Monday, April 21, 2014

It's Complicated…

No, I'm not talking about my current relationship status. (That is very un-complicated. It doesn't exist.)

Before you read on, you should know that there are several blog posts I plan to reference throughout this post. All of them have been weighing heavily on my heart lately and have at least partially led to me writing/ feeling this. I'd love if you would read them all, but if you choose not to… I'll quote them and hope you click to read more.

The first is entitled The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys) by Pippa Biddle. The second was written by one of my favorite bloggers, Jamie Wright, better known as Jamie the Very Worst Missionary. Her blog post Using Your Poor Kid to Teach My Rich Kid a Lesson really struck a chord with me. My brilliant roommate Mallory wrote a poignant and beautiful (pun intended) blog post 3 weeks ago called Hello, Beautiful. Finally, Amanda, an American blogger living in Rwanda, wrote a piece about international adoption: Let's Get Real

There's a Red Hot Chili Peppers song that says "the more I see, the less I know." That's how I've been feeling about my experience here "serving" in the Philippines. The more I learn about this country and international service, the less I know. 

I think all volunteers begin with ideas of grandeur. "I'm going to save the world!" My friend Jim semi-joked that before his year of service in India, he had every intention of eradicating the caste system. Somewhere in the middle of his year, he got incredibly discouraged with the realization that he was nowhere near this goal. Obviously, this is an exaggeration of what volunteers believe.

But is it really? Of course we don't really believe that we are going to change the world or eradicate the caste system/ pork barrel/ corrupt governments, etc. But we really do believe that we are going to make lasting change. We believe we owe it to these "poor people" to serve them. We believe we are doing more good than we are harm. But are we really?


Pippa tells a story about a short-term missions trip she took in high school to Tanzania. She and several other high school girls went to an orphanage with the intention of building a library. Who could possibly find fault with that? Of course orphans in Tanzania need a library! Unfortunately, a bunch of high school girls are probably not the best people for the job. They tried their darndest, but found out later that despite their hard work, several men would come in at night once the girls fell asleep and "fix" the work the girls had done during the day.
Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.
Jamie shares a similar sentiment. One of the many arguments for short-term missions is that it teaches us to be grateful for what we have. But, she argues, should missions really be about us at all?
When we descend upon the impoverished to improve our family's perspective, we may as well be saying to the mothers of these children, “Pardon me, I'm just gonna use your poor kid to teach my rich kid a lesson for a minute. I'll be out of the way in no time – Oh, and I'll leave you some shoes.... and a toothbrush.”
The not-so-hidden lesson there, the lesson we're teaching kids worldwide, from the suburbs to the ghettos, is that “The rich are Blessed”  - which, of course, means that the poor... can suck it. 
Obviously, that's not true. But that's the unintended message that we share with the world when we altruistically say "Look how Blessed I am, I drive a new car." 

This is a hard topic for me to write about. I am here in the Philippines because of a short-term missions trip I took to Uganda and Kenya last year. I consider this a good thing. For me. I have changed so drastically in the last year and a half, which is arguably the point. The YAV program that I work for has a tagline: a year of service for a lifetime of change. The hope is that my year of service will change me so deeply that it affects the way I live the rest of my life. I can assure you this has already happened. And it's only April! 

So what's the problem? Well, there was a whole lot of "me" in that last paragraph. There has been a whole lot of me all year. I'm uncomfortable. I hate spiders. I love the Philippines. I can't wait to see what God does in my life with all the amazing lessons I've learned this year! Where are the people I'm "serving"? Where do they fit in that equation?

