Last year, I travelled to rural Myanmar on a school charity trip. We were there to distribute second hand donation items and other necessities to some beneficiaries. What I saw there, broke my heart. I was not born with a silver spoon in mouth, yet I was always fortunate to never be in want, to never truly feel the pinch. The people we met, were individuals saddled with generational debt; people who couldn’t afford to send their children to school or to put food on the table. For them, every day was a struggle, a war, faced with endless debts and bills to pay.
How naïve I was, how proud I was, then, to go there on the pretext of aiding poor men, when my actions were merely self-serving, to feed my saviour complex! I was blinded by conceit.
It was not obvious when we first arrived; on hindsight, it is plain to see. The air was poisoned with a vile and powerful smog, formed from the exhaust of hundreds of scooters and countless factories. It stung the eyes and burned the nostrils, and left a poor taste in the mouth. Yet the streets still thronged with commuters, who braved the ghastly haze without masks to work and to school, since masks were a luxury they could not afford.
We boarded a minibus, the first of only several transports we took that day. Our journey was long, further prolonged by the frequent transfers. Each leg of the journey was too short to catch any sleep, yet seemed to stretch unnaturally into eternity, the bleak landscape rushing past in a blur of drab. I longed for the relative convenience of buses and trains at home. We arrived at our destination after dark. We were shown to our quarters and promptly turned in for the night.
The next day we awoke to the hospitality of the villagers. They served small portions of fried potatoes with packets of sweet chilli sauce for lunch. It was simple fare, but it was more than enough. In the afternoon, we began our work, handing out items to eager waiting hands.
The second night, however, was a sleepless, uncomfortable night. I laid in my cot wide awake, unable to sleep. Amidst the snores of my fellow bunkmates, I heard low voices. I tiptoed to the door, and cracked it open. What I heard next changed me. Up until then, I assumed we had done good, assumed that what we did was enough of a helping hand. In my childish naivety I did not consider the grim reality of hardship, that breaking out of the cycle of poverty involved far more than one-time, meagre donations of used textbooks and school shoes. It involved much more than that.
The third day was spent coaching village children in some rudimentary English. We were defeated by their limited vocabulary, which consisted of only two words, “happy” and “study”. Our lessons plans were hurriedly revised into games, which were much more fruitful and met with much enthusiasm. Even so, they quickly forgot what we taught them the following day. It was not an easy task, and I remembered my epiphany from last night.
The rest of the trip proceeded without event, and I pondered upon what I saw. I left Myanmar with a different perspective. I realised that these problems are beyond the scope of the trip to help. The purpose of the trip, was not so much to bring them provisions, which would not last, but that which was more permanent. The trip was for us, the privileged, who have opportunities open to us. It was to remind us not to forget the poor in our success, and to inspire us to help the poor with whatever we are blessed with.
This essay was originally written for the question: Write about an experience that changed you for the better. What are the lessons you can draw from this experience?