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Voluntourism 2.0

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Photo: Yi Lu/Viewstock/Corbis

On my last day teaching, Amok thanks me with a series of elaborate bows, paying me the highest compliment by placing his fingertips to his symbolic third eye—a gesture meant only for parents, who are exalted above Buddha. I’ve taught him enough about phonetics that he believes he will ace a university interview. He will, like most Khmer, also work a second and third job in order to have enough to send to his aging parents for food and as an unspoken thank-you for helping him survive the holocaust.

“We could really use more volunteers like you,” Amok insists. “All of Cambodia could. Would you ever consider coming back?” I humbly nod: the poverty, the devastation, and the hope of Amok and his countrymen have touched me deeply and spiritually.

I’m 16 pounds lighter from profuse sweating and sickness. My ribs are sore where the kids kicked me as I taught them to swim, and I have an itchy scalp from nits. But I also have an enormous sense of gratitude for my friends, my family, my shoes.

I promise him, “I will come back.” I think of the lesson plans I could bring, sustainable farming techniques, and a network of friends at the ready to send diapers and cleaning supplies.

“Good,” he says. “Very, very good.” He pauses to adjust his designer sunglasses. “But could you learn Photoshop first? It would really help the kids.”

I wanted to ask just how I could save the world with Photoshop. I wanted to ask where these new skills fit in a place without the infrastructure to support them. I wanted to ask if my nontechnical efforts had been any help at all. But by then, Amok had already revved up his moto, flipped open his phone, begun a text, and driven away.

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