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Voluntourism 2.0


Photo: Yi Lu/Viewstock/Corbis

This confounding exchange was not exactly what I imagined when I took three months off to teach English at a youth center in Sihanoukville. I’d been drawn there after reading books like First They Killed My Father and Stay Alive, My Son, which chronicle the Cambodian civil war’s elimination of professionals and intellectuals. And I found all the same conditions: university attendance was low; doctors and mathematicians preferred to work outside their home countries; and with no architects, buildings were falling down.

Teaching English to survivors and their families seemed paramount to rebuilding the infrastructure. So I taught English to children—ages ranging from six months to 16 years—at an at-risk center and makeshift school, six days a week. I also helped out wherever I could: teaching art therapy, cooking vats of rice and chicken beaks, clearing brush, and administering first aid to kids for maladies ranging from lice to typhoid.  

I worked enthusiastically, believing I could have a tangible and lasting impact. And while I was an integral part of many efforts—building structures, changing diapers, helping high school students get jobs—I also became known for a very different reason: my iPad. Students spent hours poring over the screen, playing around with apps, games, and icons.

It was always an enjoyable experience for them, with just one glaring problem: I couldn’t use it to take their picture. My 2010-era iPad had no camera. When they found out, the kids looked horrified, even embarrassed for me, giggling and skipping away in torn clothes and broken flip-flops. “So big!” They marveled as they handed the device back to me. “So heavy. New one thinner. You should get new one.”


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