Aunty Power

Being called an “aunty” pushes Elsie Tan to finally act on her long-held desire to volunteer overseas.

Elsie (first row, second from right) discovered her “skill sets were a perfect fit” for the task at hand, using drama, songs, games and finger plays in her lessons.

In many Southeast Asian cultures, “aunty” is a term of respect. But it can also be used to describe a woman who’s past her prime.

So when someone in the street called Elsie Tan aunty, it wasn’t respect that the then 46-year-old felt, but regret and embarrassment.

Instead of throwing a pity party, however, she decided that it was high time she acted on her long-held desire to volunteer overseas.

Three decades after she first put aside that desire to help others in a foreign land because she was “too scared” of being alone in an alien environment and feared her skills would be inadequate, she signed up with the Singapore International Foundation to teach English in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia, for a year.

Besides teaching young children, teenagers and adult students, she also trained teachers to implement an activity-based, child-centred language programme.

Perfect fit

Her fear of not being able to contribute evaporated as she discovered her “skill sets were a perfect fit” for the task at hand, using drama, songs, games and finger plays in her lessons.

Her students, who knew simple English but were not confident to speak it, soaked up what she poured out.

“The children would run up to me and tell me stories really fast in English,” she recalled. “Everything fell in place in a wonderful way.”

Despite her success, Elsie, who is now 56 and a primary school language teacher, said teaching English to the Cambodian children was “just by-the-way”.

To “affirm the children and their culture” and “make them feel whole and worthwhile”, was the primary goal, and she had no trouble pointing out wonderful things about their country and celebrating their contentment and approach to life.

A decade on, and many more – local – volunteering stints later, Elsie still considers her time in Cambodia a “high point” in her life that’s “still a very vivid and joyful memory”.

Pain and power

That memory includes a painful episode, when she injured her jaw in a fall as she was taking food to her Cambodian friends and had to bring forward her return to Singapore by a few months, for treatment.

But she also recalls a “powerful experience” when she was riding a motorbike on a dirt road to school, and it dawned on her that she was where she was supposed to be, doing exactly what she was supposed to.

“Just then, the sun was rising behind a paddy field which was all green,” she recalled. “That’s when I knew: everything would be all right.”

Not bad for an “aunty”.

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