What starts as an escape for media professional Natalie Goh turns out to be a significant journey.
It was for selfish reasons that Natalie Goh signed up to be a volunteer in Laos.
Sure, the media professional wanted to do some good, make a difference. But feeling herself in danger of burnout and becoming desensitised to violence and disaster because of the constant onslaught of bad news, her main goal was to “find some sanity from the madness of the newsroom”.
When she came across a Singapore International Foundation call for overseas volunteers in a newspaper, she saw an opportunity to escape from “the noises of an urban society” and a chance to rediscover herself.
For one year, she volunteered as a communications specialist at the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Laos, which helps villagers find jobs.
However, while she was glad to escape the rat race for a while and found the cultural differences she encountered “charming”, it wasn’t an easy transition.
The former Girl Guide, who had been trained to be “always be prepared”, wasn’t quite prepared for the laissez faire way of life.
“The Laotian people tend to go with the flow and allow for little surprises,” she said, so she had to learn not to fixate on rules but be more flexible.
“Volunteering means learning to live differently, to re-awaken my senses to others, to be thankful, to appreciate the differences, to re-discover and re-learn about myself”
She learnt that volunteering is “never a one-way effort”: she needed her Laotian friends and colleagues to help her too, to settle in and understand their way of life.
She also learnt to be more independent and less fearful, whether riding a motorbike with one hand and grabbing onto a watermelon with the other, or shouting like the locals on public buses.
Getting on to buses where a seat meant for two was usually shared by three or four passengers – and their baggage – was a challenge. Getting off at the right place was another. For that, she had to shout “Yhut Nii, Yhut Nii!” (stop here) in front of other passengers.
The learning opportunities – and challenges – didn’t stop when she returned to Singapore.
She may have helped villagers find jobs in Laos, but back home she initially found it tough to get a suitable full-time job herself.
She remembered, however, how inspired she was by the Laotian youth volunteers at PADETC. Their drive to learn got her interested in education, so, after a stint as a volunteer at the zoo, she became a part-time lecturer at a polytechnic.
Eventually, she went full-time with its corporate communications department, marrying her media background with her new interest in education.
Natalie’s journey continues, but the 41-year-old is clear that her one year in Laos was “significant”.
“Volunteering means learning to live differently, to re-awaken my senses to others, to be thankful, to appreciate the differences, to re-discover and re-learn about myself.”