By Yun Tae Hyeong (Park).
Park participated in Skillseed's Microfinance, Macro Impact course - a learning journey interrogating the humanitarian aspect of finance - last November. Currently a student at Hwa Chong Institution, he wants to be an architect and enjoys a good dance party.
I WAS NEVER TOO IMPRESSED with the concept of volunteerism, and considered it an overly idealistic notion with questionable effectiveness. I certainly wasn’t too optimistic about this trip, although its unique objective - to work on microfinance and financial literacy in an underserved community - definitely caught my attention, but I still had no idea what I was going to be a part of. As I think back, I am not too clear on why as to I decided to go on a service trip like this – was it to confirm my cynical criticisms on volunteerism or a subconscious desire to prove myself wrong? Whatever the case, I don’t think I’m regretting it.
It was nothing but surprises from the first team meeting. I was exposed to entirely new concepts and perspectives of helping a community, already revealing how shallow and narrow my Weltanschauung was, way before the actual trip even began. As I was shown numbers and told anecdotes of how our community partner - Organisation for Building Community Resources - has served multiple villages, I could feel myself slowly letting go of the convictions I had held so firmly before. This intensified when I was in Cambodia myself, as I experienced the tangible results of the ideologies that I had doubted.
Now, when you see something happening with your very own eyes, it becomes practically impossible for you to deny it, and this completely shattered my assumptions. I was in awe that such a surreally perfect concept - microfinance - could function in the real world! It revealed how little I understood before, and the thought that I had scoffed at something this amazing whilst caught up in my arrogant teenage angst makes me ashamed of my former self.
To be honest, I still do not sufficiently understand how this idea of “microfinance” is able to function so fantastically, sparking such vibrant economic activity out of a small loan, in a closed community with limited interaction with the outer world. To me, the equation still does not add up and seems too good to be true. But I guess what is important is that it is actually working and solving one of the most prominent problems in the world. I could see myself having much less doubt and more conviction about this ideology - it was simply too undeniably convincing.
As much as that revelation took me by surprise, what really struck me with awe occurred when we travelled to the village of Samrong Tong, the home base of OBCR located an hour outside Phnom Penh where we would stay for 5 nights. What struck me did not have much to do with our objective - to raise the importance of financial literacy for the youth in this rural community - nor did it have to do with economics, or the other “ideologies” I spoke of earlier. That might sound a little off-topic and odd, since the whole project was centred around microfinance and helping our community partner expand their outreach by helping them create a website. But while OBCR's work is brilliant and meaningful, what really struck me was the local culture. It really wasn’t anything complex or bizarre, but it was just how genuine everything felt. Those people were happy. The kids were happy, the adults were happy, the organization was happy to have us being there.
There are certain conclusions that we are quick to arrive at when we have these kinds of experiences: oh look at how they are happy over the little things or we really should appreciate the things we take for granted back home. But really? Is that it? That seemed so meaningless to me, and worse, seemed to sprout from a cleverly disguised form of arrogance.
Was this community really happy over the little things? Have we ever tried viewing the situation from their perspective? To me it didn’t feel like they were gleeful over the books we brought over. And through more interactions with the local entrepreneurs, I gathered that they actually want their children to go to the city and have better, stable lives. This nailed down my hypothesis. These people are not happy because of what they have, but instead they are happy about the opportunities they find, the hope is what runs their joy, and this is formed by trust between the locals. They were able to appreciate the people and the community around them, helping each other for a better future for all of them, instead of being competitive and trying to burn each other down.
So if our takeaways ended with oh I appreciate wi-fi so much more now, or yay I have a soft bed and an air conditioner to keep me cool with no other subsequent insights, this, I feel, would render our personal learning journey shallow and meaningless. This would just make us common urban citizens who don't have problems because of all the privileges we enjoy. Plus that’s probably going to last about 3 days.
Apart from provoking a different perspective, this experience got me thinking about happiness. Genuine happiness.
I have spoken about how genuine everything felt, and I have no other way to describe it. It might seem iffy, but think about it: When do we actually say we are happy?
We feel happy for a nice dessert, a nice holiday, good grades, getting gifts, and so on. But these are short term, bursts of happiness. When do we really feel happy for a prolonged period of time? Is there anyone in this city who just feels great to be alive?
Certainly there is are eternally optimistic people, but I believe the general consensus that we all can agree on is that we all have our own problems. Negative emotions tend to manifest much more frequently in our expression; can be expressed definitely in a greater diversity; and generally are longer lasting and occur in more complex forms.
So, if happiness occurs in those frames where those negative emotions are not present, this would that mean that the “happiness” we claim to feel is actually satisfaction, or simply put, the fulfilment of our desires. That boils down to the absence of a negative emotion, instead of the presence of a positive one, thus leaving you empty. As I reflected on this, all the "happiness" I felt seemed superficial and false, like a desperate cover up that allowed me to escape the ever-present stress and pressure in my heart.
Over there in the village though, it was entirely different. The air was genuine. It was true pure positivity; I could feel myself being filled up with this feeling. It was as if their happiness just flowed into me, and that’s what I believe genuine emotions do. They affect the people around them. My hypothesis is that the locals have such trust and love for each other that the whole community is able to be joyful all the time. What a different world it is from back here in the city where everyone is loaded with paranoia and views everyone else with precaution; it seems almost as savage and bloodthirsty as the rest of the animal kingdom, living right by the rules of nature – kill or get killed. We call ourselves developed but in certain ways that seems to be ironic. Every time a Cambodian friend said something about their aspiration for Cambodia to be like Singapore, I asked myself if that truly was desirable, and what they might lose in the process. Humanity decided to form a community because we were weak solitary animals, and now we’ve come to a level of seeing another of our kind as an enemy - this trip gave me the eyes to see how much we’ve strayed from what we aspired to be, and also see the amount of hollowness and emptiness in my life that I’ve created.
I still hold doubts about whether what we did was genuinely helpful, or whether we erred on the side of self-benefit, but I have finally seen a realm of possibilities to which I was complete oblivious prior to this journey. Hence, this trip got at least 1 person interested, which I consider a success and an open gate for the cultivation of volunteerism. On another note, this trip gave me time to develop personal insights through all the genuine emotions and the happiness the locals gifted us with which are absolutely invaluable. It was difficult to lay them down in words, since it was all a disorganized cluster of thoughts and feelings that even I don’t fully comprehend yet. But if there is one thing evidently clear, I felt genuine happiness from this trip.