Flower La Warner, left her home in South Africa and journeyed to Korea to teach English in a small village. While many foreigners experience culture shock, Flower fell in love with the culture right away, but over time found herself feeling agitated by social issues repressed by Korean culture, especially orphans and suicide:
- Orphans have a taboo in Korea and are often treated as if they have dirty blood, creating a stigma to adopting. But they are just kids. And the stigma just gets in the way connecting children with families.
- There is tremendous pressure for students in Korea to study and excel on a single exam which determines their future studies — and there is a cultural myth that if you mess up on this test, your chances in life are over. Regardless of the myth, there is a high increase in suicide after the results of the test each year. To make matters worse, suicide is a taboo subject that is difficult to speak about in Korean culture, so much of it is hidden underneath the folds of society which only makes those with suicidal feelings more isolated.
As an expat in the heart of Asia, Flower started traveling extensively — and discovered it was quite affordable when utilizing trains and the local economy. The carefree self-gratifying travel of her youth transformed as she started talking with locals, and she began questioning the impact that travel had on their lives. As she began to change internally, she started travel blogging to raise awareness of these social issues she was encountering.
When hiking in the Himalayas she hiked without a porter, but she shared lunch with them, and talked to them… and when she reached the peak and noticed other tourist hikers celebrating their ascent, she felt her own victory paled in comparison to the porters — the ones who carry the supplies daily, and sometimes even barefoot — eclipsing the effort of the ordinary climber.
Her travels deepened as she explored volunteering through workaway – a platform for providing volunteering, working and cultural exchange through travel. This led to some very enriching experiences… but Flower cautions for research and constant questioning with any form of voluntourism. For example, one orphanage she visited, even though she had researched it beforehand, pressured her into giving money… and when she dug deeper, she saw parents and staff of the orphanage eating really well… and the kids receiving very little. Even though they said the kids could eat and shower as they pleased, when speaking to the kids, it turned out that they weren’t allowed to. It didn’t add up.
With the rise of voluntourism, many fake orphanages or other organizations have popped up which pressure volunteers to donate money, often by showing the degraded life of the orphans… but the money only goes to the parents and orphan owners for the own livelihood. In some instances, kids only spend the day at the orphanage, to give a sense of the operation, and then return to their families in the evening. Even with research into reputable places, sometimes it is difficult to discern the true from the fake. You’ve got to ask questions, ask the children questions, and push back, especially when pressured to give money.
Traveling in Hanoi, Vietnam, Flower uncovered how gangs in Sapa Valley exploit children: gang leaders own children and force them to go out to beg and sell items, depriving them of their childhood and education. Even mothers with children would beg for milk, only to return the milk to grocery stores, and the money would go straight to the gangs.
The whole point of these stories are to raise awareness so that we travel more intelligently, and have a better impact when we travel, because we can travel and mix with other cultures without causing harm. When we engage in activities that support local economies, especially in ways that don’t encourage child labor or spur other unintended consequences, we can make the world a better place.
I’ve had a real pleasure getting to know Flower — she has a certain zest and passion for life — and reminded me recently that nothing is permanent, and while it’s not always easy, it’s perhaps a refreshing reminder that change is not only possible, but inevitable.
Find out more about Flower by following her here:
- Instagram: @flowertakesontheworld
- Facebook: Flower takes on the world
- Youtube: Flower Takes on the world
- Medium: @flowerlawarner