Pity vs Compassion

Working in the international NGO sector, people need to remember why they are here. And they need to remember the crucial difference between pity and compassion. My friend introduced me to this concept a while back and ever since, it has stuck with me. The people that we work for- they don’t need your ‘saving.’ The two things that irk me the most:

1. The people you serve, they aren’t ‘poor things.’

They do not need your saving, you are not some sort of messiah. They can get along just fine without you. We are here to help them reach their ideas of success, not to impose our ideas of success on them. They aren’t these poor, destitute people that need your pity. Don’t disgrace them with that nonsense. We are here to help provide more resources and avenues for them to achieve what they want out of life.

2. Those ‘poor things’ do not have the secret to life.

Yes, they are poor. Yes, maybe they seem happier than you and me. But no, they are not some carefree wild people that are blissfully ignorant of modern struggles. Stop that. They are people, just like you and me. They have problems, just like you and me. Don’t fetishize their experience and life.

In this field we need to remember to treat those that we serve with respect. We are here to SERVE. So get over yourself- it ain’t about you. The people we serve are not a tourist attraction. They are not your goddamn photo op for a new profile picture on Facebook to show how damn worldly and nice you are. They do not need your pity nor your fetishizing gaze. Yes, treat them with compassion and empathy. Learn their problems and their dreams, and help them achieve it. We are privileged and we have an excess of resources we can share with those that don’t have our opportunities. But please, get off your narcissistic high horse. We don’t need any more of your condescending voluntourist types in our field.

P.S. I’m not saying that every picture with the people you serve are bad, or that we don’t need any volunteers. Just check why you’re doing the things you do. I’m also not talking about anyone particular- so if you feel offended, maybe do some reflecting.

Articles that further my arguments more eloquently:

Cover photo: Taken in Penang. Famous street art by Ernest Zacharevic. 


A Brief Guide to Bribes

The other day, we tried walking to the nearest station. It was hot, the sidewalk was nonexistent 50% of the time, and we were slowly trudging along towards the much appreciated shade under a freeway bridge. As we neared it, we noticed 6-7 police officers loitering under the bridge. Instead of feeling safe, we felt like we were headed towards trouble. It says a lot when police officers make you more uncomfortable than secure.

We hurried through the walkway with our eyes looking straight ahead, but as we were about to reach the end, they stopped us. Immediately they asked for our identification and continued to keep us there for 10+ minutes. We gave them our driver’s licenses and this cop exclaimed, exasperated at my Colorado license , “How do I know this is from America?!” I gave him a blank face thinking to myself, “Isn’t it your job to know which ID is real or not?” Afterwards, we showed them pictures of our passports on our phones. The cop took about 5 minutes scrolling back and forth between the pictures, not actually looking at anything, waiting for me to give him money. After looking at my friend’s Romanian passport and pushing some buttons on their phones, they decided that she was ‘not in the system.’ We continued to slowly assert our legality and finally, they let us go.

Apparently, this type of behavior is not uncommon in Malaysia. A while ago, some of co-workers had given their local cops their physical passports, only to have them destroyed by said cops. Then, they said our co-workers were there illegally. They have even tried to take our young students to the station for their lack of immediate ID.

So here are some tips on bribery in Malaysia that I’ve gathered from my co-workers and locals:
1. Know your rights and stand your ground without getting aggressive. Hopefully, they will realize you’re not worth the trouble and leave you alone. Be pleasant, but firm.
2. Keep your cash separate from your identification so they cannot see how much you have in your wallet.
3. If you really are in a hurry, tell them you only have 10-20 ringgit and hand it over when they acknowledge it.
4. Try not to be too bitter. If wages were high enough, this wouldn’t be as common. Even cops need to feed their families.

*Mostly unrelated picture taken in Bangsar Village alley*

In which I leave everything I know, to a place where I know nothing.

Hello Malaysia, my name is Joie. It’s nice to meet you. 

Last week, I uprooted my life and everything I knew to fly halfway across the world to start something new. Honestly, I was rather fearful about leaving, but it wasn’t long before I realized that this was exactly where I was supposed to be- on the road, belonging to no place in particular. So here I am, ready to start my 13 month contract with the NGO, SOLS 24/7 as a Community Development Officer in which I work on community development, english literacy, and empowerment for life success.

