Our co-founder Daniela remembers a time when a cultural misunderstanding revealed how much she still had to learn.

I can think of so many times when I’ve traveled to another country and felt ignorant. Sometimes it was because I didn’t know how to do something that for everyone else was a part of everyday life: how to use a squat toilet in Tanzania, how to properly eat with my hands in India, how to navigate busy streets on my bike in Vietnam… the list goes on. But the experiences of “ignorance” that I’m embarrassed about aren’t those. The ones that make me cringe are the times I took action, usually action that I adamantly thought was the “right” thing to do, but was actually, upon reflection, pretty ignorant. Not ignorant because I had made a mistake, as we all get things wrong, but ignorant because I had the resources to do it better right in front of me, and I hadn’t used them. I hadn’t taken the time to listen, ask questions, or learn before I jumped in, and if I had done so, I wouldn’t have acted so poorly.

When asked to “describe yourself in one word” my word was always “doer” – quick to take action, always busy, always with a task to complete. Before I finished thinking about something, I had already started doing it. Such was the way I entered Cambodia. I had grand plans for my time there, starting with gathering the funds for the construction of a school, quickly followed by hiring a computer teacher, rallying people to build a school garden, pushing to start an environmental club, and so on and so on. Doing, doing, doing. I was the epitome of the girl who jumped off the plane shouting, “Hi, I’m here to help!”

One of my most cringeworthy rush-into-action moments came a few weeks after PEPY had opened their first office. I had brought in a few volunteers to help, and we were on our way to visit the first school we had funded for a ceremony to mark the opening of a dorm for teachers and staff. The Cambodian English teacher we had hired, Tolors, had told us that, as per Cambodian culture, we needed to have the house blessed before he and the other teachers could move into it, and so we rushed to make that happen.

So there we were, a bunch of foreigners packing ourselves into one of the ubiquitous Toyota Camrys that dot Cambodia’s roads, and of course we were late. The road got worse, the potholes bigger, our Camry slower, and all of us later. I called to ask them to push back the ceremony until we arrived, but by the time our car spurted into the school grounds, the blessing was over.

I was so annoyed – why didn’t they just wait for us?! We were so sad that we had missed our first monk blessing, that we didn’t get to take pictures with the camera we had brought with us for just that reason, and that they hadn’t waited for us. So I let Tolors know how we felt.

But I’d done it all wrong. I never asked why the ceremony couldn’t have been pushed back, or taken the time to understand what the ceremony would even entail in the first place. I had jumped right in to being annoyed and thinking I was the one who had been wronged. When I finally said: “We told you we were going to be late! Why didn’t you wait?” the answer had seemed obvious to the Cambodians in the room, but us foreigners were unaware… “The monks can’t eat in the afternoon, so we had to finish before 12.”

Here I was, angry, when the real problem wasn’t that they hadn’t waited for the carload of visitors, but that our carload had no knowledge at all about Buddhism, monks, blessings or Cambodian culture – and I hadn’t bothered to ask. I’d also committed another Cambodian cultural crime by directly questioning Tolors in front of others, something that could be viewed as “losing face” in a culture where being direct and giving negative feedback publicly is offensive. Not only did I have a lot to learn about the Cambodian education system, culture, and ways of working, I had a lot to learn about managing people, controlling my own emotions, building an organizational strategy, and so much more.

It was through making a number of mistakes like this one with Tolors and the monks that I realized I needed to ask lots more questions before I made assumptions or took action. I slowly began to realize that my way of doing things wasn’t the way of  doing things, and that I needed to learn a lot more about Cambodian culture (and myself) first, or else I was going to offend a lot of people just by being what I thought was “normal.”

I’m certainly a work in progress, a recovering “doer” shall we say, and I still have a lot of work I need to do in the area of listening and reflecting before taking action. Many of the areas I am still working on relate to this phrase we repeat a lot in the learning service book: “Action without learning is ignorance.” Now whenever I start a new project I try to take a step back from the doing and get into some learning, because as I’ve shown, that certainly is where I wish I had started.


Daniela is one of the authors of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. To buy the book click here.