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.Complicated.
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.