Anonymous asked: Just wondering in relation to the "tourist activism" thing you posted, I'm sort of stuck because I was considering taking a gap year and doing some volunteer work in South America but at the same time I know how many organizations that run these kinds of things are predicated on the principle of being white saviors. Do you think volunteering is still bad if you make large attempts to educate yourself on the culture of the place you're going to and recognize the politics of such actions?
1. I’m not opposed to volunteering. Please volunteer in poor communities that need help but can’t pay for it. Food not Bombs was something I always admired in early 90s Denver. You do what you can and in a valuable way. Anyway, I love a long-term or life-long commitment to service, which is why I decided to teach.
To the point: many volunteers are really doing nothing more than finding an excuse to travel and get away from home for several months in a row in a country that’s in a region they always wanted to visit. For example, people volunteer in Cambodia so they can hang out in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam as well. It’s really best to be honest about these things.
I’m not saying you aren’t a good citizen for making a short-term commitment to service. That would be shortsighted and a little mean. I’m saying be honest. You seem to be aware of what I’m talking about since you mention saviors. I’ve personally witnessed, over the last four years, a grotesque sentiment among volunteers, even in Korea, a “but they need us” sentiment, that excuses all sorts of ridiculous privilege. Being honest about our travel is one way to resist transmitting this sentiment.
2. In Cambodia, where I’m moving to for at least three years, this is a real problem. Guest hostels are filled with temporary activists whose favorite cause is orphanages and schools. Party at night, volunteer during the day, travel and shop on the weekends. These aren’t teachers looking to work in a poor country, looking to learn about the local cultures, looking to get to know the families and their needs, looking to commit to developing a lasting pedagogy and curriculum that can promote a strong and self-determining populace, etc. These are temporary volunteers who will play with young children and feel better for it when they return home, in effect, leaving the kids behind. The volunteering is about them, their emotions, and their resumes. (This happens in the US, too. See, Teach for America.) They may have to get up at 5am and ride a bicycle 30k to and from a rural school in the staggering heat and humidity for a few months, but they get to play-teach children and see the rest of southeast Asia, too. This isn’t community service; it’s tourism. Ultimately, it’s the affordable option, in more ways than one.
There’s worse things. You could be moving to a place to teach at an English-language school (owned by locals, foreigners, a corporation, a non-profit organization, it doesn’t matter) where the poorest citizens are bilked for hard-earned pay so you can earn $1,000-$1,300/month to read news stories with your students. These fuckers are the worst kind of capitalists who see profit in poor people’s need to communicate in English with tourists.
3. Be honest about your travel before you leave. And when you return home, don’t act as if you’ve done something lasting to change the world. Be humble about what you did. Most aren’t.
I know this is tough talk. But we have choices to make—grand, lifestyle choices. I’m moving to a town in Cambodia where privileged douche bags go to drop out from white society. They open cafes and restaurants, they buy property, they marry local, they live poorly, and they pretend their “alternative” lifestyles are something more than affordable. (Then there’s the business owners who move in to cater to the expat communities’ needs for alcohol and home-cooking and sport. Actually, there’s something more honest about that, but I’m straying.) After all, if it doesn’t work out, they all have places to return to, even the criminals. It’s upsetting to talk about it, it’s more upsetting to see it when you visit, but I imagine it’s going to be intolerable when I live there.
I absolutely hate the “let’s live poorly” aesthetic in white traveler communities. The hippy “hey, I don’t shower any longer” privileged vegan scum aesthetic. When I go off about volunteering, I’m mostly talking about these kinds of folks, which I hope doesn’t describe you. ^^v