This post is written by our co-president, Simran Thakral. Check out her original post here.
When people think of “volunteering abroad”, they tend to think along the lines of “going out there and making a difference in the world”. While I do realize that some may be in the position to do that, I am no idealist. Most of the advertised volunteering positions, especially those aimed at high school or university students, are not about charitable work as such but more about giving the volunteers a go at “making a personal difference”.
That being said, if given the opportunity to go “volunteering abroad”, I think you should seize it. They are a still a meaningful way to spend long summers, provides you with an affordable way to visit a foreign country, and not to mention the enriching experience of immersing yourself into the culture of the place you’re visiting.
I personally have wanted to go volunteering abroad for a long time but never found a program suitable for me. After hunting for a viable program, I finally found one volunteering with IVSC in China. The website looked legit enough, there were positive reviews, and I was desperate for something productive to do. So off I set, along with 5 other students whom I didn’t know, to the mysteries of the orient- as ironic as that sounds since I call Bangkok my home. All we were told was that we would be teaching English at a summer camp for 10 days in Beijing and 5 weeks in Changsha.
Waiting to board the flight at Suvarnabhumi airport with a book in hand, I felt slightly queasy. It’s not like I’ve never flown abroad alone before. Having taken the route Bangkok-London on my own countless times before as I commute back and forth from university, I know the flying ritual all too well. But this was not what I was used to. Flying back to university, I know what to expect- I was going back to my safe haven of a room at Warwick, going back to my university friends, and back into the routine I had before. Flying to Beijing, alternatively, felt alien. I had never been there before, I was going on my own, and I had no idea exactly what I would be doing there. But that’s all the more that made it exciting.
Having recently returned from Changsha with memories, experiences, and life lessons that I would never been able to obtain in a million years, I am glad I went volunteering in China, and despite all the ups and down, in hindsight, I am glad it panned out the way it did.
So here it is. My two-cents on “why should you volunteer abroad”. I’ve tried to weave my experience in wherever possible but bear in mind that not every program is the same, not every country has the same things to offer, and it is the people that make the place.
- Travel the world in an affordable way
Most volunteering programs provide free accommodation and some may even provide free food. Our program, as it was a summer camp, provided both.
As the camp was held in Beijing Language and Culture College, we were provided with dorm rooms. It was located in the Changping district, or Beijing “countryside” as we were told, with no easy way to get out. Although we contemplated escape plans more than quite a few times and felt trapped in the compound of an institution -which even became a running joke. I think that may have just been an exaggeration though.
Food was also included in the program. Although it was just canteen food that felt a little bit repetitive, no one is complaining about free food! We also got to go on trips to The Great Wall, Tian An Men Square, The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace, Birds Nest- just to name a few.
At the end of the program, we were able to negotiate a 3-day paid stay at a hotel in the city centre along with 300 Yuan for additional sightseeing, food and travel. Apart from flights and visas, our stay in China was virtually paid for!
- Immerse into the culture
When you participate in a program like this, you get the opportunity to interact with the locals and experience the culture in a way that traveling as a tourist would not allow you to do. As we were staying in a college, we got a glimpse into how school/college life in China is like. We also attended a lecture on Confucian culture, which seemed to be prevalent in most of the students we talked to. It seems like they’re all like robots programmed in the same way as they aspire to study hard, go to a good college, get a good job, settle down, etc. This didn’t surprise me but one of the interactions I had with a student in my class actually did leave me astounded. When asked to write down 5 dreams they have for their countries, one of the students wrote, “I have a dream that one day…Japan will disappear”. A 12 year old could not have come up with this by himself. If this kind of propaganda is coming from state schools, then god save China!
Working together with the other staff also taught us a lot about the working culture in China. The chain of command just doesn’t seem to exist and unorganization is a major understatement but still things seem to work out in the end. We were also amazed at their work ethic- working late hours every night.
In the midst of the chaos, we did form some meaningful bonds with some of the staff and students – those kinds of bonds are invaluable and enriched our China experience.
- Try new things
When you say yes to an opportunity like this, you automatically open doors to countless more new experiences- whether that may be trying a scorpion, sliding down the Great Wall, trying KTV (Chinese style karaoke), or staring on Chinese national T.V (yes, you read that right!).
The company that organized the summer camp, China Sunshine Ltd, partnered up with CCTV Star of Outlook English Talent Competition. The producers of the show needed “foreign faces” to be on the show helping the contestants with charades which is the second part of their competition. As such, they requested the organizers of the summer camp to bring us in to the office and the next thing we know is that we’re going to be staring on the show. I have so much to say that I don’t think one paragraph can do justice! I’ve written more about my experience here.
- Learn some important life lessons
It may sound a bit clichéd but by going out of your comfort zone you learn a lot of different things about yourself and about life- either by directly experiencing it or by being told by others.
I did have my fair share of life lessons as well- some of which will stay with me forever. I’ll just give a brief mention of the main things I have learnt or just have had reinforced while in China.
A. Life is tough for the vast majority of people. I should count myself lucky and not take things for granted.
B. Connection is important in business. It’s often not “what” you know but “who” you know.
Think of it like a personal journey. Sometimes you have to distance yourself to see things clearly.
5. Make new friends and memories that will last a lifetime
I know this from university that when you’re in a foreign country you tend to drift towards those people that have the most in common with you- its your instinct to do so.
As the six of us were thrown into the same boat, which trust me, at times felt like it would sink, we initially bonded over that- whether it being how we got the short end of the stick as unlike the other staff we weren’t paid for any of the work we did, how ridiculously unorganized and everything was, or even how this is all a reality show in which we would eventually be human trafficked.
But after the volunteering, we continued to keep in touch and even made plans to meet up in the UK. I guess no one else can truly understand our experience in China apart from each other.
We also got to make so many more We Chat friends from our time in China, which I hope to keep in touch with.
By now you must be wondering how come there is no mention of Changsha.
To be honest, IVSC is not the most organized company nor is its website up-to-date. We were all under the impression that the Changsha program would be a summer camp where we would get to go on excursions and participate in activities alongside teaching. It was, however, completely different from how we imagined it to be as it was actually a tuition centre. We were expected to be at the office from 9 to 5,and had we not put our foot down, the list of expectations from us would have just increased. For instance, not even having days off, staying in the office till 9 pm on some nights- just to name a few. At one point we were even told to avoid mentioning the fact that we are university students!
Apparently, there was some misunderstanding between IVSC and the school in Changsha. This was not a volunteer program but an internship. Excursions were also not an inherent part of the program but we were simple whisked away by the owner of the school to some fancy restaurant, mall, or local sight. It was uncomfortable to say the least and IVSC was not much help.
I actually made the decision to leave within a couple of days and booked a ticket from Changsha to Bangkok. Initially, I did feel guilty for ditching the others and regretted being a quitter. But what’s done is done and now I feel that I had to come back early for a reason as well. Despite parts of the program being a let down, overall it was a great experience. To end on a positive note, I’d like to think that the experience we got was a unique one and I’m so glad I went volunteering in China.