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VIEWPOINT: A perspective of Asia from the ground

Published on 04 Jan 2011

by Mr Rob van Leeuwen


When we are young, experiences in volunteering and cultural exchanges have a major impact on our lives. My fascination for Asia started during my second year of Cultural Anthropology studies. After taking up some courses on Southeast Asian cultures, I joined a three-month international volunteer project in Semarang (Indonesia). Teaching English at an orphanage was a very fulfilling experience for me. I decided to go back for a four-month stint in 2005.

Within this seemingly short time, I felt endeared to the people, culture and language of Indonesia.  Subsequently, I took up a Masters degree programme on Southeast Asian studies at the Leiden University in the Netherlands. It was very interesting for me. We were only a small group taking the course. One advantage of this was that the method of instruction used was more hands-on. Our studies focused on active participation. My fellow students—a Thai girl, a Dutch girl with Indonesian roots and an Indonesian man in his 60s—were as keenly interested in the subject as I was. My interaction with them on an intellectual level was very enriching and proved to be a great learning experience for all of us.

Towards the end of the programme, we went to Banda Aceh in Sumatra. My research for my thesis focused on the influence of the 2004 Asian tsunami on the urban symbolism. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about the powerful impact that the tsunami had on the people of Aceh. To be in touch with these people who experienced such a sorrowful situation put into perspective for me, the meaning and value of life.

My interest for international volunteering and intercultural learning has definitely influenced my career path. I believe it is important for young people to participate in volunteerism. My current work in ASEF gives me the opportunity to encourage more young people to take part in such enriching, and life-changing experiences.

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About the Author:

Prior to joining ASEF’s People-to-People Exchange department, Mr Rob Van Leeuwen (The Netherlands) was active in various international volunteer projects in Asia and Africa. He has served as a trainer/coordinator in several non-formal education projects. His interest with Asia came about from his interactions with people on the ground.