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Learning How to Do Service

I can scarcely believe that I have been in China for an entire month. As my long-term service project grows nearer, I think it’s useful to think a little bit about service, particularly the reasons for service and the expectations we have of it. We just recently left Bangdong, a rural village that hosted us for two and a half weeks. We were there to experience village life and culture, and we also had group discussions about possibly doing a service project of some type in Bangdong.

When American students leave to do service in other countries, a lot of times we bring certain conceptions with us. “We’re here because these people need help. Their lives aren’t good. We, in the scant few days we have here, can make a difference in these people’s lives. We know exactly how we can help them.” The first day in Bangdong my homestay Ayi (Auntie) had to show me the correct way of washing dishes, because I was doing it incorrectly. It struck me: if I’m learning the proper way to clean bowls, a task I thought I’d mastered, how is it possible to know all the needs of a village and the proper way to implement solutions to those needs within a few days of entering the village?

Such a task is impossible to someone new at service, and to anyone not intimately acquainted with the village in question. Instead of going to places like Bangdong to fix people’s lives whether they like it or not, it seems to me that we should view this as an opportunity to put the learning in service learning. Instead of leaping right in with the answers to everything, take a moment, and see what the village is like. Do they need or even want help, first of all? What problems would they like fixed? Is it feasible to fix those problems with a bunch of enthusiastic yet untrained students?

For me, one of the things Bangdong allowed me to do was reflect on how to do service. After we all went around to our host families and asked them they thought needed some fixer-upping in Bangdong, they replied with some fairly large-scale answers: the education system was a bit lacking, it took a long time to get their kids to school, and the roads weren’t great.

In the future, we’ll gain the skills, knowledge, and experience to deal with large issues like ones our homestay families pointed out. Right now, we can simply observe, see what might need to be done, and take this experience to heart so our service can be effective when we have the tools later. For Bangdong, I’m delighted to see how the village works, how people’s daily lives are and to learn something of Bangdong’s culture. When we the volunteers see problems that need fixing in the future, we’ll be able to do so in a manner that’s both effective and harmonious with the lifestyle of the village. We don’t need to effect huge change and upturn people’s lives, just learn about how to help when help is wanted and how to be as uninstrusive as possible.

I might not be able to fix the roads of Bangdong, but I can talk to my Ayi while watching TV and while picking tea, dance with the people of Bangdong at festivals, and play guitar and traditional woodwind instruments with my Ayi’s son Zhuhong over a cup of tea. I can learn about Bangdong, and keep the culture in mind when doing service elsewhere.