The Buzzword in Orphan Tourism

Recently the Rok Kern team was invited to speak at one of the International Schools here in Phnom Penh about volunteering and how we can best serve others. We spent a lesson talking to the year 11s about the issues around volunteering in orphanages and the growth of Family Based Care in Cambodia. After watching ‘The Love You Give’ video with us, one of the students, Annie* penned the following reflection, which she has given us permission to post here. (We have changed the student’s name for privacy reasons):

The Buzzword in Orphan Tourism

‘Buzz’ – “a feeling of excitement or euphoria; a thrill.” What does this word call to mind? Perhaps a roller coaster, or bungee jumping, or the feeling of having consumed several cups of coffee in a short amount of time. The exact meaning could be discussed at length, but in general, I think of it as a fleeting joy, a surge of emotion that fades alarmingly rapidly.

There is nothing wrong with this. Emotions can be a catalyst for change and action, but there is a time and place for “buzzes”. Yet, growing up in Cambodia, I have heard this word used multiple times used in the context of orphan tourism. To my surprise, even the dictionary seems to agree. The sample sentence for the use of the word “buzz” sums up the issue of orphan tourism far more succinctly than I ever could:  “I got such a buzz out of seeing the kids’ faces.”

Is there something wrong with finding joy in volunteering? Absolutely not. In fact, providing sustainable ministry with a skill you are passionate about is deeply joyful. It is also multi-faceted, complex, and takes consistent effort. The issue with orphan tourism is that sustainability, longevity, and cultural understanding are tossed aside, to be replaced with “buzz.”

two cambodian girls on a bicycle together in Phnom Penh Cambodia
Two Cambodian girls on a bicycle together in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
(Stock photo by Amy Higg)

The important thing to remember is that someone else is the recipient of those emotions. That feeling of joy and bonding that is felt when seeing children’s’ faces, upon learning their names, the children feel that too. And then that connection is torn away after a week, perhaps a month – again, and again, and again. A year later, it is doubtful that volunteers will remember their names, their faces. By then, the “buzz” has faded. Perhaps their eyes were opened, perhaps it influenced the way they saw the world. But the children left behind? They remember the visitors, as they remember the others – the ones who left.

Emotions can be a catalyst for change, but they are not the change itself. Change takes commitment, advocacy, and understanding. A country, a system, or a person cannot be healed in a week. Instead, that week can be used to learn, to grow. I cannot promise that there will be the same “buzz” from this, but the point shouldn’t really be what is received. Helping others isn’t, or shouldn’t be, transactional.

As a Third Culture Kid (TCK) , I hear a lot of talks about people coming and going, about growing roots, about finding home. My experiences are not a parallel in any way to those in an orphanage, but two points are clear to me: no one can grow roots if they are transplanted weekly, and “buzzes” are best saved for roller coasters.

If you have any questions for Annie* about what lead her to come to these conclusions, email or comment below.

If you would like to watch  the same documentary that inspired these reflections, check out the video that inspired Annie* to write this post:

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