The Pursuit of Amelioration — TPOA #1

Daniel Teo, Age 24 as of May 2017

I grew up in Southeast Asia for the majority of my life, living with parents who served as missionaries. And as others who have grown up in the developing world may tell you, many problems that exist are not hidden from sight; it doesn’t take a lot of effort to find people living in impoverished conditions in underdeveloped areas. Conditions that undermine human dignity and worth. Worse still are stories that emerge from accounts of those who have been subjected to sexual abuse, human trafficking, and domestic violence. I have always felt highly empathetic to the plight of those living in adverse conditions and always found myself in deep respect of people working to improve human welfare. To ameliorate. To make adverse circumstances better, more tolerable.

In the summer of 2013 I visited Cambodia to do a short documentary of a missionary couple who were serving as orthodontists in the capital of the country. In the process of interviewing the couple and getting footage to accompany their interview, we visited the slums of Phnom Penh. It was, at the time, one of the most eye opening experience I had lived through. Children were eating food off the ground, playing with the trash that saturated the streets. Many children were not fully clothed. The sight broke my heart. Their demeanor paralleled that of children playing in an amusement park, although clearly oblivious to the bleakness of the circumstance they were in. “They should be in school”, a friend of mine despondently noted. I found myself agreeing with him, but as I thought about it, more questions came to mind. Why did we assume they weren't in school? And even if they were in school, would education solve the abject poverty they were facing? What were the systemic forces that were keeping the poor, poor? I found myself wanting to make a difference, not knowing anything about human and social development, but immediately recognizing the pull in my heart to learn how to go about doing so.

So I went to college and found myself surrounded with people that cared about the same issues I did. It was like I had found a gold mine of people that wanted to help the world in the same way. The perfect nest preparing us to take flight into the world beyond.

Fast forward to May 2017. I graduated with a degree in Film and Media Studies and a minor in International Development Studies. I’ve always seen the film medium and new media as a means to an end, the end being the amelioration of social issues that plague the world that we live in. I recognize that this is a very big claim that seems to have the same depth of a child saying “Oh! One day I want to save and change the world.” I mean, what does that change even look like? Where do I even begin? How do I give those in adverse circumstances a voice that could educate us on how we could empower them? As the adage goes, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Am I naive to think that mere awareness of issues can lead to big social changes? What if my work oversimplifies development, further damaging communities in the process? I am reminded of my economics professor who told me how donating aid in attempt to solve on-going social issues can backfire, serving only to further trap the poor in a vicious cycle of poverty. A short term solution at best, the cementing of the problem at worst.

Post graduation life looks very different from what I imagined it to be. I am neither aiding in any relief work, nor working with organizations to alleviate poverty. Instead I came home to live with my parents, to work for my dad. He initiated a media company with my educational background in mind, and decided to call it T.O.Y.S Media. T.O.Y.S is an acronym and stands for ‘Tell Others Your Story’. And while that slogan may be great, I found the acronym unsuitable for representing the vision and purpose of his company. Despite several attempts to convince my father to consider a change in the name, I remain unsuccessful.

The vision? The first two lines of our mission statement describes us as such:

“A missions oriented company that lends a strong voice to pockets of society living under unfavorable circumstances, enabling them to effectively narrate their stories through both scripted pieces and short-form documentaries. In doing so, we seek to shed light on their situations, and perhaps in the midst of all this, to inspire people to contribute in their own ways, however small, to bring change to the world.”

Which brings me back to the name that my father chose for this mission minded media company. T.O.Y.S Media?! All my millennial mind could think about were the connotations that the name had. Childish; not to be taken seriously. Not to mention what the top results of a ‘Toys Media’ search brought on Google. Literally images and videos of children and toys.

My fears and insecurities were confirmed by my friends and professors from college. ‘Not the best name’ was the general consensus. It felt so discouraging. It still feels discouraging. It feels like there is so much at stake, and we’re entering this saturated media market with the weakest name possible. And not forgetting the fact that money often runs short in the mission field and in humanitarian work. Can people take us seriously with a name like this?

It’s disheartening. You know the poem Road Not Taken by Robert Frost? The last line comes to mind when I consider the life I have decided to pursue. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.

Photo by Gianpaolo La Paglia, Unsplash

I look back toward the fork in the road and sometimes find myself wondering, “is it too late to turn back?”

Doubt like that has frequented my mind ever since I came home. The good news is that I am learning to think ahead, with the support of my girlfriend, Brittany Padilla. I met Brittany during my time in college, and fell in love with her deep desire to serve other people. As a highly empathetic person, Brittany reminded me what it would look like to believe in the potential good of all humans. Although she’s thousands of miles away she continues to serve as a model of hope and encouragement; perhaps I would be less uncertain if we were living in the same country.

September 2017

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The Pursuit of Amelioration (TPOA) is an autobiography series of a millennial’s ambition of pursuing a career in social change. All documented in real-time. You can check out all the chapters of the series at About TPOA!

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