The Consequences of Giving

Social IssuesPhilosophy

  • Author Nathan H. Chan
  • Published July 5, 2022
  • Word count 496

With my thumb pointed up, I slid my right hand across my left palm, carefully attempting to repeat the movement Zhang had just demonstrated. I eagerly looked at him, seeking acknowledgment that I had correctly signed the word “new.” Unexpectedly, he burst out laughing and told me that my palm was facing the wrong way. Instead of signing “new,” I had just signed the phrase for “wiping my rear end.”

I volunteer at Lilitimes Café, which employs deaf people full time. Zhang, a near-deaf barista, was my mentor. Our communication was initially difficult. His hearing aid did not always pick up my questions, and I had trouble understanding his unorthodox Mandarin due to his limited auditory exposure. Because of the confusion between us, he decided to teach me basic sign language. This was our first lesson, and by the time we put on straight faces after my embarrassing mistake, our stomachs were aching—from laughter, not from the numerous taste-test Americanos I made earlier.

It was after that experience I realized the importance of reciprocity, which is defined by the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning as the “interchange of things such as benefits, actions, and resources'' and “(producing) something new together.” Although seemingly paradoxical, ideal service initiatives must not only have give and take, like how I help complete orders and Zhang teaches me CSL, but they must also have common objectives, like giving customers a great experience. It adds meaning, value, and accountability to both sides.

This reciprocity is the foundation of true service, and a lack of such reciprocity in service has harmful consequences. An example of this is the rise of voluntourism, which is when people vacation to underdeveloped places for community service. This occurs in Cambodia each year as volunteers visit to help orphans. As a result, the country’s economy has become reliant on these travelers. To attract volunteers, orphanages actually recruit children with families to create the facade of an ‘orphan crisis. Thus, poverty is turned into a tourist attraction.

This could have been avoided with reciprocity. A commitment generated by mutual benefit would eradicate the phenomenon of volunteers gaining self-assurance by juxtaposing their lives with those of orphans. Reciprocity would also foster contextual understanding thereby helping volunteers be more focused, effective, and respectful. Finally, instead of exploitation, both volunteers and orphanages would be focused on the common task of helping orphans. An example of reciprocal service could be a joint-recycling initiative for orphanages, where volunteers would receive “plastic neutral” certificates for their help.

We must look to establish reciprocity in service because equilibrium creates mutual commitment, longevity, and enhanced impact in a way that transient donations do not. Through reciprocity, my experience at Lilitime has transformed from simply helping deaf people to building tangible skills in sign language, making a friend, and becoming a part of that social enterprise. Reciprocity reminds us that we are not saviors but teammates with our service partners in constructing a better world.

Nathan H. Chan is a twelfth-grade student of law, international relations, and history. A published author and researcher, he is multilingual and is working to create a meaningful impact on social justice through international law and diplomacy. His work can be found on lacah.net, history42.com, and missionfortitude.org.

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