The Kids Are Alright? A Second Look at International Service

DSC_0903 Jacob Pharoah As I sit wearily in my room, mosquito bite-clad and tired from a thirteen-hour flight with the kind stewardesses of Korean Air, I stare at an empty suitcase that has returned with me from my Project Week trip to Cambodia. Ten days ago, it was filled with an assortment of lightly worn clothes, laptops, and leather bound notebooks, with the intention of being donated to a group of Cambodian high school students. My experience at the small high school has sparked a huge question in my mind, and a controversial one at that: are these kids really better off with our help, or are we simply imposing a Western ideal? And if we are helping when we lend a hand overseas, would our help not be more useful locally? Both questions were brought up in recent LIFE luncheons, but with students having international Project Week experience under their belts, these questions seem overwhelmingly relevant. The school in question lies a couple of miles outside of Siem Reap, in a rural but picturesque farming community. As our trusty travel company bus pulled into a large and humid courtyard, the heads of Cambodian teenagers turned eagerly towards us. With classrooms on three sides of our bus, this was an intimidating sight to say the least. Our guides lugged bags of donations to a room in a shaded region of the high school, and once we all had ventured inside we were paired up with a Cambodian, with a set of questions and a repertoire of hand signals at our disposal. I was paired with Voeurn, who laughed often and smiled as he told me of his future plans. I was pleasantly overwhelmed by the good feeling in the room, but it left our donations in the shadows, both literally and figuratively. The students showed us around their school, eagerly pointing to their friends and favorite teachers, their vegetable garden, and the beautiful lake that rests peacefully outside the fence that surrounds the school. This went on until we approached a classroom where computers laid virtually untouched. It became evident that the children had a different set of needs, needs that were alien to our Western outlook. It begs a question of global ethics, and whether we are really helping these kids. They are happy as they are, so are we really improving their lives by giving them a glimpse of Western luxuries and what we perceive to be a better life? As I said my good-byes to Voeurn and the rest of the children, my mind traveled a few thousand miles back to Chicago. Perhaps I was caught up in the allure of traveling to another country to donate, or maybe I expected the Cambodian kids to be more needy, but somehow I had forgotten about the underfunded schools in Chicago, which are more than a little in need of a few laptops. These are the children who are constantly reminded of the luxuries that the Western world affords some, because they live in the midst of it, with a front row view of our J-Crew sweaters and Apple Mac laptops. They are fully aware of what is lacking from their situation, but despite this we were all much happier to fly half way around the world to donate to children that we will probably never see again. There is no answer to my question, and as I avert my gaze from the empty suitcase, I have yet to find a conclusion myself. What is certain, however, is that we are a knowledgeable community, and although we are aware of the problems that face global citizens, we are quick to forget what we can do to help our counterparts a few miles away.]]>