The history of the relationship between Asia and North America is impossibly complicated and rife with ideological conflict. With the fastest growing economy in the world, China is a major global superpower and yet, the perception of America in China isn’t what it could be. I recently heard a fantastic piece on This American Life called “Americans in China.” It explored the complex relationship between American ex-pats and their Chinese neighbors. How Chinese can an American become? What products and emblems affect our cultural perceptions (Anime, G.I. Joe, Hello Kitty, MacDonalds, etc.)? What barriers are there between the two cultures? How is the American democracy perceived by Chinese citizens? Clearly, these two cultures are going to become more and more intertwined as each relies more heavily on the other. All of Asia is part of this globalizing equation—the tightening of our ties and the cultural interplay that must inevitably follow.
Volunteers in Asia (VIA) is a non-profit, secular organization dedicated to “increasing understanding between the United States and Asia through service and education.” Indeed, I think this is one of the most important things international volunteering can accomplish. It brings bright people together and sets them to work cooperatively. It imposes a circumstance of common purpose in which cultural inroads can be swiftly and deftly built. The more individuals who feel comfortable—Asian people in America or Americans in Asia—the stronger the web becomes across the world. I think international relationships between governments are built on the backs of the people. It’s very difficult to build true trust and peace with segregated populations, separated by thousands of miles of ocean and land. I think this is a human truth: we trust something when it is familiar.
VIA offers long term and summer programs in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. They also have a wide range of short-term international study programs through Stanford University.
Part of what is so exciting about VIA is that they aren’t following the voluntourism formula of most organizations. Yes, they do offer work-based opportunities in a variety of fields—education, environment, gender, health and disability, rural or community development, and anti-trafficking—but their focus on education and commitment to student exchange means that many of their volunteers are motivated, educated, driven proto-professionals. These are people who will guide progress in the United States and in Asia. Encouraging this intensive exchange can only help to create a more integrated, insightful, and culturally sensitive global future.