Your First Deployment: A Primer for Disaster-Relief Newbies

By Yi Shun Lai

Life experiences dovetail into one another more frequently than we believe they will. In these times of relative duress, I find myself drawing on other moments of similar feeling. It’s not too much of a stretch to say I’m trying to apply the grace we find in communities undergoing the worst days of their lives to our situation here and now.”—Yi Shun Lai

NB: Click footnote links in brackets for additional information.

I. Introduction

Congratulations! You have been selected to become a member of our elite disaster-response team. In your role as a team member of our small-but-effective worldwide squad, you will deploy to populations experiencing the worst days of their lives, as they recover from floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, or conflict. [1]

If you’re lucky, your first deployment will occur in a place where you speak the language. [2]

Oh! We have deployed you to your home country? You speak Taiwanese! That’s fabulous. You may skip to Section II and proceed to Section III.

II. Culture shock

When you first receive your deployment orders, you may be excited that you are being sent to an area of the world you’ve not visited before. In your case, you may be excited to return to a place you love. This is a natural reaction. Most human beings like to visit new places, and enjoy returning to vistas they’ve admired previously. But we have news for you. All disaster areas look the same. [3]

Even the places you have been before—you have visited this Caribbean island on a vacation previously, say; or you once trekked the Andes on a trip to Machu Picchu; or, oh! You grew up in the same area you are being deployed to—even those places will appear shifted, flattened, dust- and mud-colored.

The green mountains you admired from afar in your childhood will be more landslide-hued, probably. The verdant rice paddies will be completely covered in silty water: hurricanes do this kind of thing. The shiny new asphalt roads, built only when Taiwan shed the mantle of military rule, will be newly ragged-edged, where the hillside fell away beneath them.

Asphalt cracks easily, it turns out.

Roads do change, by the way, in disaster situations. [4] You might not get to where you need to go the way you thought you’d originally go. But it should be okay, right? Since you speak the local language? You can ask directions!


Well, it sounds like we should cover how to hire an interpreter, anyway. You are fluent in things like what-to-eat and catching-up-with-your-life-in-America and Cousin-A-Yīng-will-pick-us-up-at-noon-for-a-visit-to-the-family-shrine. You are not  fluent in emergency shelter, water purification, hammers, rebuilding, clearing the customs queue, or anything else that is remotely helpful to us right now.

You also do not speak the local local languages, the language spoken by the Taiwanese aboriginals [5], the population we’ll be helping this deployment. So—yes. You will need to hire an interpreter. As it so happens, the director of security at the hotel you are staying at speaks the dialect we need. His family is from there, so you should be covered.

IV. Post-deployment blues

This is a very real thing. You will come home. You will be a meat puppet: You will lie on the couch and consume foods and perform other basic biological functions. You will not come home wanting to upload all your pictures to Facebook, as you have in previous years. You will not want to revisit the memories of the things you did there and the people you met. [6]

Sure, you will be inspired by the way the community pulled together; by the recovery you witnessed. Yes, you will be happy to know that people are resilient. But this will not be a trip you can share with your parents, or even with other family who still call Taiwan home. Most members of your family will be impressed by the work we did there, and they will be proud of you. They will say they saw you on the news in the recovery efforts.

But one young cousin will be confused by why you were there in the first place. It won’t be until you tell them that you pretty much go where you’re asked that they understand. “Oh, it’s like work,” they’ll say. And you will say to them, “Yes, only it’s a volunteer [7] thing.” And another will pat you on the head and tell you that you are, and always have been, a good child.

They do understand what it is you’re doing. There are volunteer efforts in Taiwan, too, after all.

It’s just, you’ll come to realize, that they never expected it of you.


[1] This is a phrase we use in our marketing materials. It is also a phrase that happens to be true. Don’t let that whole life-imitating-art thing rattle you. [Back to top]

[2] It’s not that we insist you speak a second language, it’s that disasters don’t always happen in places English is spoken as a native language. You might want to brush up on everything from Mandarin to French to Arabic. Just a friendly suggestion. [Back to top]

[3] Later, on your second or tenth deployment, when friends ask you if you’re “excited” to deploy someplace, you will experience frustration at the idea that disasters can be confused with tourism. At some point you will have to stop being surprised that folks conflate the two. It isn’t their fault; they don’t see the faces of people who have lost everything or who have had to leave everything behind. It’s not just flood-ravaged landscapes that look the same around the world. [Back to top]

[4] On your eighth deployment you will spend a lot of time puzzling over your understanding of why one village is not where it appears on the map. After a good amount of time working with local interpreters you will finally figure out it is because severe flooding has changed the course of a river, and the village is now on the opposite side of the river from where it used to be. [Back to top]

[5] These are the people your parents normally refer to as “the mountain people.” Over this deployment, you will skate along the edges of some uncomfortable truths about what you know of local populations, or what you have been taught to know. You will wonder why it is you never thought to ask about all these other languages they speak here other than the two you know of. And you will grapple with this when you get back, and you will also tell yourself, year after year, that you will carve out some time on your next trip to Taiwan to do the responsible thing, and find out more, but you will inevitably—don’t take this the wrong way—you will inevitably end up spending all your time at family breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and Cousins A Yīng, A Hěn, and A Duōng will fill the rest of your time with visits to family shrines and other things that have to be done. It may be years before you do the right thing. Ten years later, you still will not have managed it. [Back to top]

[6] This will come later, about three or four days after you get home. But not yet. [Back to top]

[7] You will have to talk around it until you can arrive at the word for it, because you’ve never had to discuss volunteer work before on your visits home. “It’s like, stuff you do that you don’t get paid for? But that you want to do?” “Internship?” they will say. “Apprenticeship?” Eventually, between you, you will get it right. [Back to top]