I sat in front of the volunteer coordinator of the meditation center, surrounded by white Europeans and a smattering of American volunteers like myself, in the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. We sat patiently in wheelchairs as he spoke, wheelchairs that we would wheel patients around in the next day. He listed out the tasks that were available for the taking: physiotherapy, “Make them Move”, cooking for the volunteer dinner, the pagoda party or helping to wash patients.
I would eventually choose two tasks: physiotherapy and “Make them Move.” Although I went into the tasks with little to no expectations, to say that I was taken aback would be a vast understatement of reality.
I discovered that physiotherapy involved following handwritten physical therapy instructions in an effort to help Burmese stroke patients move their nearly paralyzed body parts. We spoke loudly and repetitively in English, demonstrating the movements with our own bodies, often resorting to moving their body parts for them. More often than not, we struggled with the barrier of language, unable to ask permission for our actions or explain what stretch we were about to help them do.
“Make them Move” involved blasting Western pop hits like “Happy” by Pharrell on a loudspeaker, dancing our way through various hospital rooms in an attempt to “boost morale.” This activity also required averting our gaze at the naked bodies that lay lifelessly in their cots, trying not to breathe in the strong stench that ran rampant throughout the smaller, wooden buildings that held patients in critical condition.
When I embarked on a trip to Southeast Asia for my gap year, I planned to volunteer with a popular work-exchange program, offering my menial labor in exchange for cheap lodging. What I didn’t expect to receive was knowledge about the largely negative impact that programs like these and careless travelers can have on local economies in developing countries.
“Volunteering” at this meditation center that doubled as a hospital for refugees seemed laudable. But as an under-qualified, ignorant 18-year-old who didn’t know any Burmese, I was barely helpful to the patients, if not actively detrimental.
When I tried my hand at physiotherapy, I performed under-qualified physical therapy on vulnerable patients. “Make them Move” was demoralizing, and did nothing other than patronize and invalidate the real struggles patients were facing.
In addition to the detrimental, or at best, neutral impact I had on the health of the patients, volunteers were offered the alms that the monks, who walked barefoot every day through the nearby town, collected. We cobbled together a meal of cucumbers, squash, cabbage, rice and beans — whatever the neighbors had lying around and could donate. For the first few days, I remained blissfully ignorant of what the patients ate, until the volunteer coordinator told me that they ate ramen noodles every day — nothing else. What we ate was a feast in comparison.
Why was I there, then, if I didn’t improve the health of the patients and was eating food that could have gone to them? Learning to meditate or being exposed to a less privileged lifestyle, maybe. Yet, they are benefits at a serious cost to others. It is incredibly selfish to travel to a developing country under the guise of improving their quality of life, when in reality, one is only benefiting themselves. “Helping developing countries” has become a pastime for Westerners, especially young ones looking to boost their resumes or seeking the excitement of a gap year. It’s one that I didn’t fully understand, until I found myself on one of those very trips.
I know now that I made a mistake. I traveled to Southeast Asia with vague intentions: I wasn’t sure whether I was there to travel or volunteer, and as a result, I ended up falling into the white savior complex, despite not being white myself. I justified my actions as “helping others” when in reality, I brought no special expertise and used up precious resources.
I considered myself to be fairly “woke” prior to this experience; it was hard to come to the realization that I had made a mistake out of intentional ignorance. Although I had heard about voluntourism prior to the trip, I didn’t take the care of doing my research beforehand. After realizing that the meditation center was a useless scam, I wanted to wallow in self-guilt or buy a ticket back to the States immediately, but I knew that that would be quite possibly the worst option, both economically and in terms of benefiting others. Instead, I modified my entire travel experience to simple tourism, staying in hotels along the way and visiting countries in the region. While it cost more money on my end, I no longer felt as if I were taking advantage of work-exchange programs that hurt local communities. Instead, I did my best to contribute to the local economy, spreading what little money I could in exchange for goods and services.
Before you gawk in awe at your fellow classmates who took gap years teaching English at orphanages or helping patients at hospitals or staying in local families’ houses in exchange for cooking and cleaning, consider whether they had an overall positive impact. Or, think about the more likely scenario, which is that they took away jobs from locals and contributed to the toxic and capitalist industry of voluntourism that exploits local communities in developing countries.
Instagram stories of gap years that show pictures of young, brown and black boys and girls are unethical and exploitative, so don’t travel for the sake of the gram. Don’t support an industry that feeds off of the pain of others to make yourself feel like a savior, or even just to see the world on a budget. Take the time to think before you travel — it’s something I wish I had done.
Jessica Wang is a first year in Morse College. Contact her at email@example.com .