Why do we give?  Is our altruism ever purely unselfish or do we give in part because we hope to gain something?  What do we want to gain?

Our house building crew with the villagers whose houses we built.

In March, we had an opportunity to join a house building in a small village outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  My husband was working as treasurer for a Cambodian women’s charity that provides jobs to women who would otherwise not be able to support themselves or their children.  In addition to providing jobs for these women, the foundation was also breaking ground to build a women’s hospital.

Our house building trip was an interesting mix of luxury and deprivation.  We deliberately stayed in a low end hotel with no pool and very basic rooms.  We used group vans for transportation.  We made our own sandwiches for lunch, picnic style.  But our group also had cocktails one evening at a very fancy cigar bar and also had a very expensive buffet lunch at the best hotel in town.  We all chipped in a large sum of money to participate, and also to buy a gift for the charity’s founder.

Bones and clothing fragments surfaced on the walkways at the killing fields.

The Cambodian woman who was the local manager of our house build was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in the 1970s.  Unlike my childhood watching Schoolhouse Rock and Underdog, she was a 4 year old orphan put in charge of a room of 60 infants.  The teenage soldiers who gave her this responsibility charged her to keep the babies quiet.  If she did not, they would come in and kill the crying baby by dashing its head against the wall.  Then they explained that it was her fault for not doing her job.  Such horror stories of Cambodian survivors are common.  There are few old people because all educated adults, including those who wore eyeglasses or had other signs of education, were killed.  We had visited Phnom Penh before and seen the torture prison at Tuol Sleng (formerly a high school, but turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge) and the killing fields outside the city, a mass grave where 20,000 bodies were found, most of whom were killed without bullets using farm implements (shovels and hammers).  It is a harrowing place.  Through the effects of weather, the bones and clothing of the victims have risen to the surface of the ground on the walkways.

While it’s easy for many Americans to think that Cambodia’s troubles are completely foreign, the US’s actions in Vietnam, its continual bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war, and U.S. backing of Lon Nol (who turned out to be an ineffective ruler) over the deposed king actually created the circumstances that led to the Khmer Rouge rising to power.  Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge killed 2.2 million Cambodians, far more than were killed by the U.S. bombings.

There are a few things I noticed that are typical in Cambodia.  Tuk-tuks are the main mode of transportation.  Cambodian tuk-tuks are a motorcycle with a five seat covered cart pulled behind.  Some locals drive a scooter or motorcycle.  We have seen families of 5 or sometimes more on a single motorcycle, with children sitting between the parents and sometimes a little one standing in front of the driver.  Business people use motorcycles to transport just about everything.  We saw a man on a motorcycle with bags full of red meat waiting at a stop light, covered with flies.  Many Cambodians, especially women, wear pajamas in public and consider them dressy.  After all, the tops match the bottoms!  I think they are on to something.

A typical family traveling by motorbike.

As we prepared to go to the village to work, we were given some unique instructions.  We were clearly told not to compliment the children or even pay much attention to them; we were told several times not to single out any child.  Our children could play with their children, but adults were cautioned that the villagers would take a compliment as a request that we be given the child in payment for the house we were building for them.  We were also cautioned that if one of us was injured during the build, it was important to keep calm and quiet about it.  If the family thought that a worker was injured in building the house, they would be reluctant to live there as it could be unlucky.  One of the men in our crew was seriously injured requiring stitches, and we kept him quiet by the food table while we waited for transportation to take him back to the medical clinic.

Cambodian women on the go in their PJs.

We were given lots of water bottles to drink, and we were asked to drink them without leaving water in them which would be seen as wasteful.  We were also instructed to leave the empty bottles in the built houses as the families considered them very valuable commodities used for storage and other practical needs.  A portable bathroom enclosure was put up around the small latrine that was dug into the ground for our use.  We were told that locals would simply go in the field out in the open, and that if we preferred, that was acceptable.  However, we were instructed that going to the bathroom is considered a communal activity.  When local women see another woman squatting, they come join so they can make small talk together.  This reminded me of the toilet facilities in China in the hutongs (old neighborhoods) which are also open inside for talking to neighbors while using the facilities.  Gossiping while using the toilet is part of the glue that keeps society together.

A Nepalese woman carrying a heavy load.

At the end of March, we were trekking in Nepal.  We walked through many villages as we walked up and down in the Annapurna region.  I had my hair pulled back in one of those elastic double combs with beads in between.  At one point I passed a local Nepalese girl who appeared to be in her early teens.  She was standing alone, washing her face.  She pointed at my hair and said, using the few English words she knew, “Beauty.  Give me?”  I remembered what it was like being a young teenager, with no resources beyond what I had from my family.  Sometimes I would see something that was outside of the reach of the family (the types of things we wouldn’t buy), and I thought something looked cool or interesting.  I thought of this girl, grooming her hair and putting the hair holder in place, feeling more confidence, believing herself to be both beautiful and persuasive for asking for it successfully.  I briefly imagined this confidence increasing her prospects over time.  I wanted to reward her for asking for something she thought would better herself.  I took it out of my hair, and handed it to her.  My ten-year old daughter who was hiking with me asked why I gave it to her.

Why did I?  Why do we give?  Interestingly, on our house build, the group leader specifically cautioned that locals really do not understand why we are there doing this work.  They can’t really fathom why someone would fly to their country, drive out to their village and build houses.  They were skeptical of our motives.  They assumed we must have some exploitative intention (such as taking the children).

As I’ve thought about it, I have lots of reasons, and they are mostly for my personal gain.  In the case of the girl in Nepal, in addition to thinking of the scripture that says “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Luke 6:30), I had the thought that it was a way to leave something personal behind in such a beautiful place, a memento of me that would live on in this remote location.  In a sense, I was leaving a legacy of myself behind.  I also realized that I could easily get more of these hair holders, but that the girl would not have easy access to get them living high in the mountains as she did.  For all I knew (in retrospect), she may have had a collection of these from other hikers.

Nepali boy playing with a discarded Coke bottle at the village water source.

Aside from the idea of leaving a legacy and wanting to feel like a person who is grateful for all the opportunities and wealth I have, giving is a unique experience, different from the privileged daily life we live, particularly as Americans.  Life in the US especially (and even in Singapore) is very materialistic and boring.  So much of my time revolves around assessing what I have and what I lack, then buying to meet those needs, that activities like this are a welcome mental break and a chance to reassess my thinking.  It’s easy to realize that we really don’t need all the things we think we need.  For example, I’ve been searching for drawer inserts for my kitchen this week, imagining how I can best organize all the utensils I have.  Contrast that with the Cambodian villagers who are grateful for the empty water bottles because they are practical for holding items.  Part of this experience is about reducing my guilt for what I have, but an even more meaningful outcome is that I question my own choices in the future.  The experience changes me for the better.

My most important reason, though, is the duty I feel as a mother to teach my children.  I want them to be exposed to the world around them and to be educated that life is both circumstantially different yet fundamentally the same for everyone.  I want to help them want to engage in the world.  I want them to question their own cultural assumptions and to live with a global awareness they couldn’t get from the comfort of our own home and neighborhood.  I want to redirect their paths through these types of experiences so they naturally think beyond the comfort of the moment and beyond the comfortable American lifestyle that is our default.

  • When you give, what have your motives been?
  • What have you received when you give?  How has giving changed you?