Jun 26, 2024 4 min read

Out of the Comfort Zone: Building Character through Volunteering Abroad in Malaysia

How stepping into a different world of culture challenged my beliefs and strengthened my personal growth in my early 20s.

volunteering abroad in the rural outskirts of Penang, Malaysia

I remember vividly: my hands were clammy and cold as I held my passport and neck pillow, moving through the sea of people as we exited the plane. I gulped. I was nervous. This was my first time travelling solo as a 20 year old, at the tail end of finishing my Bachelor’s Degree and eager to explore the world.

What was I thinking? I thought to myself. Did I make a mistake? Entering a foreign country with very little experience in travelling, let alone solo, would seem so abnormal and crazy, especially at that time when this was not something that was done in my circle of friends and family.

It was January 2016 and I had made the brave call to join and venture abroad to volunteer with AIESEC Australia where I undertook an intensive 6-week internship project at a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) situated in the rural outskirts of Penang, Malaysia. Little did I know at that time, the volunteering opportunity was a priceless gift that widened my understanding of different cultures and allowed myself to develop holistically as an individual.

After nearly ten hours of travelling from Sydney, Australia to the rural city of Butterworth, Penang, I was met with the student program coordinators who chaperoned me to the Children’s home where I would be staying for the next month and a half.

The first day was the most challenging: a mixture of tears, fatigue, confusion, regret that was met with the invisible force: culture shock. From there, it steadily improved. I met other volunteers like myself from all around the world, including Portugal, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam where we connected, blossoming into a friendship and understood that this experience would take us out of our comfort zone.

view from the Children's Home in Butterworth, Penang
The afternoon view from the Children's Home in Butterworth, Penang

Here are 5 key lessons I honed in my character building when volunteering abroad:

Do not underestimate the power of culture shock

The naive 20 year old me did not fathom how intense and surreal the culture shock would impact me physically and emotionally. I was met with a whirlwind of confusion, feelings of home-sickness and regret bubbling within me as I was somewhat unfamiliar with the customs, culture, environment and people, pushing me out of my usual comfort zone.

One thing that stuck to me was that on one night, I was having an immensely difficult time processing the shock, I had called my program advisor for guidance. It was late, I had just showered and had a towel wrapped around my head while starting to sweat again in the humid weather, with mosquitoes buzzing around me. She picked up and we spoke for a while.

Her words still resonate with me until this day as she firmly said, "Remember why you're on this trip: what's different, doesn't mean it's wrong."

Serving others is empowering

Embarking on the trip not only expanded my soft and hard skills, but also began to question the purpose of life (as cliche as it sounds). The children kept me going on days I was feeling incredibly homesick or uninspired. Some of the kids were abandoned, homeless, had families who cannot afford them and some grew in terrible, violent homes... each child had a different story.

I listened and strived to put smiles on their faces everyday and hopefully left with positive footprints in their hearts. We all have the power to unite and change other people's lives for the better, even as small as offering to listen, teaching one another or simply, turning up to be there by their side.

Appreciating differences expands the mind

The experience opened my eyes and expanded my tastebuds! Travelling to different beautiful locations, adjusting to the rural lifestyle (with rats and frogs at right outside the porch), eating spicy curry and rice daily, learning traditional prayers, bonding with families at the home, creating friendships with the volunteers and becoming more independent.

Most importantly, developing the self-awareness to reflect and realise that happiness does not always derive from money, but rather from love and kindness. What I observed first-hand at the home on the daily basis made me realise the worthiness of giving and appreciating differences of one another.

Practise gratitude and humility everyday

The volunteering experience marked an important reminder within me and until this day, practising gratitude and humility is something that I try to do with intention amongst the chaotic lives we live in. We are so lucky to living in a diverse country (Australia is where I am from), a place where we can have our say and make choices for ourselves, our basic wants and needs.

Less is more

Last but not least, the journey challenged the notion of materialism to which I did not realise until leaving the children's home. Adjusting and adapting to the rural life meant no basic luxuries such as a functional toilet, hot water, stable electricity, washing machine to name a few (we had to manually hand wash our clothes with soap and water). Observing the kids on the daily, they had (what we would think) very little yet they were smiling everyday. That flicked the switch in me.

It has now been nearly a decade now since the volunteering experience. The trip not only opened doors to other experiences overseas but also deepened my appreciation for other unique cultures, my own personal growth and self-awareness as well as pondering what is the meaning we put on our own lives.

I'd like to close this with a thought to the reader: how can we uncover hidden talents and self-discovery if we haven't stepped outside our comfort zone?

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