Shit…was I a voluntourist?
Three years after the best experience of my life, I’m beginning to wonder if it was even the right thing to do.
A month after I graduated college (Ohio State, student population 56,387), I hopped on a plane to the Marshall Islands, an island nation of under 70,000 people. Aur Atoll became my home, where I would teach first-grade through eighth-grade English.
I can easily say that my year on Aur was life-altering. I arrived back home to Syracuse, NY the following summer feeling like I really knew myself — my limitations, my level of resilience, some deeper part of myself that I hadn’t gotten to see before. I started to feel like I knew what it was to be a teacher, having experienced the joy of working in a classroom every single day. I even came home with a few indelible reminders of my time there, in the form of ink tattooed into a korkor (a Marshallese sailing canoe) on my freckled shoulder blade, and the knowledge that a newborn baby on a neighboring island bore my name. (The baby wasn’t mine. Long story.)
Okay, so living in the Marshall Islands unquestionably changed my life for the better. But did it really change anyone else’s?
I’ve been wondering an awful lot about that lately. The first thing to make me start questioning the actual value of my year abroad was this excellent post from Seven Scribes on the dangers of “poverty tourism,” i.e., white people going to poor places to “save” people of color. The other came from Medium, an essay that targets the “seduction of other people’s problems” with devastating clarity.
I read essays like those and begin to think about my own complicity. It’s frighteningly easy for me to start excusing myself from the white savior complex conversation — I know *I* don’t see them that way, I’m fine, I think — but even when your intentions are good and your worldview is sound and you’ve got diverse friends and respect other people’s humanity and do your best to be intersectional and spend time trying to educate your white friends about privilege, you can still do damage.
I think about the planes I took from Syracuse to the Marshall Islands and back, 14,006 miles round trip as the bao flies. That’s a carbon footprint of roughly 1.65 metric tons of CO2 — as much as the average Colombian puts out in an entire year — and I had knocked it out in 35 hours in the air. The Marshall Islands are the world’s canary-in-a-coal mine for global warming, since they are one of the flattest nations on the planet and happen to be surrounded by ocean. A 1.5 degree Celsius increase in average global temperature will likely make that beautiful country permanently uninhabitable. How much did I contribute to that future (or lack thereof) by deciding I needed to go?
I think about the fact that those flights were covered by the Marshallese government, via my program. I think about my $100 a month stipend, a pittance in America but a princely sum to many of my neighbors on Aur, who rely on government-subsidized copra harvesting or family members in the States as their only real sources of income. I wonder whether or not that money could have gone to some real educational infrastructure in a country starved for it, rather than to me, a fresh-out-of-college kid who didn’t know the first thing about teaching.
I don’t mean to make it seem as though I regret going. Selfishly, I don’t — I made some lifelong friends, both Western and Pacific, and I have a million stories to tell and fond memories to share. There was some quantifiable good, too — I helped all my eighth graders pass their standardized tests and get into high school, and I’m proud of them to this day. I parlayed the experience into a teaching job in the States where I get to teach low-income adults and help them make gains towards better futures, and that wouldn’t have been possible without my year on Aur, either. And yet. I can’t help but wonder if I ever should have gone in the first place.
25-year-old me won’t beat up on 21-year-old me for not knowing what I know now…but what I know now is that even altruistic choices have costs and consequences, and I won’t fail to consider them again.