[Viewpoint] Lessons from volunteers in Myanmar

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[Viewpoint] Lessons from volunteers in Myanmar

It felt a little awkward entering the house of a stranger. Located in the village of Thagaya, four hours from Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, the house had neither a gate nor a front door. I passed through the entrance covered with a mosquito net. All four walls were covered with flashcards listing vocabulary in Korean, English and Myanmar language.

Ahn Joo-young, a 25-year-old member of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (Koica), came to Myanmar in last October after graduating from Kyungsung University with a degree in product design. She is teaching CAD, computer-aided design, at Thagaya Vocational Training Center financed by Koica.

“I always thought that I was a positive and outgoing person, but at first, I struggled and cried,” Ahn said. When she grew up in Busan, Ahn never had to do her own laundry. Adjusting to life in Myanmar was not easy. But now, she goes around the town and can chat with just about anyone. She no longer gets frightened by lizards in her kitchen. She does not have a car, and the remote village does not have public transportation.

Ahn chips in with a few locals to rent a car and go out to a bigger town to get groceries. She tries not to think about what will happen when she goes back to Korea next summer. Thinking about her hometown distracts her. I was deeply moved when I saw that she posted words by 18th-century English priest George Whitefield: “I’d rather wear out than rust out.”

I came back from Myanmar last week. The Southeast Asian country was as hot and humid as a sauna. I met proud young Koreans like Ahn Joo-young and retired public servants who have started their second lives in a foreign country. A rural village of Yezin, one hour away from the capital Naypyidaw, is home to the National Agricultural Institute and Myanmar’s only veterinary college. Baek Da-eun, a 26-year-old who majored in forestry at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, is working at the research institute. Park Byeong-ok, a 60-year-old veterinarian, is volunteering at the veterinary college. Volunteering in a foreign country is full of challenges. A volunteer who went to Bangladesh could not eat or sleep for a week and had to return home. Some became victims of traffic accidents and robberies.

At present, 1,600 KOVs - Korea Overseas Volunteers - have been sent to developing countries through Koica. Twenty of them went to Myanmar. During my visit last week, 20 student movement leaders had been arrested and released after one day of detainment. Thankfully, the situation is improving and the United States announced on Wednesday that American companies will be allowed to invest in Myanmar. From September, Korean Air will operate four non-stop flights to Myanmar every week.

The people in Myanmar have a good impression of Korea. They have a respect for Korea’s leap from a country that received aid to a country that provides assistance, and the Korean Wave of pop culture has greatly improved Korea’s reputation in the country. More than 90 percent of the foreign drama series that air in Myanmar are Korean dramas. When I was staying at the Sedona Hotel in Yangon, I discovered that a Korean drama was on television in the morning. It was “White Lies,” a hit from 2009.

Korea is providing assistance, but how should we do it to make the most out of it? When I was young, my family received flour provided by the U.S. military. I remember that I ate powdered milk and had diarrhea. When I was in middle school, I learned English from Peace Corps volunteers. And all these grateful memories add up to what Korea is today.

However, there is a global discussion and reflection on how the assistance is provided to the developing countries as so many countries fail to end up like Korea. Dambisa Moyo, an international economist from Zambia, claims that aid has made Africa poorer. She also criticized that rock stars like Bono and Bob Geldoff turned assistance into an entertainment product. We are on the right direction. I believe that the key to success can be found from the volunteers like Ahn Joo-young.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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