Being called an “aunty” pushes Elsie Tan to finally act on her long-held desire to volunteer overseas.
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.
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”.Back
SIF-NYC Collaborate to Build Regional Network of Young Changemakers
Singapore International Foundation (SIF) and National Youth Council (NYC) ink a three-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), formalising their partnership and commitment to collaborate on the ASEAN Youth Fellowship.
Perspectives of an ASEAN Community from Around the Globe – SIF Launches Volume III of ‘Singapore: Insights from the Inside’
To commemorate Singapore’s chairmanship of ASEAN this year, the SIF has brought together perspectives from friends across the globe on what the ASEAN identity means to them and how Singapore has and can contribute towards a better ASEAN...
Collaborating Across Abilities and Cultures
About 350 participants from 12 countries attended the Arts & Disability International Conference 2018 to share developments in the area of arts and disability.
Enhancing Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services Programme in Surabaya
Some 200 Indonesian healthcare workers in Surabaya, Indonesia have been equipped with enhanced knowledge and skills to assess, treat and manage child and adolescent patients with emotional and behavioural issues. This follows a two-year...
Friends for a Better World
Through the lens of National Geographic, find out how our Citizen Ambassadors help to build a Better World.