The Center combines Western mental health services with traditional healing practices in a friendly, therapeutic environment for four Southeast Asian communities. It also serves as a gathering place for these groups, including a fun, welcoming, and outgoing group of Cambodian-Americans. Volunteering at the Center allowed me to continue to engage with the Southeast Asian community that I had been missing since returning to the US. In this way, the Center helped remind me that Cambodian culture extends beyond national boundaries and that I was able to continue developing and employing my Khmer language skills right here at home.
Outings expand sense of local community
In short order, I was helping to organize outings for the group. Our sojourns aren’t necessarily complicated. Of primary importance was finding destinations with plenty of space for a walk, tables for a picnic, and, with any luck, a local place of interest or activity we could enjoy together. The group, to their immense credit, pushed me to step into a leadership role on some of these outings, and I occasionally found myself serving as a de facto tour guide. Preparing for these outings, learning about the sites in greater detail, and finding ways to express their importance (personal and historical) in Khmer has helped me see even familiar locales like the Stone Arch Bridge in a new light.
This is not to suggest that my Cambodian-American counterparts are Minnesota newcomers or unfamiliar with our destinations or activities. On the contrary, most of the group members have been living in the US longer than I’ve been alive. We can always learn from experiencing even familiar places and events with different groups of people, especially when that means going beyond one’s traditional circle of friends and family. My time with the group has expanded—in a very tangible way—my sense of local community here in Minnesota. As result, I feel even prouder to consider myself a part of this city and state.
Volunteering is about learning as much as teaching
Visits to the Science Museum, local orchards, downtown Stillwater, and many more destinations and activities all took on additional resonance in the presence of this very special group. Visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Art felt especially poignant. I got the opportunity to (attempt to) explain—in Khmer—the significance of Vincent Van Gogh to group members who had never encountered the artist. This simple process helped me reconsider what the artist meant to me personally. I was not expecting that.
More significant was getting to share impressions of Ankgor-era Cambodian sculpture in MIA’s collection. Many group members had not seen Cambodian art from that era since leaving Cambodia several decades ago. I was honored to have been able to help facilitate that interaction here in Minnesota and grateful for the chance to better understand the art’s continued cultural resonance for the community. In these instances, I’m learning far more than teaching as a volunteer and for that I’m especially grateful.
Getting to help orchestrate the very popular outings to the State Fair has also helped me see the Fair—an event I’ve visited since I was a small child—in a totally new light. Naturally, different groups of people are drawn to different elements of the fair, and having the privilege of guiding the Cambodian-American group has helped me gain a fuller appreciation for what “Great Minnesota Get Together” means.
Small contributions matter – especially over time
Perhaps the greatest perks of volunteering with the group are the home-cooked potlucks we enjoy every week. Sharing my own perspectives of Khmer culture and language while dining on delicious Cambodian dishes is always a joy. And as I learn about group members’ experiences in the US, I have also developed a better sense of what it means to be not only Cambodian, but also American. Though I went to the center with the hope of learning more about the Southeast Asian country I missed, I found myself learning just as much about the country in which I was raised.
Through my volunteer work with Wilder, I have come to learn that simply being present and making small contributions does ultimately matter – especially over time. At this point I feel less like a volunteer at the Center and more like another member of the group. That inclusiveness continues to humble me. It also encourages me to make a bigger effort with other people and communities in my life as I, once again, remind myself that the little things we do for each other really do matter.
Story and photos by Wilder volunteer Kai Miller.