Traveling and building homes around the world - an interview with Yunice Fong

Traveling and building homes around the world - an interview with Yunice Fong

FFFT: Thanks for taking the time to chat about your travels! You’re an old hand at Habitat for Humanity aren’t you?

Yunice: Well, compared to my other teammates, I'm still a rookie. I’ve built homes in two countries, three cities so far: Cambodia (Phnom Penh & Siem Reap), and Malawi. It’s been a fun and fulfilling experience because I get to learn how important these houses are to the families receiving them. I live and work in the Silicon Valley bubble, so it is good to get out on a regular basis, good for the soul. I also get to build with other great teammates and majority are the same people year after year. Together we get to experience the local culture and language.

FFFT: When was your first build? Did you have any construction experience prior to your first build?

Yunice: Phnom Penh in 2014! Nope! I was a greenhorn then. I was a little nervous but I had a good team lead. The team I joined also previously worked together. It is always good to join a team with pre-existing camaraderie. On the practical side, you do all the tasks you expect you would in building a home: lay bricks, mix concrete, build frames, dig a septic tank, etc. It’s hard work. At the end of the day, you are exhausted but you feel accomplished. We are there between 7-14 days and we want to make sure each day counts for the people who will move in. It is incredibly rewarding. I know I am making a real difference to the families.

FFFT: That sounds like a tough way to see the world.

Yunice: Haha, it is but its the kind of travel we all need to do.

FFFT: How so?

Yunice: Travel seems to be a “zoo” experience these days. Jump on a bus, an endless rush to get from one Instagram spot to another. This kind of travel is devoid of understanding of the country you are visiting. It ends up creating or enforcing stereotypes rather than bridging people.

FFFT: Agreed! That’s travel without humanity. In today’s world, we need more bridges between peoples and cultures. It’s the interpersonal ties that create understanding. Where did you make the greatest connection with the people?

Yunice: You make different kinds of connections in different places. We get to meet the home owners and at most times the home owners and families are at the build site helping us; such as moving bricks, passing us water to make sure we stay hydrated. I've experienced building in a new Habitat home community and also in a village next to the family's old home. Sometimes we have Q&A session with the help of our translator where we get to ask the family questions to get to know them and vice versa. 

Haha, I have a funny story to tell you

FFFT: Do tell!

Yunice: In my previous build in Cambodia, I thought one of the homeowners didn't like us much. Whenever I see him, I would smile at him but he will give me a blank stare.

FFFT: Uh, how is this a funny story?

Yunice: At the end of the build, we always have a dedication ceremony with the homeowners in their new home. It was then I realized how grateful he was. When he thanked us and we cried together. I realized that he never smiled because he felt like he was a fish out of water. Here I was thinking that it was me that was out of place! 

It goes to show you that, we humans have a tendency to ascribe emotions and thoughts to people’s behavior that are completely inconsistent with what is actually happening. 

FFFT: It seems like you got to know yourself better from helping at Habitat for Humanity. It is interesting how the human brain and emotions work. We seem to have the tendency to imagine the worst in people that we don’t know how to communicate with.

Let me ask you this: Why do you go back year after year? It is a significant investment on your part.

Yunice: Yeah it’s not cheap. But think about what I gain each time. I have the honor to make a real difference in someone’s life. That’s good for the soul. If we don’t live for others, we don’t really live life do we?

I certainly appreciate my life in the US and how Americans could be/do so much more. I know we can do a lot more with the resources we have in hand. People live on a lot less in the places I build homes. They also live fuller and happier lives compared to some of us who have a lot more.

I have the tendency to always yearn for the next best thing. The Habitat for Humanity experiences had taught me to be content, value the little things and enjoy life more with the people I love. I try not to be bogged down easily as life is short.

FFFT: What was your toughest build both physically and emotionally

Yunice: Physically they are all very tough, obviously the 1st build would be the hardest because I didn't know what to expect and the weather was a lot hotter. Believe it or not building a house isn’t back breaking if you are organized! Emotionally, they’re all equal; VERY EMOTIONAL! Think about it, we are building homes for people who live in challenging circumstances. There is also one more element, our well-being during the build. I got food poisoning on my 2nd build, and one of my teammates had to stay back to take care of me. Even though it was only one person that was sick, the team was short two people. Given the timeline and what we have to accomplish, we can't afford to lose anyone.

I came in thinking, am I here to just build? But really, I am here to learn. I am learning how Habitat for Humanity builds communities, not only within a village but across villages to build homes that are not only decent and of good quality, but also affordable. By doing so, Habitat builds stronger communities and literally a future for people.

FFFT: So when do you plan to travel next?

Yunice: I plan to go visit friends in family in Malaysia and swing by Taiwan. There are good food and foot massages to be had!

Photo Credit: Yunice Fong

As a strategic consultant, I manage chaos for a living. So travel is easy for me. Heh. I travel to understand people and culture more deeply than a newspaper or tv show could ever tell me. I break bread to build bridges across political and social boundaries. Travel inspires me, teaches me and humbles me such that I appreciate my part of the world more deeply.