And while we're at it, am I really "serving" anyone? Pippa brings up 2 very important points. 1) Do you (I) have marketable/ necessary skills to participate in international aid? 2) The white savior complex is a VERY real, VERY problematic issue in the developing world.
Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world... consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches…
Mallory's blog post was about our "whiteness" as well. Mallory and I both get called "beautiful" on a daily basis. Children that we work with yearn after our skin tone. Products are sold on every corner advertising a whitening agent to make dark skin lighter. I am constantly asked for input on things I have no business talking about… by older Filipinos. It is assumed that I am knowledgeable and intelligent simply because of the color of my skin.
The bigger question is why can’t Filipina women in particular, see how beautiful they are? How is it that the colonial myth that European features are somehow superior to the native phenotype has persisted to present day?
The worst was spending time with a sick 10 year old that I know. I observed that she looked a lot better than the last time I saw her, she was much less pale. “But Ate Mallory, I want to be pale” she responded.

You see how it's complicated? Jamie commented on one of her blog posts and said: "it's complicated and the more you pick away at the layers, the more confusing it becomes." Exactly. And there are SO many layers to pick away at. Not the least of which is the oft-skewed definition of poverty. Amanda writes about this challenging topic in relation to international adoptions: 
Poverty. Here’s where we rich white Americans miss the mark so badly, so often. We see poverty when children don’t get an education, live in homes with dirt floors, and eat only rice and beans. But we don’t often see the poverty in a child who grows up lacking the connection to her biological family.
In a perfect world, all children would live with the parents God gave them through birth, live in a house in a gated suburb on a quiet street, go to school, and eat ice cream sandwiches every day [ok that's my perfect world]. But alas, we don’t. Living in America ain’t perfect, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. Many people in the developing world believe that it is, that there are no problems in America. But they are dead wrong, and we shouldn’t lie to them and say that it will be perfect for their kids in America. 

In a conversation with my dear friend and pastor's wife a few weeks ago, I shared that "this is just my life now. I'm not doing anything differently than I would be in the States. I just live here. I'm not really helping anybody because these people don't need my help." That may sound negative to you (this all may sound negative to you), but I am speaking my truth. 

I truly feel that I may very well be doing less good here than I could be in the States. At home, I speak the same language as the children that I work with. I live right down the road from them. I look like their friends, neighbors, aunts, teachers, etc. I don't just look like a celebrity out of a Hollywood movie. I don't look like a "savior" swooping down to "save" them. And that simple fact may actually make it easier for me to make a difference in their lives. Just the other day I told our site coordinator, Dessa, that I don't really want people to see me. I want people to see God through me, and that's pretty difficult when people can't see past the color of my skin. 

Pippa summed up my feelings pretty concisely in this paragraph:
I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning. 
When I told my friend that I didn't feel like I was really helping anyone here (because they don't need my help), she responded: "That in and of itself might be what you are supposed to experience and bring back to us." 

Maybe it is. I don't know. What I do know is that like JVM said, the more you pick away at it, the more confusing it becomes. It's complicated. The more I see, the less I know. 

I don't pretend to have it all figured out. My ever-wise daddy once told me, "the older I get, the less I have figured out." Maybe I'm just growing up. But I don't think I'm going to save the world anymore.  

That's not my job.


  1. Abigail, I have to commend you on this post. Well said, and very thought provoking.

    We've been living in Mexico for the last couple of years, and even in the indigenous areas I can't think of a single thing any sort of mission project could help them with, realistically. They're generally self-sufficient and not emaciated. They somehow figure out how to make ends meet, with or without education.

    Not too long ago, in the great America, it was not uncommon for children to quit school before graduation in order to help their parents, usually on a farm. They would never have considered themselves impoverished, or 'third world,' and yet that is often how we treat other cultures in similar situations.

    You talk about the changes you've experienced. Do you think you could have experienced the same changes if you had traveled overseas without the Missions angle?

    1. Glenn,

      Thank you so much for your response! I might share your "I can't think of a single thing any sort of mission project could help them with, realistically." thought on my FB if that's okay with you. I really appreciate hearing from other people that live abroad.

      Your points are fantastic and so is your question! I have to say I'm not sure if I would have experienced the same changes without the missions angle. As a Christ-follower, I tend to relate major events and changes in my life to God, so I believe God brought me to the Philippines with the intention of me learning these lessons. I also think that the "Christian" short-term missions industry (because that's what it is- a money making industry) is a large part of the problem internationally. The changes and discoveries I've made are all in relation to the "mission" concept.

