The offer of a free room and free food would be a difficult one to turn down for most travellers, even those not normally inclined to volunteer.
Volunteering while travelling — or ‘voluntourism’ — has been around a while but is an especially interesting alternative for foreigners wandering about China. The thing about travel is that it gets addictive. The more places visited, the bigger the world gets — always more things to see, adventures to have and opportunities to take. The culprits guilty of starving that addiction are usually time and money.
Ways around the money barrier take the form of backpacking, hitchhiking, couchsurfing or a combination of the three. At the same time, the more destinations ticked off the list, the less satisfying sightseeing becomes. It is no longer enough to just see a place. A desire to get involved, to see life from the other side, to participate in local lives in some way starts to grow, hence the appeal of voluntourism.
Voluntourism is not a new thing in China. In the past, volunteering opportunities were often tangled up with religious missions, but now there are more people opening their homes or projects to travelers and asking them to lend a hand for a while before moving on. As transactions between local people and foreigners are often confined to the spheres of education or business, this is a refreshingly different way for cultures to interact with each other, and, it could be argued, a more genuine way. A bunch of foreigners working in the fields of a Chinese family’s organic farm? That’s a picture one won’t soon forget.
This desire for a more immersive travel experience was what governed my travel plans this past summer. However, finding volunteering opportunities in China was not straightforward. The results of my search proffered by Google were mainly package deals aimed at foreigners living overseas, with prices that defeated the point of low-cost travel. After networking and discovering more helpful websites, I managed to get in touch with a few people around China looking for help with on organic farms, restoration projects, schools and other interesting activities.
Then it was a lot of back-and-forth regarding places and dates, but my final plan took me to Yangshuo and then around the much-trod tourist route in northwest Yunnan. Looking back, it honestly proved to be one of the most interesting and rewarding travel experiences I have ever had. Consequently, my checklist of ‘sightseeing’ places remains largely untouched, but not regrettably so. As it turns out, more adventure can be had by volunteering than by queueing up to pay expensive entrance fees and buying souvenirs.
The first adventure took place in an English college in Yangshuo. While exploitation of the hoards of foreigners passing through usually takes the form of sales or snapshots — even at the dinner table — the English school I contacted has found a mutually beneficial way to make the most of their location.
They offer travelers, native English speakers or not, free room and board in exchange for a few English corners each week. Their students, adults who have often quit their jobs to do intensive English training for a few months, are able to practice speaking to people with all sorts of different accents — essential for fluency and communication skills — which they hope will open doors to better employment or chances to land international jobs.
The daytime was mine, which I filled by traversing the stunning countryside with my fellow volunteers. Then the evening was all in-depth discussions with the students, who had built up their confidence in English enough to be able to express their many curiosities and questions. It all came together on weekends when volunteers and students went on a hikes or trips together. I sometimes stepped back from it all to witness this infusion of different cultures in the same mixing pot, how the common language and activity helped the differences melt away, and how the result somehow seemed greater than the sum of its parts.
A week there was was not long enough. I was tempted to cancel the rest of my plans and just stay in Yangshuo but I knew my experience there was a gift. I now knew places I would not have otherwise discovered. I had been given insight into people’s everyday lives in a way I would not have as a “been-there-done-that” tourist. And I formed real connections with people that will last longer than the flash of a camera.
Another opportunity took me to Dali, a town which I learnt was known for its open-mindedness. I heard several accounts of people turning away from the rat race of big cities and looking for alternative ways of living, often choosing Dali as the setting for their new lives. A community that was just such one of these life experiments was looking for volunteers and I was curious to see it in practice.
This community has two main sections, organic farming and education. I helped them with the education side as they had a summer camp going at the time. Families with a common vision for holistic education — instruction that develops the mental, emotional and physical aspects of a child — who had pulled their kids out of school and were trying out ways of providing that for their children.
“The learning ground for children should not be divided into school, work and life, but should be a more realistic, continual exchange of knowledge and skill,” they explained. The children learn from all in the community, who contribute their skills to support each other, foreign volunteers included. I was there not only as a source of English for the kids but also to provide a different perspective to add to the mix.
The initial experience was a lot of ‘new’ for me and it took a while to see things their way. The ultimate goal for the children in this community is self-motivated learning. Independence, critical thinking and problem solving were therefore high up on the skills-to-tune list. I had to learn to take off the ‘teacher’s hat’ and work together with the students, allowing them to find solutions on their own and only help when asked.
My entire experience of working with students thus far has been within the strict time-limits of the classroom, so for the first time I was able to properly get to know the children, ask them their opinions and listen to their stories. I was happy to see kids in China learning outside the classroom.
Their days were full — practical lessons such as instruction in gongfu, painting, woodworking, dressmaking and cooking were interspersed with recreation time which was usually just as active because Dali is such a great place to go biking or exploring. On the last night, everyone got together for a camping trip at a nearby Erhai Lake. Each activity was done together — parents, children, volunteers foreign and local. In this way I actually got to know the students, not just their English level.
I was not with the group long enough to fully understand their way of doing things, let alone to judge the effectiveness of their approach to education, but that was not the point. The point was experimenting with a new kind of exchange between cultures. This community and others like it in Dali seem to be forming a new and daring trend in China and I was privileged enough to not only be able to witness it but to join in and experience it first hand.
There is, of course, much skepticism around voluntourism — or of anything ‘free’ for that matter — and rightly so. I spoke to a foreigner who guides tours out of Lijiang and has been organizing voluntary activities in the area for many years. He has hosted many people, both Chinese and foreign, who want to make a difference and it has been his task to match their interests to projects and opportunities in the local area.
He has seen his fair share of volunteering gone wrong — charities just using volunteers as unpaid labor to sell things in their shops, NGOs getting greedy for money and cheating the system, freeloaders who don’t give anything — or worse — take from their hosts. On one instance some couchsurfers cleared out their host’s bathroom as they left, like it was a hotel.
“When people travel, their moral boundaries seem to broaden and their sense of social responsibility tends to become fluid — I guess because they don’t have to stay and live with the consequences of their actions,” he told me. Volunteering has become more difficult, partly due to visa restrictions and partly due to bad experiences. He continues to make volunteering opportunities available but is much more careful about who he deals with to make sure the experience is mutually beneficial to both parties.
Yes, voluntourism can facilitate more meaningful travel and deeper connections to people and places, but it has to be approached in the right way. It is best to talk to the host as much as possible beforehand to get an idea of their kind of organization and to understand each other’s motives. In the end my summer of voluntourism was about so much more than budgets, it was a whole new way for me to integrate with a different culture.
I first wrote this article for GoKunming and it was published there Sept 12 2014.