I wish I could tell you that I returned to New York happy-go-lucky, refreshed and ready to take on the world. Such is not the case. Since getting back to the city, I’ve acutely felt the crushing weight of the reality that exists outside of my privileged, first-world life.
The truth is, I’m really sad.
And I’m ashamed that I even feel this way. I’m healthy, I have friends and family who love me, and I have more opportunities than I know what to do with. After spending 2 weeks with people who have absolutely nothing and somehow still manage to make do, somehow I’m the one who is upset.
I embarked on this trip assuming it would be a life-changing journey. Not only was I being sent on an all-paid trip to Cambodia to teach adorable children in the slums, it was by an organization I believed in: one that endorses travel as the best education, and believes in using kindness to change people’s lives. I completely underestimated, however, the extent to which this trip would affect me. My volunteering awakened emotions within me that I didn’t even realize I was capable of feeling. I taught children who have nothing, yet are willing to instantly open their hearts to a stranger; I met people who are kind and generous despite having suffered through political calamity, extreme poverty, and unspeakable injustices; I saw a country that, even after a traumatizing genocide, is resiliently pulling itself back to growth and prosperity. I felt hope and deep faith from a place that has every rightful reason to renounce it.
I also saw first-hand what it really means to live in a third-world country. The air was as thick with smog as it was with misery. Vendors, tuk tuk drivers, and beggars alike clamored at tourists for the chance to earn a couple of dollars a day. Luxurious mansions created a deplorable contrast against the countless rows of beaten-down, scrappy shacks. I couldn’t stomach how many homeless children there were, everywhere. They roamed the streets day and night, eyes glossy and empty, their filthy little faces drained of innocence as they desperately extended their hands to strangers for some spare change. Injustice was omnipresent, and it was suffocating.
The intensity and extremity of all that I was living in Cambodia forced me to bury the bad into the recesses of my mind and focus on the good. I couldn’t have maintained a positive outlook and made the best of my volunteer experience otherwise. Now that I find myself back in my safe little world, however, all of the suffering I witnessed is bubbling up and gnawing away at me.
I have seen misery before and it has never affected me this much. After examining the source of my deep-seated discontent, I realized that my sadness extends far beyond being upset over what I saw: in many ways, I am mourning the loss of a naiveté that, despite knowing better, I’ve held about the ease of which we can obtain happiness and comfort. Cambodia harshly reminded me that we live in a world where a large part of society doesn’t know when their next meal will be. A much smaller, privileged sector of society has more than it can even consume, and while some of its members may dabble in humanitarian work here and there, most don’t give much thought to what’s going on outside of their own personal bubble. I hate the realization that we live in a society that is laden with apathy.
Ignorance is bliss, while opening my eyes to all the suffering that is happening in this world hurts. I partook in this apathy, and now that I’ve seen its consequences, I cannot choose to live in oblivion anymore. We need to fight the apathy that is consuming our society, and this requires us to pay attention to some degree. I won’t tell you to overhaul your life and go volunteer in a third-world country; I understand it’s not realistic. What matters is that we’re doing something – and that is determined by how much we are personally willing to give. Regardless of whether it is a lot or a little, our acts of kindness can make the deepest of impact, even when we can’t quantify the results.
There will never be enough words to describe how profoundly my time in Cambodia impacted me and opened my eyes to the good and the bad of the world we live in. More importantly, this trip taught me that small changes do make a difference: maybe not to an entire society, but definitely to a person. And that’s enough. I share with you four ways that we can each break out of the systematic apathy that surrounds us:
1. People’s futures are heavily shaped by how much those surrounding them believe in their potential. So, choose to believe in someone.
In order to overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams, people (children especially) need to feel like they are capable. The people surrounding us influence our reality and consequently our future. Once you tell someone that they cannot do something, that person may start to believe it.
We do this all too often: laugh at people’s exorbitant dreams, pity their unfortunate circumstances, smile and encourage them while secretly thinking to ourselves that it’s probably not going to happen. While there are countless people who will doubt our ability to achieve our dreams, all it takes is one person to really believe in us to inspire us to get there.
There is so much I was able to accomplish, even when the odds were stacked against me, because of all the people in my life who took turns relentlessly believing in my potential. The children that I met in Cambodia need this: approximately 70% of them will never make it past the 12th grade. What incentive do they have to believe they will someday escape poverty and have a promising future, when they are trapped in a system that is designed to discourage them from completing their education? One thing is certain – they will not believe in their potential if they are not pushed to try. When faced with a situation that appears unfavorable or hopeless, the only obstacle that may stand between us and giving up is someone who tells us to keep going. Be that person for someone. In doing so, you have the potential to change a life (or more).
