In January of 2007, I traveled to Southeast Asia on a service trip, where my classmates and I volunteered in Thailand, Burma, and Laos. The service learning office at Eckerd College recently asked alumni to write about the impact their service work has had on their lives during and after college. The following is my report-back:
As our group paraded through their village for the last time, little children hovered on all sides, beaming smiles and new tricks up at us. The reached out for high-fives and grinned from ear to ear as we slapped their hands. They tugged at our longyis (the traditional outfits we bought there) and paused in place next to us, preparing to perform. Just as we showed them, the held up two fingers in a V, tilted their heads to the side, and said “Peace!” in a perfect American-college-kid accent. As far as I knew, that was the only English word these kids could say. In their remote village in the Irrawaddy Delta region of Southern Burma, white faces and English words were startling new excitements.
We taught them to say “peace” for goodbye. At home it meant, “I’ll see you soon, man,” and that idea, mixed with our laughter at their adorable imitations, was easier than “Thank you for hosting me; I’m leaving you here forever.” But one has to assume it won’t be their only English phrase for long. In the former British colony, English is spoken throughout the cities. Most likely, many of these children will learn some English as they grow up, and the complexities of the only word we taught them will become clear. What will they think of the Americans that appeared in a fishing boat, brought a few gifts, painted their school house, and left them with this single word as we floated back off in the distance?
Peace is not something they are likely to experience much of in their lives. They will have moments of it, as the Irrawaddy river lulls them to sleep. But they will spend many days weighing the risks of crocodiles with the need for fish; tending younger siblings who cry from hunger, malaria, or dysentery; entering adulthood too soon as they face the consequences of speaking their minds in an authoritarian state; joining the police, the secret police, or the military because they have no other choice to feed children of their own.
This trip to Burma was my first in a developing country, and the idea I left behind has inspired my work ever since. At home, it’s easy to make a gesture and promise of “Peace – until we meet again.” So casually I promised this to these children, making me one of many Americans who has promised peace all over the globe. It’s not an unrealistic promise, as some assume. Later in the trip we tasted some of it, as Americans drinking Burmese beer and singing Beatles songs with our indigenous guides in a place where the British were once despised. These moments are too brief, but they’re proof that peace is possible, and we have an obligation to create it when we make promises. Our travels – our citizen diplomacy – make impressions on us and on the places we visit. They can inform our decisions here (what to buy, how to vote), and hopefully they provide the same inspiration to the people we’ve met. If those children took our goodbyes to mean, “We’ll send you peace from our side of the planet,” then maybe we will both be adults who believe that this is true. We will work toward each other, and meet in the middle, in a future where can we can all wish each other “Peace!” and know that it is real.