“Every day was filled with exciting adventures and cultural immersions.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Yilin Zhang
Age: 22
Hometown: Kobe, Hyogo
Nationality: Japan
Languages spoken: English, Mandarin and Japanese (fluent)
University: Cornell University
Degree: Hospitality Management and Real Estate Finance
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Care and Teach for Children from Poor Backgroungs in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Duration: 4 weeks
Start month: July 2015
Claim to fame: Yillin was born in China, raised in Japan, attended university in the US, and has worked in Japan, Singapore, China and the US. Incredible! We’re thrilled to have you in the UBELONG Family – thank you for your service, Yilin!

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
Hands-on volunteering, especially in Cambodia, has been a burning aspiration that I wanted to pursue for many years. Since childhood, I have grown passionate about international development issues through living in different places and participating in Model United Nations activities in school, and involved in volunteering through pro bono consulting projects and education initiatives in New York. However, I was discontent with the limited amount of exposure I had to the communities in need. I wanted to be on the ground with them and observe the issues that affect their daily lives. I wanted to experience their daily routines and traditions, ask about their families and hobbies, and physically see the impact that I am making.

This past summer, I was provided with the perfect circumstances to pursue that aspiration; I had to take a leave of absence from work for a few months and was able to take a break at home in Japan. I had heard about UBELONG from friends in my school (Cornell University), that it was an international volunteer organization founded by our alumni, and read its excellent reviews from past volunteers online. Moreover, Cambodia has always fascinated me with its rich history and culture, and I have heard wonderful feedback from friends who traveled there. I also love kids, have twin brothers who are 10 years old and experience tutoring and babysitting young children. So when I saw that UBELONG offered programs in Phnom Penh and volunteer placements for “teaching and caregiving for children from poor backgrounds”, I knew this was an opportunity that I could not miss.

What was your impact on your volunteer project?
I helped to teach and take care of a class of four and five year old children at a daycare in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The children come from poor families in the nearby villages, where their parents need someone to take care of their children for them to make a living during the day. Along with the other volunteers and local staffs at the daycare, I prepared and organized daily activities and games to teach simple English to the children, build their communication and motor skills and have fun, and I helped to run caregiving errands at the daycare from morning to late afternoon.

I felt honored and ecstatic to be able to spend one month there with the children and the warm and welcoming staffs at the daycare. The language and cultural barriers were more insignificant than expected; I experienced how sometimes human emotions and warm gestures diminish such barriers and are more effective than words. Although it was short, but I able to get to know each of the children and staff, their personalities and likes and dislikes, their favorite food, what they want to be when they grow up, and so on. I felt extremely proud to able to teach them new English words like different colors, numbers 1-20, body parts, fruits, animals and emotions, despite the language barrier. The daycare was filled with the children’s joyful singing and laughter every day, and I always enjoyed playing the piano for them and singing along. During my last week, I wanted to do a special project for them that will last after I leave, so I did a semi-professional photo-shoot (that made them feel like rock stars) and decorated the classroom wall with the photos and short biographies of each child.

It was also a pure pleasure to get to know the staffs and their stories, experience their daily routines, try the local cuisines that they cooked for lunch, and share my background and experiences with them. Our exchanges really made me feel at home and that I had a new family in Cambodia. They told me that I’m the first volunteer that they have met from Japan! I always enjoyed telling them about Japan and New York and describing my experiences, which they would listen in fascination. On the other hand, one staff would tell us one day about his experience as a monk for 8 years, which we all listened in awe. He also loves to play the piano and learn Chinese, so I wrote him some sheet music for the children’s favorite songs and showed him some basic Chinese words. Another staff would tell us about her weekends at the church, where she was introduced to the non-profit organization that sponsors the daycare. Every day was a new story that I could not wait to write down in my diary.

What did you take from the experience?
The one month in Cambodia was an incredible and rewarding experience that I will cherish for many years. At the daycare, I was touched by the amount of joy and energy that the children had every day as they come running and calling “Teacher! Teacher!”, and their eagerness to learn new things and show me their capabilities, despite how rough the conditions may be at home and what injuries or physical pain they may have. It really put into perspective how easily we forget to cherish what we have every day and to always hold a positive attitude. It also enabled me to develop my creativity and communication skills to effectively teach the children new English words/phrases and build relationships with the local staffs without knowing their mother language.

I learned and familiarized myself with the culture and history of Cambodia through interacting with the locals, participating in local traditions, and traveling around the country with other volunteers. Every day was filled with exciting adventures and cultural immersions: from our daily tuk tuk rides, to the daycare to bargaining at the markets for elephant pants, to exploring the magical temples of Angkor Wat, to witnessing the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders, to going for an one-hour meditation at a local temple, to sitting front row at a Cambodian boxing match, and the list goes on and on. I am also truly grateful to UBELONG for providing the opportunity for us to meet volunteers from around the world; my chapter in Cambodia would have been incomplete without our unforgettable experiences together and our bonding sessions exchanging stories and interests. We also overcame many challenges together such as the burning heat every day without AC, the countless mosquitoes and flies attacking us, many arguments with tuk tuk drivers (since there were no other form of public transportation), and difficulty in navigating the streets without road signs or internet. Meanwhile, the staff at the volunteer house were incredibly friendly and helpful to our adjustment. Our chef was always smiling every day and cooking delicacies that we are familiar with. After one month, I felt so surprisingly cozy at the volunteer house and familiar with Phnom Penh that it was quite difficult to say good-bye.

I am currently writing these responses (that are extremely delayed) in New York after moving into a new apartment and starting work here again. This chapter in Cambodia sometimes feels like a distant dream, but I will always reminisce about these experiences and value the relationships that I have built there. I still keep in touch with the other volunteers and the staffs at the daycare and the volunteer house, and I hope to visit them again soon.

In a sentence or less, best advice for fitting in with the local culture?
Embrace every day with open arms; get to know the local people, experience the local traditions, participate in your project as much as you can, and see as much of the region as possible.

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Related post:
Meet Philipp, a Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg grad who volunteered with UBELONG in Cambodia, at the caregiving project.