O C I P.

Y E P.

These acronyms carry the ring of authority. But what are they but words? Mere arrangement of alphabets. It is the spirit that they represent which matters, yet this spirit of offering service - thus, what matters - elude easy definition.

Increasingly, more friends are embarking on overseas trips - to Vietnam, Cambodia, China. To India, Thailand and other Asian countries. Simply put, to neighbouring countries less developed than Singapore.

What for? To build houses, drill wells, whitewash dormitories. To distribute food packages, solar ovens and to teach local kids basic English. All this done in the name of community service.

The underlying assumption of offering such aid is the judgement that these societies are backward, akin to viewing them through imperialistic eyes. 'We know what is better for you and we have the means to offer them to you.' Isn't that viewing the villages from a vantage of superiority?

I used to think that way too. That the world is a better place if we help such less economically developed societies to grow. Offer them equal access to education, shelter and food. However, during this recent YEP, it struck me that these people are happy.

They smile genuinely and laugh without restraint. They chase with fierce abandonment a plastic soccer ball. The kids draw stick figures with wide grins plastered on the figures' faces. (Do you even see such scenes daily on our tiny island set in the seas?)

By introducing to them what modern, Westernised societies value - creature comforts - are we actually leading them down the route of rat races and perpetual disillusionment? Are we, in short, genuinely helping them?

We all went in with the noblest intentions of helping. of sharing what we have. Yet, the kindest actions - once, misdirected - may backfire spectacularly. Witness the doting mother who piles food on her obese son's plate. Or the coach who pushes his protege without relenting. This unseemly marriage between intentions and actions give rise to shifting shades of murkiness between black and white.

Are we helping or hindering? An easy question to ask with no ready, definite answers.

Also, are we offering them what they need? Or are we merely offering them what we can offer? What they require is infrastructural aid; short term aid during university holidays just doesn't cut it. Yes, but that is what we can willingly offer.

And, true, every effort counts. But one would believe that by 'every effort', it means sustained progressive effort by an entity as opposed to once-in-a-while - or worse, once-in-a-lifetime - piecemeal experience.

Valid points raised by friends:
1) By a fellow teacher-wannabe: the people actually appreciate our help. When she was residing in the Philippines, she had often wished for people to visit and share their knowledge. To know that the world cares about the village's existence. Just like what we did.
2) By our team's leader: we helped technically by performing manual labour. What we lack in skill, we make up for with enthusiasm and quantity of work done.
3) By my buddy: the happiness we see is a photograph, snapshots of joy that they effect while visitors are there. What we aren't privy to is their lives - toil, troubles and all - before and after our visit.
4) By my buddy, again: they'll sense our enthusiasm. Look, we could have mailed them a cheque with money. But, we didn't. We came down and offered ourselves - time and money - for them. Surely, that counts for something.
5) By the team's da ge: the universality of body language and the communication of intangible feelings. Certainly, they can feel us.

Am rather ambiguous about the YEP experience. Just couldn't reconcile the idea of community service being - in many ways - self-serving, I guess.

This experience, indeed, is lovely. Merged into the rhythmic cadence of village life. Tiled roofs while balanced precariously on beams. Loved - and was in turn loved by - kids who are overtly generous with their feelings. Met people who I'll be glad to be friends with. (Should I name everyone?) Had experiences that I'll reminisce for many years to come.

Yes, this YEP is the beginning of a new awareness. Any attempt to define its purposes would be akin to looking at an egg while painting a bird; a fruitless injustice. Realised this as I write for there can be no proper ending to this entry; gave up all hopes of concluding this post.

There's really no need to justify the end for we're still at the beginning. And, after all, a non-conclusion is simply another fancy way of concluding.

Thanks, to the powersthatbe, for granting me this experience. Grateful for having and knowing everyone more. Many blessings to the villagers - grandparents who took us in charitably; kids who gave their time and adoration without reserve; our translator without who we'd have starved. Thanks all and be well.