2. To truly open your heart to others, sometimes you have to allow it to be wrung and broken.
I awoke my first morning in Cambodia to a text message from my father, informing me that my beloved grandfather had passed away. The timing was almost unbelievable. Here I was, halfway across the world, at least a 10-hour flight from anyone I loved, in a strange, third-world country I knew nothing about. As I quietly sat in a dorm room full of empty beds, knowing absolutely no one in the volunteer house, I remember thinking I’ve never felt so alone. My grandfather was gone and I had no one to hold me and tell me it was going to be okay. Instead, I had to pick my head up and pretend nothing had happened as everyone else went about with their day. I pledged to open my heart on this trip, only to have it broken before it had even started.
Ironic, isn’t it?
I didn’t expect for my grandfather’s death to give me purpose. The devastation of the news made me hypersensitive to the suffering happening around me, whereas I may have otherwise only perceived the happiness. Though I said I’d open my heart on this trip, I’m not sure how well I could have done it without a catalyst. I am terrified of feeling vulnerable and have become incredibly efficient at protecting myself from hurt. Experiencing a personal heartbreak shocked me into the realization that we can’t just filter our emotions at will. We either lock them all out, or let them all in. Partaking in the happiness of the children I met meant recognizing that they are not one-dimensional creatures: they hurt and feel pain, even though I am not around to see it. Experiencing these children’s infinite potential for happiness and a bright future made the misery of seeing less fortunate children sleeping in the streets all the more intolerable.
By no means am I encouraging a family death in the quest to open your heart. I am suggesting that to do so, you can’t avert your attention from the pain that you will inevitably feel somewhere along the way. Let the hurt in. With hurt also comes compassion, and if you nurture it, empathy. The sharp feeling of indignation that accompanies the pain is precisely what motivates us to action.
3. People frustrate us sometimes and that’s okay. Take this as an opportunity to understand someone else’s point of view.
Though unsurprised, I was disappointed by the unfriendliness and hostility I sometimes faced in Cambodia. Sometimes I felt like I was being treated with such indifference, for no reason other than being a foreigner. As I learned more about the country’s recent history, however, this “unfriendly” demeanor began to make sense: in addition to being plagued by poverty, Cambodians live in a country whose government brutally slaughtered ¼ of its own people less than 40 years ago.
The reason for people’s lack of kindness usually has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with themselves. I’ve come off as unfriendly to strangers many times – we all have moments where we turn our niceness off in lieu of dealing with our personal problems. Frustration over others’ poor demeanor is completely acceptable and human. The challenge is trying to understand why they are behaving that way. You’ll find that, more often than not, they have a good reason. Whether you agree with it is up to you.
An amazing change happens when you try to understand someone else’s point of view: you perceive more of the good. As time passed, locals didn’t seem so unfriendly. Merchants went from being aggressive to good at their jobs. Tuk tuk drivers shifted from being sly and sneaky to being people who try to make their own luck in an incredibly competitive market. I learned to see beyond the simplistic extremities of “good” and “bad.”
4. Learn to love someone just because.
Our love for others is so often tethered to expectations. Does it always have to be? Whenever we can, why not try to love someone just because they are there?
We are each our own unique collection of interests, memories, and dreams, yet at the end of the day we share one desire: we all want to be loved, appreciated and understood. The main differentiator is how much we are willing to open our hearts to those who come knocking.
In their short lives, the children I met at the orphanage have experienced abandonment, loss, and consistent deprivation. They have no reason to trust or love the strangers that waltz in and out of their lives at the school, but they do anyway. Giving out your love to people who haven’t necessarily earned it and getting hurt for it is a very real possibility. What makes it worth it? Meeting these children introduced me to the cathartic feeling of joy and gratitude that springs from knocking down our barriers and loving for the sake of it. It’s overwhelming, irreplaceable, and it will change you.
A Final Confession: The Gift
The past few weeks have taken me on a rollercoaster ride of emotions: I’ve had my heart broken by the news of my grandfather’s death and the misery I witnessed, only to have it pieced back together by a group of remarkable little souls. I made new friends, I learned the rich and devastating history of a country I previously did not pay much attention to, and I took a leap towards fusing my dream of traveling the world with my desire to connect people.
In addition to my trip to Cambodia, the Human Interaction Project has given me a final, amazing opportunity to change someone’s life: I will be able to award a gift to whatever cause most deeply affected me during my journey.
After seeing the deplorable state of the Cambodian educational system, I am choosing to send one child to university for four years. Not just any child – someone who is smart, passionate, and most importantly, has proven to care about improving the community and the current state of affairs in Cambodia. Education changed my life: I grew up in tough circumstances and didn’t think I could attend university because I couldn’t afford it. For reasons I still cannot fully comprehend, people around me fought to make it happen, from waiving application fees to granting me a substantial scholarship at an Ivy League university. Though two weeks of volunteering was not enough, I hope that gifting someone a chance at a future will be the first step towards many more lives changed.
Regardless of who we are or where we come from, there is a mysterious force that connects each one of us to one another. To change a life is to change many. And that change – which should be powered by love, kindness, and a relentless resistance to apathy – begins with you.