The past week was a smattering of eventful moments and an unexpected amount of leisure time where I did nothing in particular. It seems Malaysia is a very laid back country- if you plan to start something at a certain time, it’s no big deal if it happens a few hours later or even a few days later. It’ll get done eventually. A mixture of three main ethnicities- Malay, Chinese, and Indian- Malaysia boasts a very unique and diverse culture. Chinese food courts, Malaysian cafes, and Indian eateries all coexist in an aromatic and flavorful peace, however, the communities themselves still remain largely segregated. My week was peppered with encounters of the three cultures, sometimes separately, and sometimes in some sort of fusion.

Eventful moments: TedX Kuala Lumpur, Section 2 & 7 Art Streets, driving ATVs in the jungle, 12 hours of intensive Bahasa Malaysia in two days, almost getting run over by cars on the freeway while simultaneously being barked at by a pack of stray dogs, & meeting my co-workers.

Nothing in particular: Eating and getting lemon ice at mamaks, Chinese food courts, and random stores, tons of casual reading, cleaning the dirty (by Western standards) communal bathroom, and afternoon naps.

Although I’ve been here for a week, all this random free time makes me feel like I’ve been here for much longer. Nonetheless, that’s all I have to report for now. Sorry my post isn’t more insightful. Like my week, I told you some important things, but also about nothing in particular. But to anyone out there that’s afraid to leave, it’s okay. If you’re meant to be abroad, you’ll know it. Until next time!

The Truth About Living in Third World Countries

The other day we saw a homeless man lying halfway on the sidewalk and halfway in the street. His head was busted open and the red of his blood contrasted starkly with the dirty grey ground. And almost in a comical manner, he tried to sit up like a turtle who was flipped on its back. 

And although it was a busy street, everyone passed by and avoided him. Tuk tuks, cars, motos, people. And before we knew it, we had passed him too. 

As we sat in guilt and argued over what we did, we came to the conclusion that there really was not much that we could have done. He could have been on drugs, he could have had HIV/AIDS, he could have been a victim of vigilante justice or gang violence; all of which could have put us in danger. We could have called the cops, but they likely wouldn’t have shown up unless he was a somebody- but he clearly wasn’t. Same with the hospitals, few would treat without money. 

And that’s the truth about living in third world countries, sometimes there will be situations where you see suffering but can do nothing about it. And even worse, see others who are more equipped to handle the situation, let the suffering continue. 

So with that, please always be grateful for those little instances of empathy that others may show you. And always attempt to assist others in whatever manner you can, because there will be times when there is no option to help.

Angkor- The Road Less Traveled

Angkor is much better enjoyed without people.

To enjoy Angkor the most, find the most secluded temple. Explore it. Take your time. Find a nice view with a cool breeze. And then just sit. Soak it all in and truly relish in the beauty and history that surrounds you. Feel the stone around you and admire its intricacy and age.  Connect.

The other day, we rented out bikes for a dollar. They were cheap and old, but useable. Unfortunately I had the one permanently set to the highest gear and I had to pedal like a maniac to keep up- even on downhills. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful bike ride (albeit a bit dangerous with the crazy traffic and less than desirable bikes). We stopped by Bayon and Baphoun. Usually people visit several temples in one day, but we just spent our time at two.

At Baphoun, there was a beautiful raised walkway with various ceiling-less alcoves throughout. On our way there, we sat at one of the open windows and enjoyed the view around us. The moment was perfect and we literally sat there for a few hours. There was no need to talk, to reminisce, or anything of the sort. We just basked in the temple’s greatness and allowed ourselves to truly be apart of it instead of just a tourist walking in and out. It was phenomenal.

The next time you visit a historic architectural wonder, I’d suggest staying there and soaking up the atmosphere instead of just walking through and taking pictures. To experience a beautiful thing is much different than viewing it.

Picture: Taken at sunrise outside Angkor Wat.

Getting lost and letting things go.

In short, we all have a terrible sense of direction. 

