Volunteering has always been considered noble by the Chinese society. According to the philosopher Confucius, the biggest goal of a nation was to rebuild society out of a state of chaos. Ancient Chinese thinker, Mencius (4th century BC) also spread the ideas of ‘benevolence’ and ‘social ideals’. Though the modern volunteering system in China has undergone rapid radical changes in the last decade, the old concepts are not easily forgotten and continue to give more importance to uplift society with an emphasis on family and community.
With the ever-growing notion of a “global village”, international students have more opportunities to travel, explore, and volunteer than ever before. While volunteering in China is one of the best decisions a younger person can make, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Despite hard efforts, things can go awry and unexpected challenges can surface. That being said, despite any struggles, students still find meaning in their time spent away and feel happy to give themselves to such a worthy cause. In order to become better prepared for you own time volunteering abroad, here are some of the potential challenges faced by volunteers in China and how to combat them:
International volunteers face a lot of communication problems while in China and this is to be expected. Learning basic Mandarin is the first step towards successful volunteering. Fortunately, as daunting as it may seem, it is not the looming task perceived, as volunteers will be surrounded by native speakers constantly, especially in living and working with them. Prior to embarking upon this journey, volunteers should purchase a book on survival Mandarin as a start. China abounds in schools that offer Mandarin classes to foreigners—enrolling in one such school will do the trick. Moreover, making an effort to speak a little Mandarin can make life a lot easier, as it will endear volunteers to both their fellow volunteers and the locals, not to mention it would be a gold dust on their resumes.
It is a sad fact that in China, many non-profit organizations that started with a philanthropic intent do not live up to their social responsibilities. Therefore sponsors, individual, corporate conglomerates and foreign organizations, are mistrustful and refuse donations to help the cause. Hence, raising funds for Non-Governmental Organization (NGOs) can be a disheartening experience. The grants given to many non-profit organizations are often squandered on questionable, devious “projects” and never make it to the welfare of the beneficiaries. There are many unregistered NGOs functioning under the guise of old, known NGOs. Hence international volunteers should exercise extreme while choosing NGOs to volunteer with. They either have to do their research thoroughly before taking the plunge, or solicit for the help of organizations that place international volunteers in various non-profit organizations for free.
Finding an NGO that suits the volunteer’s interest:
An international volunteer must not go solely by the attractiveness of a website or the online ads they come across. Along with extensive research, they should get in touch with someone who can give them an unbiased opinion and clear information on an organization. For instance, many voluntary organizations will compel international volunteers, especially those who are native speakers of English, to compile their enormous paperwork and work on projects that involve lots of writing in English, while they might actually be more interested in fieldwork. Volunteers, while doing their research, must make a conscious effort to know about their exact roles in their chosen NGOs before they do them. If they ever wind up in such a situation where their role seems unclear, being direct and upfront with the NGO authority should hopefully do the trick and spare them of the hassle of going through piles of unnecessary documents. As a side note, this is another area hugely benefited by the knowledge of Mandarin.
Past experiences, bitterness, and prejudices can cause locals to be skeptical of international volunteers. In the beginning, they might just see a volunteer as ‘another privileged foreigner here to change us’ or a mere ‘tourist’. Gaining their trust has no short cuts, but is built through being empathetic, not being condescending, and being actively interested in their life, traditions and problems. Making an effort to learn a little Mandarin to get by can go a long way in endearing oneself to the locals. Whether one is into community development or teaching English to underprivileged children, more than half the battle is won if one can make any work into a mutual learning experience. Another innovative way to bridge this cultural gap with the locals is to stay with them and make the most out of the home-stay experience. There are many host families in China that are open to foreign cultures and are more than eager to accommodate international students and volunteers. Staying day in and day out with local families can expose volunteers to a vast spectrum of exciting possibilities, help them easily overcome problems that they encounter at work, and allow them to practice a new language.
Poor program management:
Most international volunteers opt for programs with the best of intentions and goals, but when they find that the reality is far from what was conveyed on the websites and brochures, they become despaired. Poor management, a lack of funds, or both may be the root cause(s) to shortcomings in the program. Volunteers must make a list of fields that they know they are good at and ask his or herself how they can best utilize their time. Having a transparent dialogue with the service provider and the NGO can clarify everything before signing up and save volunteers from any potential disappointment. When they know what they are in for, they will have a better chance of making a positive impact. Even if they end up in an unexpected situation, being dynamic and involved can make a huge change, be it for a single person or to a community.
Despite all planning and good-intentions, life obviously still has a way of throwing us through an occasional loop—particularly during international travel. Do a fair amount of preparation before volunteering abroad, but also open yourself to new, unanticipated experiences. By being flexible, mindful, and resourceful, even the greatest of challenges can be addressed. Don’t allow fear to dissuade you from volunteering—instead take it upon yourself to work beyond any of our mentioned limitations. Volunteering abroad is too important and too fantastic an opportunity to go unconsidered!
Nidaa is working as a program coordinator (for India) at Minds Abroad, a US-based study abroad organization. She has previously written for Go Explorer Magazine, Picsean Travel Magazine, The Deccan Chronicle, The New Indian Express, and worked as a Creative Communication Expert at Bio Quest Solutions Private Ltd.
She believes that every person in her life and every experience that has come her way has taught her life-changing lessons. Her love for travel and academics found a home at Minds Abroad. She has degrees in English Literature, Mass Communication, and Social Work under her belt and figured out that her job should be the one that makes the best use of all three. She is a voracious reader of books and a serious movie buff. A lover of sports such as badminton, skating and cycling, she believes that a healthy body is the key to a healthy and intelligent mind.