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“You’re such a good person,” and other things not to say to someone who does humanitarian work

July 14, 2009

I only have a few weeks left at home before my big move,  so I’ve been spending as much time as I can with my family, which often includes running errands with my mom around our small town. Whenever we see people we know, they ask what I’m up to these days. I usually tell them that I’m living at home, and I might mention that I’m going to be working on a women’s health project in the fall, but I try not to talk about moving to Cambodia. It’s not that I’m getting nervous (or maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me something…) or that I don’t love to talk about Battambang and my future work there (I do!). It’s just that I’ve come to dread the standard responses to my mom’s inevitable boasting, “You’ll never guess where she’s moving! Cambodia!” I know I should be happy for the chance to spread the word about my project, especially for the sake of fundraising, but these comments really get under my skin:

1)      “Wow, I can’t believe you’re doing that! You’re such a good person.” Gee, thanks, but no. No, I’m not. Do I believe that women’s health promotion is good and just? Yes. Do I believe that Cambodia, especially Cambodia’s women, need help? Yes. But am I going there primarily for those reasons? No. I love Battambang. I love my friends there, I love my boss there, and I love the kids in my community (and one in particular, who you’ll hear much more about later). I love speaking Khmer, learning about Cambodians’ ways of being in the world, and growing in my spirituality by being exposed to a different religion. I love women, I love talking about sex and vaginas, and I absolutely hate when violence of any kind is used to keep women from fully flourishing. Am I a good person? I’m working on it, but that’s not why I’m moving to Battambang or working in women’s health education – I’m doing it because I love it, simple as that.

2)      “Do it now while you’re young! Before you know it, you won’t be able to do stuff like that anymore.” I know that people don’t mean any harm by statements like this, but they make me crazy. There is an underlying assumption here that eventually, I too will settle into suburban life, with all of its unforgiving tentacles of commitment, most often in the form of children and bills. I’d like to have kids someday, but I can’t imagine raising a family in a town similar to where I grew up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I never owned a home. It’s hard for me to hear this statement as anything but, “It’s so great you’re doing this now, before you become a real adult and have to take actual responsibility.” Again, I’m moving to Cambodia because I love it, not because I want to “do something cool” while I’m still young. This is a step on my life path, not a year or two off before I really settle down.

3)     “Don’t you get scared of being raped/kidnapped/killed?” It’s so hard to stay polite when people ask this. One woman even reached into her bag and handed me a rape whistle to keep. I assume that no one needs me to explain why this is offensive?

4)      “Are you going to live in a hut?” Ummm, no.

The responses that I appreciate are from people who are genuinely interested in what I am doing and who do not make assumptions about my values based on this decision. Questions about the nature of my work, how I got interested in this type of program, why I chose Cambodia, and what I’m most looking forward to get me excited and engaged.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2009 4:40 am

    Dear Meg,

    Thanks so much for your blog. I stumbled upon it through a link on Saundra’s Good Intentions are not enough Blog.
    It is amazing to read my own thoughts in someone else’s words. Your post on the response from people at home really sounds familiar. I always feel its so hard to explain to other people that I’m not “noble” as a friend once put it, but that I absolutely love what I do and where I do it.
    I was a volunteer in Tanzania, East Africa for a year and just finished a Masters in international development to now go back and work in the administration of a health clinic in Karatu, Tanzania. I always try to tell people that I’m the one who is gaining the most from this work and that I’ve never been happier than in Tanzania.
    An additional point why I think I connected to your post as well is that I got my BSc at Tufts and miss Boston.
    Good luck with your work in Cambodia.
    Caroline

    • July 15, 2009 10:00 am

      Thanks for your reply, Caroline! Good luck with your work in Tanzania, and I hope you’ll check back here every so often.
      Meg

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