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In-country dos, don’ts, and probably shouldn’ts

Here are a few of our dos, don'ts, and probably shouldn'ts to consider during your time in another country:

Do:

  • Be present in the moment and take everything in as it happens.
  • Collect stories, ask questions, and learn from both locals and fellow volunteers; be respectfully proactive in case they are hesitant to approach you.
  • Try new things—new foods, new customs, new music, new styles of dress.
  • Record your thoughts and experiences in a journal, scrapbook, or blog. As recommended by Jay Wilson with IC Volunteers, "it may sound like work, but the ability to go back in time with dates, anecdotes, pictures, souvenir pamphlets and even restaurant business cards enriches the experience. Plus, if you record as you go, it's not a lot of work at all."
  • Be mindful that your actions can have an impact on both the current community and future residents and international volunteers (e.g. bring photos instead of gifts, try to limit your environmental footprint, etc.)
  • Take photographs (remember to ask permission as some people may not wish to be photographed and photographing some sites, especially those of religious significance, might be considered offensive or disrespectful while photographing military and police installations may be flatly illegal).
  • Stay in touch with friends and family—start a blog, send emails and letters, consider writing a column for a local newspaper.
  • Create an in-country network of support; this is especially important if you've gone abroad solo without the umbrella protection of a volunteer-sending organization.
  • Allow yourself to feel a bit homesick and out of sorts (click here for some resources on dealing with culture shock).

Don't:

  • Demand English; as one of the world's most wide-reaching languages, it can be tempting to stick to your native tongue but you'll miss out on being a part of the community—as well as potentially offend people—if you don't branch out linguistically. Remember: you don't have to speak the local language fluently to show respect and communicate; being a linguistic novice can even be fun.
  • Expect it to be like home, including counting on familiar foods and conveniences.
  • Forget to take care of yourself; you may at times feel overwhelmed or overworked, so be sure to take time to center yourself—whether that's by writing a letter, finding a quiet place, meditating, or organizing a game of football/soccer.
  • Make assumptions—try to keep an open mind!
  • Be so eager to adopt local culture that you lose your sense of self in the process.
  • Make promises you can't keep. As stated by Nicole Sheldon-Desjardins with Hostelling International, "whether it's to write every week, send money, [or] return in a year, while you are still there you may have the best intentions of keeping these promises, but when you return home and life picks up where you left off, it's easy to get caught up and find it hard to follow through."
  • Even think about doing drugs. We've got two words for you: foreign jail. Enough said.

Probably Shouldn't:

  • Get too involved in politics or potentially explosive situations. Whether it's to avoid unintentionally disempowering local citizens or simply to stay safe, it's probably best to keep a low political profile.
  • Broadcast your nationality. Chances are that you'll run into at least a few people who have made assumptions or formed opinions about your country that have little or nothing to do with you, perhaps even based on events that may have taken place before you were born. Unless you want to serve as a walking representative of all that's good and bad about your government, it's probably best to keep your nationality at a conversational level.
  • Start a new romance...at least right away. Between the vast potential for cultural miscommunication and the close proximity in which you'll serve with others, dating in another country can be tricky. That said, if you do decide to try dating, it's probably a good idea to wait until you feel you have a deeper understanding of the local customs and mores.
  • Be too vocal with complaints. While you should always talk to your volunteer manager or other supervisor if you are unhappy with any aspect of your volunteer abroad experience, any negative opinions you might have of the community, cultural norms, or country could be considered very offensive to locals. Try to air those complaints that can't be readily addressed via your journal or discreet chats with fellow volunteers rather than public conversations.

For more in-country tips, including how to deal with challenges you may experience, check out Chapter Nine of "How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas." Also, be sure to read about your rights and responsibilities as a volunteer abroad.