“Be prepared—the conditions on the island will be very different from our life; no electricity, no running water…” The voice of our trip leader at our pre-departure meeting echoed in my head once again; except this time, I find myself actually walking down the one and only street on the Koh Pdao Island, in middle of the mesmerizing Mekong. From the water of Cambodia’s mother river in the leftmost corner of my sight, I scanned my surrounding for the very first time. What immediately burst into my mind was the unsettling heat, the mooing of the cows, the rhythmic beats of the hoes and shovels, the songs of the roosters, and a faint smell of dust. My eyes grew wider and wider as more observations entered my vision. Without me even realizing, these curious findings turned into judgmental words like “rural”, “lack of development”, and—I felt bad for this one—“archaic.” Nothing more than what western society has been educating me about the idea of “third-world countries”, carrying the connotation of “something needs to be fixed, and it needs to be done by us from the ‘first-world.’” Just as I was about to shut my mind to this huge shock I was experiencing, I noticed something unexpected: two farmers were smiling widely as they shared their farming tools. It was such a content smile, which did not even fade one bit as they wiped away the dripping sweat from their forehead. They were so satisfied with their lifestyle, and it confused me. Having grown up with city lights brighter than the North Star, I had never experienced this satisfaction expressed on these farmers’ faces. I was always after the trendiest shoes and the newest iPhone; all the materialistic things one can imagine. The farmers’ happiness was something so unfamiliar that it puzzled me.
These thoughts, accompanied by my profound confusion, were carried on my back like a burden to be sorted out, until one of the group discussions we had on our third day in Koh Pdao. During this discussion, our in-country guide Claire showed us the global wealth model, where 30 cookies were distributed to 30 stick figures representing the global population. Among the 30 people, 1 person received a whopping number of 12 cookies, while 19 of them merely got a few crumbs each. Traditionally, the 19 people have been associated in our western perspective with pitying tones. As well as being poor, they are treated with negative connotations. However, I noticed how the folks of Koh Pdao, although living on $1 per day earnings, had a smile so much wider than their counterparts—us, with our fancy lifestyles and city life. After a period of pondering to complete my self-reflection, I realized the narrowness of our model of life quality measurement. Us, attendees of a “wealthy” private prep-school in Canada, recreated a model designed by people who most likely also have a great share of cookies, assigned 12 cookies to ourselves, and because of that we developed a sense of superiority. Oftentimes, in discussions like this one, we stand atop the heights of perceived “privilege”, grant ourselves this sense of superiority, while failing to realize the true meaning of wealth besides its monetary significance. As a result, instead of knowing anything prior to our arrival about the village folks’ life, we allowed ourselves to brand the time we spend here as a “service trip”, implying that we were making a kind gesture of offering to the folks here; we would also subconsciously feel as if they were living a life much worse than ours. However, do they really need a group of us with almost non-existent practical skills to fly across the world to build eight water tanks and work on a vegetable garden? It really feels like we are gaining so much more learning than the folks here are gaining substantial “service” from us. On top of this thought, I reflected a little more on the differences in the village lifestyle compared to our own. If we forced our standards of living onto their life, would they actually be as “helped” as we think they would be?
I then realized, here is where the dividing lines of “quality of life” come to a blur. Should we really chase after the village folks to shift their understanding of the world and pursue our never fulfilled concept of happiness in the western society? While they already have their basic needs of food and medical support, is it really better for them to make such drastic shift? Wouldn’t it do more help if we were more willing to listen to their stories and hear what they wanted, in terms of achieving their version of a better life? This is where I again solidified one of the most important lessons I have learned so far in Koh Pdao; I have finally come close to comprehending the idea of empowering folks around the world in their pursuit of their own goals and dreams (in the case of us feeling that our lives are overflowing with privileges, as we would often like to believe). Also, I will never forget how preposterous it is for us to even think about the concept of being “superior.” While we are all inherently the same as humans, “superiority” sounds absurdly invalid. Once again, in fulfilling our mission of completing the service and learning experience, we will be able to take away so much more than the folks whom we think we are “offering service” to. And here I call for all of you to rethink your mindset towards some of those trips promoted today—branded as a “service trip”, but really structured to satisfy our also never fulfilled ego; doesn’t it seem extremely flawed for us to blindly criticize and be intent on reshaping other people’s lives in a certain way?