      That's not to say I wouldn't have changed and grown if I'd come over here just as an expat. Change is constant. But as for the changes I've made so far, I do have to attribute them to the experience that I've had, simply because I have no other frame of reference. Thanks so much for dialoging with me- I'd love to continue the conversation!

  2. This is a fantastically insightful post, Abby. You are speaking the truths of so many of us that have had the opportunity to go out in the world and "make it better". I do believe you can make it better, I believe we all can. But you are right, you can do that from where ever you are. Throw a stone in a pond and the ripples will continue to resonate away from that stone until they reach the shore. You can be that stone here or you can be that stone there. However, sometimes, it is my belief that you really do need to step outside of yourself to see who you really are and what you can really do. Yes, you could have stayed here, in the US, and helped the children down the street but then you would have been the same Abby that you have always been. This year in the Philippines has been just as important for your development of self as it is for you to be a part of something bigger than yourself. You got to redefine who you believe that your best self is, without any history or past holding you back and trying to define you for who you were. When you come home, you will be ready to be that stone in which every community you find yourself and in whatever you decide to do. Yes, sometimes these experiences are more enlightening for the volunteer than the community in which they serve but if nothing else, this year will teach you to always remember to leave a smaller footprint on the Earth than you have before, to value what is truly important for a good human life, to reserve judgment of anyone (because that is not our job), and to love others as you love yourself (which is always a journey inandof itself). You are making progress, this post is proof of that and God is working through you, even if you can't see it in the now.~ Peace and grace be your journey sister, we love you.

  3. Abby,

    I've been struggling with how to respond to this post for a couple of days because it brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings as I was reading it. I shared a similar experience when I first got into the mental health care field - I thought I was going to "fix" all my clients in 6 months, and that the company would have to constantly find new residents given how fast I was taking care of things. I had no idea just how complex a world I was walking into. What I learned from that experience was to savor the little changes in those around me - and to cherish the little victories. Sure, I still celebrated when a resident was able to move out of the group home and into his own independent apartment. But I celebrated just as hard when a person went a day - or sometimes even an hour - without having a cigarette. And while I got into the field as a way of helping myself (pay bills and find a sense of fulfillment from life), I quickly learned that it was about helping others; I took the emphasis off doing things to make myself feel good and trying to "fix" others. Instead, I just try to do the best I can each day, and to make that best a little better than it was yesterday.

    I also know how it feels to be helping those whom you feel you have no position helping - most of the clients I've worked with are older than me, and this will continue to be the case until I'm much further along in my professional journey than I am today. I would caution you that if you want people not to look at you solely because of your age, skin color, or where you come from, you have to make sure you are not doing the same yourself. Don't sell yourself short, just because you are young or inexperienced - that man clearly valued your opinion in spite of all the shortcomings you see in yourself. While there is definitely something noble in not wanting to be thought of as an expert in all matters just because you are white, seize every opportunity you get to help someone with something, because in addition to the individual needing help, you will grow in knowledge and as a person. Those experienced builders who came in and fixed things the girls did? They didn't get as good at building things without a little practice (as the joke goes, the best way to get to Carnegie Hall is through practice).

    Finally, while you may not be able to change some of the evils that plague society (like the savior complex or racial issues), you can work to make small changes in the lives of a few individuals. If someone comments that they wish their skin was the color of yours, tell them how so many Americans spend large amounts of time and money trying to get their skin to be darker - something I know you have experience with ;) I saw a post on some form of social media today that went something along the lines of "If you brighten the mood of just one person a day, you will have improved the lives of at least 14,600 people in 40 years." Continue doing awesome work, Abby - you never know whose life you are affecting, or how much.

  4. I enjoyed reading your insightful commentary. I relate to many of your thoughts and questions, as I grappled with them 35 years ago in Africa while a Peace Corps volunteer. I resolved it, not easily: have confidence that you are an important part of the mix, you give some and you take some.