I'm a Bad Volunteer

I'd like to change the world, but soup kitchens make me sick.
Publish date:
November 2, 2011

When I was 23, I flew to Thailand to be a volunteer. I was going to be dedicating my hours to children at a local school for the underprivileged. What could be nobler?

Like most volunteer projects where relatively rich people pay money to go to help the poor in a third world nation, this experience was to be somewhat less beneficial for the malnourished children than for the narcissistic 20-something volunteers. I was no exception.

For several days, I dutifully stood in the schoolyard. Uncertain of what my role was, I tried to sing songs. Look, I’m a teapot, I shouted out at the bewildered children who writhed around below me, mouths foaming with the sugary candy they were distributed each morning before school started.

I certainly didn’t feel like a teapot. I felt rigid and useless standing there self-consciously. These were not kids I could relate to. There were too many of them, they were too hyper. Occasionally one would take my hand and we would play. I suppose I made that one kid happy for a few minutes and that should’ve been enough to keep me going back. But I had decided already that I'd had quite enough of helping children.

The real reason I had crossed the earth to stand awkwardly in a Bangkok daycare center was because I was too scared to break up with my abusive boyfriend in person, though I finally did from a payphone on Bangkok’s Khao Sarn Road. With that bit unpleasantness out of the way, I began to skip school. 

The placement was an hour away from the volunteer housing by car.

“Oh, I’d like to figure out how to get there myself,” I said to the staff one morning as they went to call the driver for me.

"What a self-starter," I imagined them saying to each other. "How brave."

With these imaginary words of encouragement buoying me along, I walked out to the main road and found a three-wheeled tuk-tuk and went to directly The Grand Palace. I did this nearly every day for the next two weeks. I would head out the door for work with the other volunteers, and would instead have a tuk-tuk take me directly to Chinatown or Little India, where I’d wander around for the entirety of my workday, poking around in strange little shops and stopping for long leisurely lunches.

The children would be in the schoolyard about now, I’d sometimes think and what I was doing would hit me with the same sleazy feeling as when I'd faked sick in school to stay home and watch Jerry Springer. I was disgusted with myself. I was horrible.

In the evening I would arrive a back at the shared volunteer housing, weary from my sightseeing. I avoided saying much about my day and instead campaigned to get the other volunteers to go out with me at night to listen to music or have beers at a downtown expat bar. 

Sometimes I get it into my head that I’d like to volunteer again, that it was a fluke and not in fact my inability to be giving of my time that did me in.

The last time I ended up in a soup kitchen, I stood there gagging and covering my nose with my sweatshirt sleeve as I stirred industrial-sized pots of cream of mushroom. I was useless. I was fumbling and slow in the kitchen, awkward and unpleasant with the other volunteers (who I found disturbed and sanctimonious) and useless to the homeless men out in the cafeteria who wanted to know where the bread rolls were. Somehow I didn’t feel like a better person.

As I took a shower after and tried to exfoliate the smells of generic dish soap and canned green beans off of my body, I realized that somehow, after a day of “helping” people, I felt more like a selfish bitch than ever. 

I’d like to do my part. But I would truly dislike, not to mention suck at, most volunteering opportunities I’ve come across. 

I know this makes me sound horrible but what can I do? I turn the lights off when I leave a room. I eat very little meat. I open the door for people. Perhaps I should just save up and donate my money? Any ideas?