Johnny Fang believes that unlike tourism, working on the ground in a foreign locale lets one enjoy the process of building something from nothing. He plans to continue volunteering overseas in the future. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Volunteering abroad can be like an in-depth tour of a new place. It requires you to free yourself from your initial preconceptions, and learn to look at the world through the eyes of local people and really understand what they need.
For this article we interviewed two 20-somethings who chose to postpone their pursuit of paid employment to sign up for the Taiwan Overseas Volunteers program of the International Cooperation and Development Fund (TaiwanICDF). Both of them wanted to put their particular skills to use helping to improve the quality of life for people in other countries while also working with the locals and getting a deeper insight into their cultures, customs, and ways of life.
Immersed in Middle-Eastern Culture
In December 2017, 27-year-old volunteer Johnny Fang landed in Jordan. A few days later, US President Donald Trump declared that America would be recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an announcement that ignited demonstrations across the Middle East. Even Jordan, which normally sees little in the way of civil unrest, experienced a noticeable rise in tensions.
While having such a bombshell hit so early into his stay left Fang feeling uneasy, at no point did he consider sounding the retreat. He was very well aware that there are risks in being in any country. A few months earlier, he had been to the Dominican Republic on diplomatic substitute service, and while muggings and gang violence were commonplace, he remained fully committed to his work helping to develop the bamboo industry there.
His volunteer work in Jordan ran for three months, aiming to use market research to understand the views of farmers in the town of Azraq on the construction of compost yards. The conditions there are naturally unfavorable for agriculture, with summer rainfall scarce and winter frosts damaging to crops, while the use of chemical fertilizers by local farmers has begun turning the land barren. On top of this, in recent years refugees have poured in from neighboring countries, their settlements generating large amounts of trash. Finding ways to turn that trash into fertilizer and help address both the public health and soil issues has become a pressing issue.
With a background in business studies, Fang first consulted with local groups before designing a survey to get a grasp of the basic stats of local farms (size, crop types, number of workers, etc.) and farm owners’ views on compost yards. Using a digitized version of the survey, Fang had respondents answer on a tablet, which not only streamlined the interview process, but also made later data analysis easier.
Conducting interviews and surveys may sound like an easy task, but Azraq is home to some 600-plus farms, some of which are situated in rugged mountains where Internet reception is weak and Google Maps can be unreliable. In addition, the roads there are rough and the area vast, which means traveling can take quite some time; visiting three farms a day was the most he could hope for.
After three months, the team had visited 73 farms, collecting the results in report format as a reference for the next step of the project. “But the real challenge was yet to come, and ultimately we hoped the locals could be self-sufficient,” says Fang. The surveys were but the first step; they would be followed by the formation of a cooperative to help with the creation of the compost yards, development of a profit model, and future work toward sustainable operations.
Learning, not rescuing
What left the greatest impression on him, though, was the Jordanian philosophy on life. A small country surrounded by more powerful ones, in an area of the world that sees frequent conflict, Jordan can seem like an oasis of calm. Not only does the country rarely experience violent unrest, it has also been very accepting of refugees, having drafted plans to respond to refugee issues and set aside several residential areas for them. “Sometimes you’d hear locals complain that refugees were taking their jobs, but generally speaking, you’d rarely hear people be anything less than welcoming to them,” recalls Fang, contrasting this with the much stronger anti-refugee rhetoric he had previously heard in Europe.
Through this volunteer experience, Fang came to understand and appreciate the difficulties of life in the Middle East, where day and nighttime temperatures differ widely, water is scarce, and the climate is so dry that leafy vegetables are a rarity. Once the images from the television had been made real for him, he began to empathize more with local people and understand their needs, letting go of his old preconceived ways of doing things and looking at things from a wider set of perspectives.
Since returning to Taiwan, whenever sharing his experiences at talks, Fang reminds those who wish to volunteer overseas that mindset is crucial. Don’t go thinking you’re there to help the locals; instead, think of it as a mutually beneficial exchange. Otherwise, you risk misusing approaches from your own culture to solve local problems. Fang recommends trying to respect the local character and striking a balance between that and your own approach to things.
TaiwanICDF provides pre-departure training for overseas volunteers. Here we see a teacher instructing volunteers in CPR. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Palau’s weighty crisis
Chou Yu Ting, another volunteer, graduated with a degree in nutritional science in 2015 before signing up for TaiwanICDF’s long-term overseas volunteer program, spending a year working on health education and nutrition in Palau.
During World War II, these beautiful islands were battlefields, and the long campaigns of that conflict led to a diverse population setting down roots here, creating a culture respectful of difference.
Chou’s work mostly involved providing health education, traveling to each community to teach correct nutritional concepts and measure blood pressure and blood sugar. “A lot of them had high blood pressure, some as high as 190!” Palauans, Chou found, are generally overweight, leading to high rates of heart disease and diabetes, not to mention an average lifespan in the 60s. This can be attributed to unbalanced dietary habits. Palauans often eat canned foods and drink soft drinks, and these two are even common features of supposedly nutritious school lunches.
“Local people are aware of the problem, but there’s a difference between knowing and doing anything about it, so we had to make up that difference.” Chou went on to give demonstrations teaching how to cook healthy dishes; throughout, people would pepper her with questions, unfamiliar and curious as they were about the Taiwanese style of mixing meat and vegetables. While these activities were well received, the volunteers were aware that eating habits don’t just change overnight, and that the government needs to prepare a plan to help their people make the necessary change.
Enjoying her lifestyle in Palau, when her year of service came to an end Chou applied to continue volunteering there. For her second year (later extended to a third), she joined the local Ministry of Education to help put in place a program aimed at redesigning school lunches to be more balanced and varied and to get rid of the unhealthy elements like canned foods and soft drinks. School cooks differed in their acceptance of the new menus. Some realized that poor nutrition was a problem and were willing to try new ideas, while others didn’t want to spend any time dealing with fresh ingredients when canned would work just as well—after all, that was what they’d grown up on.
Some students didn’t like the healthy lunches, dumping the food under their tables. Of course, this left Chou feeling somewhat dispirited, but also aware that changing people’s attitudes needs time. Fortunately, she encountered like-minded cooks who could use common Palauan cooking methods to prepare uncommon ingredients and make them more palatable for their students. “Originally, my menu included fish soup, but the cooks took the fish, added cassava, and made sandwiches, which the students responded to really well.” From this, Chou learned that if you want to address other people’s needs, you need to be able to look at problems from their perspective.
Always moving, always changing
Chou liked to go swimming after work, even winning a local open-water swimming competition. Once, she lost her way while kayaking solo, having to rely on the lighthouse to find her way back home in the dark. The locals knew Chou loved the ocean, and so before she left, they organized a boat trip to a nearby island for a special seaside picnic.
During her three years in Palau, Chou Yu Ting found local people very open-minded and respectful of cultural and personal differences. “Coming back, I realized how narrow Taiwanese ideals of beauty are. There’s more than one kind of beauty! In the past, I hated my body, but now I appreciate myself for my uniqueness. I’ve also learned to approach things by taking on board different voices.” Life in Palau had a profound effect on Chou, and her friends in Taiwan found that she had become warmer and more caring.
Touched by her time in Palau and remembering Palauans’ local needs, after returning to Taiwan Chou spent a year preparing to apply for graduate school in the US. She hopes to head back to Palau to carry out nutrition-related plans during her master’s program.