Stroopwafels, cultural exchange, and helping others: The lighter side of humanitarian aid work

Immersing yourself in a new country and culture is exciting, scary, and fascinating – sometimes all at the same time. It’s also incredibly rewarding. One of the best parts of working in the international aid and development field is being able to get in-depth and long-term exposure to a new place and a deeper understanding of the culture.

Philanthropy Connections Foundation has several foreign (non-Thai) staff members but most of our staff are Thai. However, since we work in several countries in the region (Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar), all of our staff members get to experience cultural exchange in some form or another — whether it’s through our Dutch founder Sallo keeping the office supplied with stroopwafels (a Dutch treat), or Associate Director Lani bringing back classic American junk food (including several boxes of the elementary school lunch table favourite, Lunchables) to share a little taste of our collective American childhood with our Thai coworkers, or a field visit to Cambodian preschools we sponsor.

For the few foreigners on staff, particularly those new to Southeast Asia, nearly everything we encounter on a daily basis in Thailand is new and unfamiliar. Even mundane daily tasks can be unexpectedly challenging when you’re lacking the language, context, and understanding of the country you’re now operating within.

This is made even more difficult by the fact that while most of PCF’s projects are located not far from Chiang Mai, both the country in general and this northern region in particular are so wonderfully diverse that there is a wide array of different cultural traditions just within this relatively small geographic area. For our international staff all of these varying traditions are new and fascinating to learn about; and the diversity means that even our coworkers who have lived in Chiang Mai their entire lives still regularly learn new things, particularly about the different hill tribes living in the surrounding mountains.

The most rewarding aspect of this cultural exchange often comes while making field visits to our project sites. PCF’s Project Manager, Noona, and Project Development Officer, Terd, recently went on a work trip to visit two potential projects in Kachin State, Burma. Because one of the actual project sites, in this case a school, is located in an extremely remote, conflict-affected region the team wasn’t able to visit the school itself but instead met with school officials and project staff at their offices in Myitkyina.

Traveling allows for stronger and more personal relationships to develop than can be coaxed into existence solely through business meetings. As Noona and Terd were visitors in another country, their meetings were bookended by trips to local markets and invitations to dinner. Their coworkers became hosts, and with that change in status came deeper and more personal access to the culture and people. This also provided their hosts with an opportunity to show off some of their country’s traditions and highlights while showing their visitors around.

Noona and Terd both left Burma with warm memories of the country and its people that were overwhelmingly positive. Their Kachin hosts were unfailingly kind and welcoming, insisting on treating their Thai visitors like family.

It’s these experiences, these deep connections and bonds forged with others, even beyond the usual fulfillment that comes from being able to help others, which adds to our love of this work.