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Voluntourism 2.0

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Photo: Yi Lu/Viewstock/Corbis

Eighteen-year-old Sita wants just one thing—an iPhone.

Even though I'd been volunteering in Cambodia for eight weeks, this revelation comes as a surprise. First, because Sita would have no way to pay the monthly bill; he sends every dollar he makes to his mother. Second, it’s common knowledge here that the country’s service towers don’t work with the iPhone.

I ask Sita—a lover of Beyoncé’s dance moves who sports an urban playboy haircut—why the phone and not, say, a house or a college education. “It would make me a man,” he says, voice breaking. “It means I am important enough to be called by someone.” He wipes his eyes with the back of his dirty hand. “Anyone.”

So I send a missive to my Facebook friends, asking who might have an old phone to spare. Someone does. With the coveted iPhone en route, I run to tell Sita the good news.

Sita dances in place and asks, “Is it an iPhone 5?”

I furrowed my brow—the 5 had come out just weeks before. “Um, I don’t know. I think it’s a 3.”

Sita suddenly stops dancing. “I wanted an iPhone 5, maybe a 4, but certainly not a 3! What could I even do with a 3?”

He grumbles an insult in Khmer and returns to work.

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