, wrapping themselves around my legs and pulling on the hem of my pants. One little boy, who looked like one of the youngest ones there, reached his arms up over everyone else and dropped his lip into a pout, asking to be picked up. I picked him up and starting walking around with him, spinning him in circles and dipping him backward. I’ve never seen such glee on the face of a child. He screamed with laughter and motioned for me to do it again and again. I went to put him down, but he clung even tighter, so I spun him around some more. I tried to put him down again, but still he clung, and began to cry when I tried to pry his legs away from my torso. This happened several more times until I realized that it was not going to be possible for me to put him down without him crying, so I just had to do it anyway. It was heartbreaking to see his tears and know that I had caused them, or rather that the attachment he had formed in the brief moments during which he had been shown care and individualized attention from an older person had caused them. For all I knew, this could have been the first time that he had received this kind of attention.
ATL thought the whole event was very funny, joking that the little boy had a crush on me, but that was not at all the way I felt about the situation. I had gone to the Safe House against my better judgment, knowing the potential harm that it could cause but going anyway because I was afraid to speak up about my concerns and offend our partner. The others in my group didn’t experience anything like this—they played with kids, carried them and spun them, laughed with them—but when it was time to go, everyone waved good-bye with smiles on their faces and that was that. We’ll never know if going to the Safe House and playing with the children had any lasting harmful impact or if it was genuinely just a few hours of fun, for the kids and for us. But this served as a reminder for me not to ignore my instinct when I believe that something I’m doing isn’t right just because I’m afraid of mildly offending someone. The conversations that we have during ghU about global health ethics and voluntourism happen for a reason. They aren’t just empty rhetoric that seems important when we’re having the conversations in a classroom but that can be ignored when we’re actually working on the ground with our partner. Whether I did any permanent damage with my actions or not, I do not feel comfortable with my decision to not voice my concerns in that moment. I can’t do anything about it now, but moving forward this incident will stay with me, reminding me to think critically about each of my actions—particularly those that occur in vulnerable communities such as this one.