Top Ten Ways to Enhance Your Volunteer Experience in China

by Betsy Hoisington

People choose to volunteer for different reasons, commonly it’s to get a little experience under their belt or to do some good for the world. For whatever reason people choose to volunteer, the location of choice can make a world of difference, quite literally. In China, volunteers have the opportunity to do many things to enhance their experience, but it is often hard for first time volunteers to learn the best ways to do so.

Trip to the Yunnan Province with Students
Trip to the Yunnan Province with Students. Photo Courtesy of Betsy Hoisington

1.      Build A Community

The friendships volunteers make in China are some of the greatest treasures they take home. When volunteers first arrive, they will more than likely encounter a plethora of people who are excited to take them to try local delicacies or  visit popular tourist spots in the area. From there, volunteers should seek deeper relationships with people, and share daily life together. Community may come in the form of cooking together at someone’s apartment, sharing a delicious meal, and hanging out, or just playing games and talking. Getting to know fellow local students can be best when visiting them in their dorms and spending time where they are comfortable. Making it a priority to become friends with the locals and melding them into everyday life can really make a difference in a volunteer’s life in China.

2.      Eat The Local Food

First tip, try it twice. Guaranteed volunteers will find themselves in a situation in which a local will take their chopsticks and wave some type of seemingly repulsive food in front of their face, urging the foreigner to take a bite. They will go on and on about how delicious it is, and all of its health benefits. The best way to enhance your experience of the local food is to give in to the implores of the locals,  take a bite or even two. Most will find that the food they eat in China is some of the best they’ve ever had, but many volunteers don’t know because they refuse to give it a chance, so try it.

3.      Travel Around

China is big, not only in population, but also in size. Thankfully, navigating the country by train, bus, or plane is not ridiculously expensive, and it is relatively easy at least in comparison to other things in China. Foreigners should plan on taking a few trips while volunteering in China, making it a priority not only to visit famous tourist destinations like Beijing or Xi’an, but also travel to some lesser-known areas as well. China has some of the most beautiful natural scenery in all of Asia, but volunteers who don’t travel will never see the beauty outside the cities. Even the act of traveling around China to a new destination is an adventure within itself.

4.      Recognize: “This is China”

This is a phrase that is helpful when muttered often during acute feelings of frustration and confusion, which overcomes one’s ability to reason with ridiculous situations that often cross the path of foreigners in a new country. As a foreigner, local practices may never be completely understood because for an outsider there may sometimes appear to be no rhyme or reason to why things happen the way they do. Saying those three magic little words can help to calm any overwhelming feelings and get a little perspective on the situation at hand. 

5.      Expect to be Served While Serving

It’s not typical in Chinese culture to do a good gesture and not have it returned in some way. Whether it is through gifts, banquets, or mass quantities of alcohol, volunteers will be served back for the serving they do for others. Sometimes volunteer hosts leave them with the impression that they did the volunteer the favor by letting them come and help. Either way, as an American or any foreigner, confusion is inevitable and less frequently minor hurt from not being able to give without receiving. In these moments it’s best to remember the previous tip: This is China.. Volunteers are working with a culture that is thousands of years old in China, so they shouldn’t take too much personally. 

6.      Learn The Language

Many volunteers leave China wishing they had taken more time to seriously study the language and implement it into everyday life. Volunteers planning on staying for longer than a year should really try to learn the language, because Chinese locals aren’t shy about calling out foreigners who have neglected to pick up any skills, time and time again. Mandarin is a valuable language worldwide, so take the opportunity to learn it while submersed in native speakers.

7.      Go Out to the Countryside

Some people say that the “real China” is what you see in the countryside, although others feel “China is China” no matter where you are in the country. Nevertheless, the countryside offers a more rustic view of what life like in China for millions of locals. Volunteers should try to stay with a Chinese family, if they can; days in the countryside can become some of the most memorable, life-changing days of entire volunteer experiences when spent with a local family.

8.      Just be Yourself

Studying the ins and outs of relationship dynamics in China, allows volunteers to learn about practices like “saving face” or guangxi, a networking style that often involves a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” aspect. While it’s important to be aware of these cultural norms, one must also be aware that most Chinese individuals do not put the same expectations on foreigners as they do on their fellow countrymen. Thankfully, foreigners are usually extended a certain amount of grace so volunteers shouldn’t be afraid to act like themselves even if they can’t always live up to the local expectations. 

9.    BE in China

Living abroad can be one of the biggest and most stretching challenges in life; in the months leading to departure volunteers may find themselves adding the costs and asking if the trip is  really worth it.  Deciding that it is all worth it, will allow individuals to be in China mentally as well as emotionally. One practical thing to do to adjust is limit contact with folks back home to once a week. Planning a daily schedule around Skype dates defeats the purpose of going abroad. Feelings of homesickness are totally normal, but it is beneficial in the long run to set boundaries and be fully in China.

10.  Pick Your Focus And Roll With It

As a volunteer, individuals are always searching for ways to improve the environment or individual situations. However, volunteers have to recognize that one year of time in China cannot change thousands of years of culture and tradition. Going in with a savior complex doesn’t do anybody any good. By focusing on individuals and not the system as a whole, volunteers are more able to evaluate progression and not get discouraged or frustrated by things beyond their understanding and influence.