The first day we didn’t know where our hotel was nor where Tiny Toones was. We just sort of walked around and confused a lot of tuk tuk drivers. Probably not the best way to go about it. But the thing about letting go and allowing yourself to get lost, is that it allows you to truly and spontaneously enjoy everything around you. 

Today, we went to Siem Reap on a bus full of locals. It took 8 hours out of the projected 4. The bus itself was pretty janky and about 5 hours in the ride, we were no longer sure of the destination. We went through miles and miles of farmland and incredibly rural places, stopping at random times and places to let locals on and off (we probably took tons of detours). But instead of worrying, we just allowed ourselves to truly enjoy the scenery and await the incredible adventure that we were facing. 

There’s a certain sense of comfort in not knowing and allowing yourself be carried away with where the day may take you. Life is pretty great when you let your worries go. 

Luckily, we reached Siem Reap, played soccer with some local kids, and I finally bought myself some elephant pants. All in all, a great day. When traveling, being stressed about hotel bookings, where you go, and what to do takes away from the adventure. Just let go. 

PS: lack of a picture of the day because I lost my phone. Oops. 

Joie’s Guide to Crossing Streets and Eating in Cambodia

There are no real rules on the streets in Cambodia. Cars and motos just run about and try not to hit each other. That’s pretty much it. So how do you cross a road in Cambodia?

Well, we came up with the Hierarchy of the Road as follows:

1. BAV: Big ass vehicles always have right of the way
2. Normal vehicles
3. Pedestrians
4. Tuktuk/ Motor bikes
5. Bicycles

This means that you should wait for vehicles to pass, but when it is just motos and tuk tuks, you can cross without abandon. They will avoid you and part like the river did for Moses. This is about the only way you can cross the road in Cambodia or you might as well just sit on the street corner and watch the sunset. You have to take command and STRUT. Don’t feel bad or hesitate, yield to no one (except BAVs)!

As for food, look for the place with tons of locals. The less barang, the better. Don’t be afraid of janky looking, dirty, questionable street stalls. That’s where the best food is. And usually only for about 50 cents per meal. For example, we had ourselves some Cambodian BBQ the other night where the place was filled with locals and some live music. But don’t go overboard, it is not difficult to get sick in Cambodia. Our immune systems just aren’t up for it. But otherwise, be fearless and try some random food stand once a day!

Until tomorrow,

The thing about airports-

The past few months have been a blur of waiting at different airports. I’ve discovered a variety of things since then: Boston-Logan Airport has terrible wifi, Portland International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma have live music, there are slot machines everywhere in McCarrran, all Asian airlines flight attendants are always impeccably dressed and look like they come out of high end fashion magazines,  and no matter where you are,  airport food is always ridiculously overpriced.

But the one thing with international airports is that every person that passes by you, you will probably never see again. From all corners of the earth, everyone’s life journey briefly crosses paths, unlikely to intersect again. All these unique individuals with their own lives, worries, and dreams spend a few insignificant seconds making an appearance and then subsequently disappearing as if they never existed. So I sit here and watch the ebb and flow of people coming and going, landing and departing, knowing that I will likely never encounter them again. So bittersweet; what an exquisite experience of sonder.

‘Hi, my name is Joie Nikita Ha, we will probably never see each other again so I wish you all the happiness and fulfillment in your life.’


n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Picture: Taken at JFK Airport after Kappa Phi Lambda Neo Retreat

Cambodia, Conference, and Cupcakes

This summer has been a whirlwind of traveling thus far- hiking the Grand Canyon in Arizona, watching shows in Vegas, World Domination Summit in Portland, visiting family in Cali, Kappa conference in Boston, and tomorrow comes my last trip, conducting research in Cambodia (read about my research here).

I’m incredibly grateful for all of those who have continued to encourage me in my journeys and although all of these flights and traveling leave me extremely tired, they also fill me with content.

These past few days in itself have been wonderful. Kappa Phi Lambda’s National Conference was an incredibly moving experience and I am excited to see where our sorority will go. I was also awarded the Kappa Phi Lambda Diamond Scholarship for $1000! Sophia, my lovely Line Sister, finally returned in our lives after a year abroad and we shared some lovely cupcakes. I hope my next destination will be just as full of rich experiences and learning opportunities. Here’s to a great month in Cambodia!